|Kurtis McLean has turned into a clutch player this year for the Scranton Penguins.
Sometimes the best hockey relationships take a while to develop, like the one between center Kurtis McLean
and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
McLean, 27, is in his third year with the Penguins. In each of his first two seasons he nudged his way up from Wheeling of the ECHL into the Penguins lineup a little longer, to the point where he’s become a regular now. He’s tiptoed through his pro career on one-year pacts, AHL/ECHL deals the first two years and an AHL deal this season.
“Every year, I think I’ve become a bigger and bigger part of the team,’’ McLean said. “The organization was good to me. They gave me an opportunity from day one.’’
It could be the makings of a long-term relationship. Or maybe not. Either way, its continuing evolution is paying off for both sides.
McLean is turning into one of the clutch players for a Penguins team that started the New Year on an eight-game winning streak. He had 12 points -- including three game-winning goals -- in that stretch after notching seven points in his previous 22 outings.
“Any time you start to score goals, your confidence builds,’’ McLean said. “Those (crucial) times of the games, I’m finding the open net, going to the tough areas, whacking away at it. I knew I just had to be patient (with playing time). This year I proved I earned my spot, but you have to do it every night.’’
And in different ways. In a contest against Manchester on Dec. 21, he took a stick to the face which led to a five-minute power play where the Penguins scored the decisive goals in a 2-1 victory.
That’s the type of scrappiness expected from a player who knocked on the pro door out of Division III Norwich. When Norwich won the 2003 national championship, he paced the team with 25 goals and 48 points. McLean got a few pro sniffs, but Pittsburgh was the only interested party that was willing to let him come to its NHL preseason camp.
“You hope you can make your own name, but regardless, no matter where you go, Division III is in your profile,’’ McLean said. “I just have to keep producing and playing my game and see what happens at the end of the year.’’
That could take him to the doorstep of Europe, where teams have already contacted him. Then again, in a business where relationships are so quickly fractured, McLean is in no hurry to hustle his way out of his current one.
“If they want to keep re-signing me year after year, obviously, I’m doing something they like,’’ he said of the Penguins. “As long as I’m moving up in my rank, there’s nothing really to be upset about. You know you’re going to play (here). Do you chance it to another organization, where you might not play as much?’’
Ready for a fight -- Philadelphia Phantoms goalie Scott Munroe came to training camp this season knowing he’d have a fight for playing time on his hands.
Few people understood how well he had prepared for the challenge.
Munroe, a second-year pro, dropped nearly 25 pounds last summer in large part by incorporating Tae Kwan Doe into his work. He had an on-call trainer -- his girlfriend. Jade Hwang, is a fourth-degree black belt in the discipline.
“I figured I might as well give it a try. I have this resource here. It’s nothing like I have ever done before. By the end of class, I was soaked in sweat,’’ Munroe said. “There have been a few times I’ve come to the rink with some stories for the guys about how she beat me up. If she wanted to, she could probably mop the floor with me.’’
Munroe beat out Martin Houle for the backup job behind newcomer/vet Brian Boucher. In that matter, Munroe is simply beating his head against a wall. He’s played in just 14 contests despite being tied for second in the AHL with a 2.03 goals-against average.
“It’s been a little tough. Last year I came in and played a lot of games (40) as a rookie. I was preparing to battle for that No. 1 spot,’’ Munroe said. “It’s a lot easier (backing up) when your team’s in first place, rather than last place. Overall, when I look back at this year, it will probably be beneficial to have a guy like Boucher around.’’
Moving on -- When Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi recently told Manchester Monarchs rookie Brian Boyle that he was moving from defense back to center, Boyle’s initial response was to ask what he had done wrong.
That was one of the few times that Boyle’s been caught flat-footed this season. The issue wasn’t what he was doing poorly; rather, it was what he did so well.
Like produce points. Fourteen goals and 16 assists, so far, to be exact. That total, along with Boyle’s 6-foot-7 frame, marked him more as a middleman than defenseman. And so ended the grand experiment. For now, at least.
“To move back to forward was a shock to me,’’ said Boyle, Los Angeles’ first-round pick in the 2003 draft. “I had to change my thinking again.’’
It’s a good thing Boyle is as versatile mentally as he is physically.
Boyle played up front most of his career at Boston College, switching to defense at the end of last year to help in the postseason. When he joined the Monarchs for their playoffs, that team was deep at defense so Boyle was pushed to center again.
Last summer, the Kings wanted him to commit full-time to defense. He studied tapes and worked at that craft in training camp and early this season.
But the Kings saw how well he created offense and clogged the crease on the power play. They envision him as a physical two-way forward who can help them compete with their bulky rivals in Anaheim and San Jose. So they nudged him back to his true home on the ice.
“It’s fine. Now, hopefully, we can stick with forward. Whichever way I have the most longevity is where I want to go,’’ Boyle said. “It (trying defense) is not all for naught. It’s helped me in my overall game. It was a valuable experience getting out of my comfort zone. I’m hoping I can just work on playing hockey.’’
Around the AHL -- Hamilton center Corey Locke (63-117-180) became his franchise’s all-time leading scorer with a goal on Dec. 29 vs. Toronto. Less than 24 hours after accomplishing the feat, Locke was recalled by the Montreal Canadians for the first time in his career. He was returned to the Bulldogs on Jan. 1 without playing in Montreal. … When Columbus sent second-year center Gilbert Brule to Syracuse on Jan. 1, that gave the Crunch lineup the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 picks in 2004 (Alexandre Picard), 2005 (Brule) and 2006 (Derrick Brassard). … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman Alex Goligoski tied a team record with a four-assist game in a win over Norfolk on New Year’s Eve. That victory was the 17th straight regular-season home win for the Penguins against the Admirals. … The Philadelphia Phantoms had never sent out defenseman Alexandre Picard for a shootout attempt before Dec. 28. So, naturally, he was put into the shooting rotation and scored the eventual winning tally vs. Binghamton that night. … Dec. 27 was tough-guys-turned-scorers night for the Phantoms in a 6-3 win at Norfolk. Steve Downie scored twice, while Jesse Boulerice, Triston Grant, Darroll Powe and Pete Zingoni also tallied. Grant, Powe, Downie and Zingoni had 254 PIM between the four of them coming into the game, while Boulerice, fifth on the Phantoms all-time penalty minutes list, had none because it was his first game of the year. … When Hershey’s Grant Potulny scored eight seconds into a win over Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve, it set a record for the fastest goal by a Phantoms opponent in franchise history. … When Manitoba captain Mike Keane scored his second goal in as many games Dec. 28 vs. Lake Erie, it marked his first goal-scoring streak since finishing his 16-year career and joining the Moose in 2005-06. … With another goal vs. Portland on Dec. 29, Providence’s David Krejci is now 6-for-6 on shootout attempts this season and 16-for-20 over his two-year career. … Four of Syracuse forward Philippe Dupuis’ seven goals this season have been game-winners. … Chicago’s Joel Kwiatkowski recorded three goals in a win at Milwaukee on Dec, 28, becoming the first defenseman in franchise history to notch a hat trick.