Hershey Bears forward Andrew Gordon
entered 2009-10 coming off four pretty solid years of hockey, first at St. Cloud State University and then in his first two seasons in the Washington Capitals
St. Cloud's leading scorer in each of his final two seasons of school, Gordon turned pro in 2007 and averaged nearly a point per game in his first year with Hershey. He followed that up with a 21-goal sophomore year that culminated in the Bears' 10th Calder Cup championship last spring.
But this season has been an entirely new experience for the 24-year-old Gordon, a 2004 draft pick of the Capitals.
Right out of training camp, he was given his first opportunity to play right wing on the Bears' potent top line along with veteran playmakers Keith Aucoin
and Alexandre Giroux
, two of the AHL's premier scorers of this generation with nearly 1,200 career points between them.
In terms of making an early impression with his new responsibilities, Gordon hit the jackpot with a hat trick in Hershey's 3-1 opening-night win over Norfolk on Oct. 3.
"I remember thinking, 'Well, this is a lot easier than I anticipated,'" Gordon joked. "But getting on the board early with those guys made things a lot easier. I remember thinking there's no pressure now, I can play with these guys, and they can trust me with the puck."
He credits having the entire 2008-09 season to study the tendencies of Aucoin and Giroux, and that experience made it easier for the trio to develop good chemistry just a few games into the season.
Nearly six months later, Gordon has already set career highs in goals (36) and points (68) through 69 games for Hershey, which is tearing up the rest of the AHL at 53-14-0-3 with three weeks left in the regular season.
"When you look at my numbers, I'm having a good season, but I don't really consider myself to be an elite scorer or an elite playmaker," Gordon said. "I win puck battles, try to get to the front of the net. You take some abuse doing that, but at the same time it pays off. I score a lot of goals from within two feet of the crease."
While Gordon may not consider himself to be the next Alex Ovechkin
in terms of playmaking prowess, Bears head coach Mark French says his abilities to finish and set up his linemates have flourished this season playing alongside Aucoin and Giroux.
"He always displayed that he could probably score if put into a situation where he played with some high-skilled players, so I think he adds that (to the line)," French said. "Keith has a very innate ability to find the open man -- Andrew's been the beneficiary of that -- and Alex creates a lot of double teams, a lot of teams are concerned with where he is, and that also gives Andrew a little extra room.
"But at the same time, Andrew's a workhorse, and he generates a lot for those guys as well."
Gordon admitted to being a little extra jumpy with the puck in the season's first few weeks, always looking to collect it and immediately send it back to one of his more established linemates to finish a play.
Over time, though, Giroux and Aucoin were able to instill patience in Gordon and the importance of having confidence in his own ability to create scoring opportunities.
"I've tried to be a little more patient here and there," Gordon said. "My game is still a quick give-and-go type game, but there's a time and place to just hold the puck and wait an extra second, and that extra second sometimes opens up a few more opportunities."
On the flip side, Gordon has also seen his play without the puck improve dramatically on the top line.
"I've learned a lot from playing with those two guys just on getting open," he said. "They draw so much attention that if I can get a three-foot window, one of those guys is going to put the puck on my stick, and I've scored quite a few goals this year on the back door or just sneaking into a small hole."
Clearly, the increased opportunity -- and making the most of it -- is a significant factor in Gordon's breakout season.
For instance, his power-play ice time has risen dramatically this year, and he's responded with a team-high 18 man-advantage goals for the AHL's top-ranked unit (22.3 percent).
In past seasons, the native of Halifax, N.S., served as a complementary scorer on the second or third line, and the Bears were so deep at forward at the beginning of Gordon's rookie year that he was sent for a brief stint in the ECHL to get more ice time and to boost an admittedly shaky confidence level transitioning to the pro game.
"From the point that he got back (from the ECHL), he's really making big strides each year," French said. "Last year, he went from being a good player and a guy who could play at the American League level, to a really good player, and this year he's starting to establish himself as an elite player. His progression is probably what you want from a player."
Gordon has developed his game while playing for arguably hockey's most complete organization from top to bottom, which in a sense can act as a double-edged sword.
"From the point that he got back (from the ECHL), he's really making big strides each year. Last year, he went from being a good player and a guy who could play at the American League level, to a really good player, and this year he's starting to establish himself as an elite player. His progression is probably what you want from a player." -- Mark French
Washington and Hershey are both cruising toward regular-season titles in their respective leagues this season, and the Bears can already lay claim to two of the AHL's last four Calder Cup titles.
Being part of such a successful organization is special, Gordon says, but it also creates more of a challenge in attaining what every young prospect desires -- a chance at the NHL level.
"It can be frustrating at times for a lot of us guys who are working hard, putting up numbers, and it seems like that team is impossible to crack," Gordon said. "Everyone in the NHL wants to win the Stanley Cup, and everyone here wants to play in the NHL, so we're all pushing for the same thing. But at the same time, you can't complain when you come to the rink and you're winning."
Comparing his game from where it started out three years ago to where it is now, though, Gordon believes that he'll be able to make it at the NHL level if he continues improving, particularly on the defensive side.
"If I get my opportunity, my job will be to pitch in offensively but also make sure I'm shutting down everyone I play against, playing really right defensively," he said.
He also knows that on the offensive side of things, it's again going to come back to having confidence with the puck and faith in his own abilities, sentiments that his coach echoes whole-heartedly.
"You almost have to convince him all the time that he's an elite player, that he's a special type of player," French said. "When he plays assertive and he's confident, he's a lot better. He's a very honest, humble man, and I think a lot of it is just getting him to that level where he's his biggest fan."
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