Slowly but surely, the tide is starting to turn down on the farm.
It's been a tough row to hoe but after watching their No. 1 affiliate sink to the depths of the American Hockey League two years ago, the Ottawa Senators are confident they’ve restocked the team well enough to bring playoff hockey back to Binghamton, N.Y.
“We certainly want to be competitive down there. We want to be a playoff team,” said Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray, who oversees the organization’s top prospects. “That’s part of developing players.”
After posting a 23-48-9 record in 2006-07 – the worst mark in the 27-team American Hockey League – the B-Sens improved by a massive 27 points last season. With 82 points, they fell only six shy of a post-season berth. In Murray’s mind, it’s a group that’s a year better and more than ready to join the AHL’s playoff party.
|Brian Elliott (pictured) will team up with Jeff Glass to give the Binghamton Senators a solid goaltending tandem this season (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images). |
“We had a lot of first-year players down there last year,” he said. “Now they become second-year players. They should be that much better. They should take a step. We’re going to be hard to play against, we’re going to have good goaltending (from Brian Elliott and Jeff Glass), and we’ll score some timely goals.
“And we have some skill down there. When you have (Alexander) Nikulin and (Denis) Hamel and (Ilya) Zubov and (Josh) Hennessy…”
Added into that mix this year will be rangy forwards Peter Regin
(2004 entry draft pick) and Zack Smith
(2008), a pair of third-round selections who both signed contracts with the organization in the off-season. Regin played the past three seasons with Timra IK in the Swedish Elite League, but the Senators feel he’s ready for the move to North America.
“That (Swedish) league is probably a bit lower (level) league than the American league,” said Murray. “But it’s a really good league, so he should be able to fit right in (with Binghamton) and get going right off the bat.”
Also helping the Binghamton cause: The recent signing of a secondary affiliate agreement with the Elmira (N.Y.) Jackals of the East Coast Hockey League.
“It gives us some depth,” said Murray. “That means we’ll bring three or four or five Elmira guys to Binghamton’s camp… We might sign two out of those five guys to two-way contracts (AHL-ECHL), so then they’re ours. If they’re just on an East Coast league team, anybody can pick them up.
“With Elmira’s proximity to Binghamton and the staff they have there, with (coach) Steve Martinson and his people, we were just really comfortable in going ahead and doing that agreement.”
Murray points to defenceman Tomas Kudelka, the Senators’ fifth-round pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, as a prime example of the benefits of having Elmira in the fold.
“Kudelka played a lot of games in Elmira last year. I think it helped him greatly,” said Murray. “He came back to (Binghamton) and was a decent player as a first-year guy. It’s tough to do that as a defenceman.
“He couldn’t play for us early. We had nowhere to play him.… This year, I hope he can come in and play in our top six and play on one of our power-play units. I think Elmira helped him a lot.”
The wild card in all of this is what happens with the big club. Forwards Nick Foligno
and Cody Bass and defenceman Brian Lee all finished last season in Ottawa and are given strong chances to start the 2008-09 season here.
“They’re young players. They’re going to have to have good camps,” said Murray. “They’re not going to be handed a spot (in Ottawa). I just assume from our conditioning camp and the way these guys have worked out and how serious they are about being players that they’ll be on the big team.”
It’s also not yet known what will happen with blueliner Brendan Bell, a free-agent signee who spent most of last season with the Phoenix Coyotes’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio but will attend Senators camp in September.
All that being said, Murray likes the B-Sens’ chances in the season ahead.
“It’s a competitive, competitive league and the top four teams in each division that make the playoffs are all good teams,” he said. “We’ll be in the mix and, hopefully, this year we won’t miss them and going into the last weekend, we’ll be in. You don’t know that, with injuries and things that happen. But I’m confident in our team.”
The B-Sens open their 2008-09 season Oct. 10 at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto against the Marlies. Their home opener at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena is Oct. 17 vs. the Syracuse Crunch.
See the Binghamton Senators 2008-09 schedule here.