BINGHAMTON, N.Y. —
|Mike Hoffman started the Calder Cup playoffs as a healthy scratch but has since become a key contributor for the Binghamton Senators in their drive to the AHL's championship series (Just Sports Photography).
It isn't exactly a case of not being able to tell the players without a scorecard, as that old sales pitch goes.
But Binghamton Senators head coach Kurt Kleinendorst admits the guy wearing No. 27 today for him in the Calder Cup Finals isn't exactly the same one who was a spectator when the B-Sens first embarked on what has become a magical post-season run.
"I don’t even hardly recognize him," Kleinendorst said when asked about the improvement he's seen in rookie forward Mike Hoffman
, whose importance to the B-Sens has grown immensely throughout the playoffs. "Seriously, from where he was to where he is now ... He was an early scratch. He was out of the lineup in the first round against Manchester."
Now, the 5-11, 176-pound native of Kitchener, Ont., has become a key component of his coach's game plan. When Kleinendorst felt the B-Sens' offence needed a jolt during Wednesday night's tough 2-1 loss to the Houston Aeros, he moved Hoffman up to a line alongside Bobby Butler
and Corey Locke, two of his ace scorers.
In practice today, Hoffman skated alongside Ryan Potulny — the American Hockey League's leading playoff scorer — and captain Ryan Keller, two players the B-Sens need to get rolling again if they're to overcome a 2-1- deficit in the best-of-seven final. Game 4 is Friday night at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena (7:05 p.m., Sportsnet Sens, Team 1200).
All of this is clearly speaks volumes about the way Kleinendorst now sees Hoffman, a prolific scorer with the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League who needed time to make the full transition to the pro game during his first season in a B-Sens uniform. That time, it appears, has finally arrived.
"Every young player will have those defining moments in their careers and coming out of the Quebec league, being the leading scorer, having the year he had ... I don’t know if he ever had to make the commitment to work as hard as he has here," said Kleinendorst. "That took him awhile to figure out. I think he’s finally figured it out and I’m going to tell you, if we were to vote now, I would say he’s probably been, from the beginning of the playoffs to this point, our most improved player, without a doubt."
Hoffman admits it was "a little frustrating" watching from the sidelines when the B-Sens opened the playoffs.
"You want to be in the lineup for sure," said Hoffman, 21, a fifth-round pick (130th overall) by the Senators in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. "But I just tried to keep working hard in practices and in the gym off the ice. If I got an opportunity, I wanted to be ready. I did and I guess everything happens for a reason."
While Hoffman was dominant in his final two seasons of junior — he racked up 98 goals and 179 points and was the Quebec league's MVP last year — those kind of numbers didn't come so easily in the AHL. He totalled seven goals and 25 points during 74 regular-season games for the B-Sens, but has nine points in 16 post-season contests, including a team-record seven-game point streak.
"The first couple of months, it takes time to get used to the league," said Hoffman. "Some players adjust different than others. I feel like I’ve adjusted now, but it took some time. I feel good out there now. Just the experience (makes a difference). You know you’ve got to work hard to keep up to the pace up here."
Indeed, while Kleinendorst first called upon Hoffman during the Manchester series to juice up the B-Sens power play, it's not the biggest reason behind the opportunity.
"When you watch him play, you can see why he was able to lead the (Quebec) league in scoring," said Kleinendorst. "He’s a good little player and now what you’ll notice is his work ethic, which you wouldn’t have noticed before."Around the boards
Senators general manager Bryan Murray is moving closer to concluding a search for the team's new head coach. "Hopefully, in a short period of time, a week or two, I’ll make a decision," said Murray, who's already interviewed several candidates. "My objective is to get it done sooner than later. Whatever that means, I’m not sure. It doesn’t have to be done before the draft but for my sake, as well as the coach’s sake, it would be nice if it was done before the draft" ... Swiss forward Roman Wick, who took a hard hit into the boards during the third period of Wednesday's loss, is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. David Dziurzynski is likely to take Wick's spot in the lineup Friday ... While television coverage wasn't readily available here, Hoffman managed to keep tabs on his old Sea Dogs teammates as they won the Memorial Cup last week in Mississauga, Ont. "Some of the guys from Saint John, I still keep in touch with," he said. "It was great for them" ... Game 5 is set for Saturday at Broome County Arena (7:05 p.m., Sportsnet Sens, Team 1200). Games 6 and 7, if necessary, would be played next Tuesday and Thursday at the Toyota Center in Houston ... Sportsnet Sens has TV coverage of all remaining games in the series.