|Veterans such as defenceman Andre Benoit have been key in building the winning environment that has propelled the Binghamton Senators to the Calder Cup Finals (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
The American Hockey League, above all else, is about fostering player development.
But winning, as Binghamton head coach Kurt Kleinendorst has been known to say, comes a very close second. And the good puck-loving folks in the Southern Tier, who are revelling in the best Calder Cup playoff ride they've seen in years, would no doubt nod their heads in total agreement.
The B-Sens hit the ice at the Toyota Center in Houston today to begin preparations for Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals, which begins Friday night against the homestanding Aeros (8:35 p.m., team1200.com, ahllive.com). They'll meet a second time Saturday evening deep in the heart of Texas before the series shifts to Binghamton, N.Y., for three games next week.
For the B-Sens and the Senators organization, who hadn't previously seen the post-season since 2005, the season has already been a roaring success — and they're far from done yet. Much as the current playoff drive has been uplifting for the team and fans in Binghamton, it's also helping pave the way for a brighter future in Ottawa.
"The biggest part of our job up here is to win," Randy Lee, the Senators' director of player development and hockey administration, told the Team 1200 earlier today. "And down there, you have to teach them how to win. So you have to get into an environment where you have to win and that’s why this ride for everybody (in Binghamton) is such a great thing.
"But they’re not just learning how to win, they’re learning how to handle pressure. They’re learning how to win on the road, which a lot of teams can’t do. They’re learning how to close out teams. We were down in that (first-round) series against Manchester and came back ... those three consecutive overtime wins, that was just incredible for these guys."
Lee credits Kleinendorst, the B-Sens' first-year coach, with setting the necessary tone to create the winning environment that now has the team four wins shy of bringing Binghamton its first Calder Cup in 29 years of AHL participation (the B-Sens were preceded by the Broome Dusters, Whalers and Rangers as league teams in that city).
"He’s an incredibly positive guy," Lee said of Kleinendorst. "A lot of times, people misinterpret being positive as being soft, and he’s not soft at all. He makes those players accountable, he challenges them and he can humble guys. If he doesn’t think you're deserving of playing a game or play a shift, he’ll sit top guys out. He’s done that to most guys in his lineup this year. Sometimes they’re high draft picks, sometimes they’re veteran players, but he’ll do that to make them accountable.
"What he’s done is create a great culture down there where people have bought into the system, have bought into the team approach and it’s just a wonderful atmosphere to be in. And he uses his staff well. He uses Steve Stirling, he uses Matt Meacham and they’ve done a really good job. From a development perspective, it’s the best thing for us."
A team filled with younger prospects has also taken its cues from veteran leaders such as captain Ryan Keller, Andre Benoit and Cody Bass. Another vet, Ryan Potulny, leads all AHL playoff scorers (14-11-25) and has been a force since the opening round against Manchester.
"These guys have done a done just a great job down there creating a really good atmosphere, so it’s an environment for winning," said Lee. "A guy like Kaspars Daugavins
, who’s on the last year of his contract, has done a good job for us down there but has never really taken that (next) step. But he has really stepped up and been an impressive player in the playoffs."Around the boards
Both the B-Sens and Aeros missed the playoffs last season, meaning they've become the first pair of teams to do that and make the Calder Cup Finals the following year since the Springfield Indians and Rochester Americans faced off in 1990 ... Binghamton is only the second AHL team to reach the Finals via a crossover playoff berth. The New Haven Nighthawks were the first, in 1975 ... Binghamton's lone previous Calder Cup Finals appearance was in 1981-82, when the Whalers fell to the New Brunswick Hawks in five games. The B-Whalers goaltender that year was Ken Holland, now the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings ... Aeros rookie goaltender Matt Hackett is the nephew of former NHL stopper Jeff Hackett ... The temperature in Houston sits in the mid-30s and Kleinendorst used the word "terrible" to describe the ice conditions today at the steamy Toyota Center.