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Fighting a talent spike


February 20. 2013 12:52AM
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If the NHL lockout ends in time to save the season, there's a good chance that the Syracuse Crunch could lose their top four scorers, at least.


Had the lockout never occurred, maybe Springfield's Cam Atkinson wouldn't have been around to score the game-winning goal against the Penguins earlier this season and Bobby Butler's hat trick for Albany in a Dec. 12 loss may never have happened.


But with the lockout still going strong as the AHL nears the midway point of the season, clubs are benefiting from having NHL-caliber players on their rosters, and the level of play in the league has been elevated.


Veteran Penguins defenseman Joey Mormina said the AHL today is similar to an NHL training camp, except this camp has carried into the regular season.


Some of these guys can really score, and a mistake that normally ends up in the corner now ends up being in the back of your net, he said. You really have to be cautious and take care of the puck, because now if you make a mistake it will cost you.


While facing such high-end talent on a nightly basis is a challenge, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Goaltender Jeff Zatkoff welcomes the opportunity to face NHL players who are in the AHL during the lockout. It's helped him improve his game and, in the long run, his development.


If you're up against those high-quality shots you're going to elevate your game, Zatkoff said. You need to read the release, read the plays. Whenever you expose yourself to this high level of play your game is going to get better.


The added firepower has allowed some teams to catapult to the top of the league. The Springfield Falcons, for example, missed the playoffs last season and finished 11th overall in the Eastern Conference. They also ranked near the bottom with 217 goals scored.


This year they lead the Northeast Division with 39 points and have tallied 99 goals – almost halfway to last season's total.


The difference? Players such as Atkinson, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and top-five overall draft pick Ryan Johansen are all on the roster thanks to the lockout.


That's why it's impossible to take the head-to-head record from two teams last season and expect similar results this year.


It's a completely different situation now and the past doesn't mean you should have success against a particular team, coach John Hynes said.


The lockout has not only made it more challenging on players, it's also impacted coaches, Hynes added.


There's more top-end talent and a lot of depth on every team, he said. It's tough to take advantage of certain matchups because everyone's so deep.


Still, the change between this season and last year may not be as drastic as some believe. Sure, there are more NHL-caliber players on AHL rosters, but the league has always been deep in talent, according to veteran winger Zach Sill.


There's always been good players in this league, Sill said. It may be a better league this year and there's not as much room for error, but I think in our division it's just as hard as it's ever been.


The numbers indicate Sill is right.


As of Jan. 3, Eastern Conference teams accounted for 1,316 goals for an average of 2.81 per game. Last season teams in the East totaled 3,307 goals for a 2.90 average.


League-wide, the goals per game average this year is 2.83, the same as it was at the end of last season.


While scoring may not be up, there's no denying the talent pool is definitely deeper, thus resulting in a faster, tighter game.


And that, Hynes said, brings the one of the biggest benefits.


It's good for the younger players because they have a chance to see what it's like playing against NHL-caliber players, he said. If the lockout ends, they'll clearly see the difference in the competition level. Maybe there will be a little more time and space, or they can make a mistake and it doesn't wind up as a scoring chance.


But for now, players will have to be careful with the puck and defend a little tighter as NHL talent continues to skate in the AHL.


It's pretty obvious who the first line for every team is when they have NHL-caliber guys out there, Mormina said. It's fun to play against the best, but it's not fun when you make a small mistake and it end up in the back of your net.




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