The NHL is back and many of the league’s superstars are scrambling back to their home clubs from Europe, while those who opted not to play across the ocean are nervously hitting the ice and the gym in preparation for an extremely brief training camp.
However, there is a somewhat forgotten group of NHL players who have been playing in North America all along — in the American Hockey League.
In September, NHL teams anticipating the impending lockout assigned many of their AHL-eligible players to their farm teams so they could play there during the stoppage. Players on two-way contracts, as well as players still on their entry-level contracts were among those able to play in the AHL during the lockout.
Because of this assignment policy, the AHL was stacked with talent this season. Much of the media attention has focused on the 2011-2012 Edmonton Oilers’ “Kid Line” of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall teaming up to make the Oklahoma City Barons one of the most formidable teams in the AHL. Others, like the Capitals’ Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov, have been quietly grinding it out with their farm teams while they waited for the end of the lockout.
Both humbly took on the challenge of returning to the AHL, despite the disappointment of starting in Hershey instead of Washington.
That’s not to say that Holtby and Orlov have been taking it easy in the minor leagues — last week, Holtby was named AHL Goaltender of the Month for December, and he is currently the fifth-ranked goaltender in the league with an impressive 2.14 GAA and .932 save percentage over 25 games. Orlov, though injured since early December, has nine points and is a plus-1 in 18 games this season.
But both had been hoping to start their full-time NHL careers in earnest last October. Instead, they had to postpone their NHL plans and wait it out in Hershey.
“Everyone’s in the same situation and I’m lucky I get a place to play,” Holtby told CSN Washington in September, before the AHL season began. “It’s an unfortunate situation with the NHL right now, but hopefully they get it solved and get it done right.
“Obviously, it would be nice to see what I can do over a complete season in Washington, but that’s not my mindset,” Holtby continued. “I want to keep getting better and use some of the things I learned in the [NHL] playoffs and get even better.”
Judging by his performance in Hershey this season, he has gotten better. However, NHL skill is a different animal, and the grind of the season is going to be even more intense with a shortened schedule. Holtby will benefit from his preparation, because beginning next week he’ll be competing for a job.
Holtby’s incredible performance in last season’s playoffs threw Washington’s starting goaltender role into uncertainty, and with fellow Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth making his return to Washington this week, Holtby will quickly go from certain AHL starter to fighting for an NHL starting job.
When it comes to that battle, Hershey coach Mark French is likely in Holtby’s corner. Speaking to the Washington Post in October, French indicated how impressed he’s been with Holtby’s attitude and maturity toward the Bears’ season in the face of the lockout. “There’s no arrogance or ego to it at all,” French said. “He’s got a great attitude coming into this. He feels he can get better every day and he approaches each day with that goal.”
Orlov is also eager to get started on the season. He was benched for the majority of last season’s NHL playoffs, but now that offensive defenseman Dennis Wideman has departed Washington to sign with Calgary as a free agent before the lockout began, Orlov seems to be a lock to make the Capitals roster full-time.
French feels confident that Orlov’s time with Hershey over the past few seasons has put him in good position for that roster spot. “(Orlov’s) individual skills are excellent, but he needs to find his game within the confines of our team game and the Washington team game and he’s been able to do that in Hershey,” French told CSN Washington in December.
However, Orlov’s 2013 NHL debut will have to wait a little longer. Capitals general manager George McPhee told reporters Tuesday that Orlov is not likely to be ready to start the NHL season due to his upper-body injury, which has kept him out of all action since December 6. However, McPhee reported that Orlov is in Washington and has begun working out again. Hopes are that Orlov will be prepared to join Washington’s practices in a few weeks.
Holtby, healthy and having had the majority of Hershey’s starts in goal this season, thinks that his latest stint in the AHL could be an advantage over the typical NHLer returning to the ice. “The main thing [playing in Hershey], though, is just being able to stay in shape, playing games,” Holtby told the Washington Times in December. “Keeping my mind sharp and when it gets going it’ll be an advantage.“
Finally — thankfully — it’s about to get going.