Friday, October 28, 2011

New-Look Pirates: Not Looking Too Good

By Scott Andrews
Staff Columnist
The Portland Pirates sport a new look for the 2011-2012 season. There’s been a near-total turnover in players plus a new NHL parent club and a new head coach.
But the new-look Pirates aren’t looking too good on the ice, at least so far. At press time (on Tuesday) the Pirates sported a 2-3-0-1 record over the first three weeks of their 80-game season, good for a .417 percentage. They’ve shown flashes of brilliance to be sure, but the overall picture is dominated by a sputtering offense and a porous defense.
That’s a far cry from the recent past. Last year’s Pirates had excellent results, posting a 47-24-7-2 record for a .644 percentage, one of the best showings in Portland history.
What’s the story? As in all minor league sports, changing parent club affiliations is a constant factor. Following the 2010-2011 season, the Buffalo Sabres transferred all of their American Hockey League players from Portland to Rochester, N.Y., to become the newest incarnation of the Rochester Americans.
(The American Hockey League is the game’s second tier, a single step below the big time. AHL players are under contract to their NHL parent clubs, and they can be called up at any time.)
Soon after Buffalo’s move, Pirates principal owner Brian Petrovek inked a new affiliation pact with the Phoenix Coyotes to move their AHL players to Maine. As a result, the Portland Pirates are now the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate. Or another way of putting it, they’re last year’s San Antonio Rampage.
But Phoenix is a franchise with a troubled financial history. The team is currently owned by the NHL in a caretaker role. The NHL is trying to unload the club, and a change of home city will likely accompany any transfer. On a positive note, the Coyotes have enjoyed two consecutive winning seasons.
From the fans’ point of view, the principal consequence of the above moves is an almost-total turnover of players. The lone holdover is Igor Gongalsky, a Ukrainian-born forward who made a minor impact over 54 games with the Pirates in 2010-2011.
In an unrelated move, Pirates head coach Kevin Dineen, who was popular with both the players and the fans, seized his well-deserved – and long overdue – opportunity to step up to an NHL head coaching position. Dineen, who owns the best coaching record in Pirates history, now helms the Florida Panthers.
Ray Edwards, in his second year as an AHL head coach, will stand behind the Pirates’ bench this season. With San Antonio last season he posted a 40-33-0-7 record for a .544 percentage.
This year’s Pirates? A big question mark.
Unquestionably the Coyotes’ top prospect is Andy Miele, a Michigan native who won last year’s Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey. Miele is a sparkplug whose stature on the ice far exceeds his 5-foot-8 height and his 180 pounds. He enjoyed a stellar game on Oct. 19, tallying two goals and three assists as the Pirates beat Manchester. At press time, Miele had been called up to Phoenix.
Like Miele, the Pirates are young and relatively inexperienced. Edwards will be relying on a few veterans to help guide his up-and-coming players. In particular, look for center Ryan Hollweg, defenseman Dean Arsene and goalie Curtis McElhinney to provide a crucial center of gravity.
Edward summarized the situation. “There are a lot of new people in the organization,” he said. “Every day we’re learning who we are.”
Photo caption: Forward Andy Miele promises to be one of the top players for the Portland Pirates this season. He’s shown here in the Phoenix Coyotes September training camp. (Jeff Gross photo)