With a snort and a wave of his hand, first-year Springfield Falcons coach Brad Larsen dismissed his club’s two-game winning streak to start the 2012-13 season.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” Larsen said.
Larsen’s task, with help from assistants Jared Bednar and Nolan Pratt, is to rebuild an AHL franchise that has defined down and out. The Falcons have not qualified for the playoffs in nine seasons. Last year, while Larsen served as Rob Riley’s assistant, Springfield went 36-34-3. It was the first time Springfield finished over .500 since 1997-98.
Larsen’s 2-0-0 start marked the first time Springfield had won its first two games since 2005-06. It is just the first step in the ex-NHLer’s process of creating a more stable franchise.
The blueprint Larsen refers to is that of the Colorado franchise of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Of Larsen’s 294 career NHL games, 92 were in an Avalanche jersey. The Colorado dressing room featured the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Chris Drury, Adam Foote, Patrick Roy, and Mike Keane — an All-Star Game’s worth of character players.
“To me, accountability is No. 1,” Larsen said. “This stems back from being on a great team like Colorado. You saw how the leaders held each other accountable. It wasn’t so much just picking on young guys. It was the top players challenging the top players.”
The last two seasons, Springfield has been in lockstep with Columbus, its parent club. The Blue Jackets were the NHL’s worst team in 2011-12. On Jan. 9, Todd Richards replaced Scott Arniel behind the Columbus bench. In 2010-11, Columbus was 13th in the Western Conference.
For 10 of the franchise’s 11 years of NHL play, it has fallen short of the playoffs.
“It was tough at times,” said Ryan Johansen, a 19-year-old NHL rookie last season. “It was a little scrambly in the room and in practices. Guys were just desperate to do anything to win. The lines were always being shifted. Just a lot of things. It was kind of a roller coaster year.”
Columbus is in the middle of another makeover. On July 23, general manager Scott Howson traded captain Rick Nash to the Rangers. The power forward, plus Steve Delisle, and a conditional pick went to Broadway for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a 2013 first-rounder.
Scouts believe the 28-year-old Nash will find another level to his game in a more competitive environment. The Blue Jackets received an in-your-face top-six forward in Dubinsky. But if Nash, with Brad Richards feeding him pucks, snaps through the 40-goal threshold, it is a deal that will sting even more.
If the Blue Jackets are to gain any kind of relevance, prospects such as Johansen and John Moore, both now under Larsen’s watch, will need to make quick NHL impacts. Johansen was the fourth overall selection in the 2010 draft after Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, and Erik Gudbranson went to Edmonton, Boston, and Florida.
Johansen could be a No. 1 center. The 6-foot-3-inch, 221-pounder is a wide-shouldered playmaker who can dish and snipe.
Moore, the No. 21 pick in 2009, should be a top-four defenseman. Last year, he appeared in 67 games for Columbus, recording two goals and five assists. When the lockout lifts, Moore should get more ice time because of the offseason departures of Marc Methot (traded to Ottawa) and Aaron Johnson (signed by the Bruins).
There are veterans in Columbus. Dubinsky, R.J. Umberger, and Jack Johnson are part of the core. But it’s imperative that the youngsters gain immediate traction when they get the call to Springfield. While the Blue Jackets remain dark during the lockout, it is Larsen’s job to ensure their readiness.
“Obviously, they’re an organization that hasn’t had consistent success,” Larsen said. “That’s what every organization strives for. I believe that starts here. It really does. How you cultivate that culture here, those players are moving up.
“Whether it’s short-term or long-term, they come through here. You have an impact on the players that are going up there. It’s our job to prepare them for the NHL.”
Aside from young players like Johansen, Moore, David Savard, and former Boston College star Cam Atkinson, Springfield has dependable veterans. Last year, because of injuries, the Falcons used eight goalies. This season, Larsen may have a go-to No. 1 in Curtis McElhinney, acquired last year from Phoenix as part of the Antoine Vermette trade. McElhinney, fully recovered from an abdominal injury, could push Sergei Bobrovsky and Steve Mason for a job in Columbus.
“It’s my job down here to make a push,” McElhinney said. “Hopefully at some point I’ll get in some games if the opportunity presents itself.”
As a player, Larsen was the anti-Johansen, a bottom-six forward with 19 goals and 29 assists in those 294 games. Injuries (groin, back, jaw, head, foot) chipped away at his body.
In 2009-10, Larsen’s last pro year, in Portland, he played for current Panthers coach Kevin Dineen.
That year, knowing he wanted to coach, Larsen picked Dineen’s brain whenever possible. Late in the summer of 2010, after inquiring with multiple organizations, Larsen landed the assistant’s job in Springfield.
Larsen preaches a north-south style. He wants his defensemen to retrieve pucks swiftly to initiate the attack. It is McElhinney’s job to stop the puck, Moore’s job to track it down and get it up ice, and Johansen’s job to create scoring chances.
The tricky part is that all those players could say goodbye once the lockout lifts.
“You could lose your top five guys just like that,” said Larsen, snapping his fingers.
If only a labor agreement were so simple.
CLAUSE AND EFFECT
How Bruins would stand
Thursday, as Players Association executive director Donald Fehr noted, was not a good day. The NHL, which issued its latest proposal Tuesday, said no to the NHLPA’s three counterproposals. On Friday, the league fired another shot by scrubbing games through Nov. 1.
Still, the belief is that the league’s proposal could serve as the framework for an agreement.
Per the proposal, the cap would be set at $59.9 million in 2012-13. The Bruins have committed approximately $68.5 million in salary (including Tim Thomas and Marc Savard), but would be granted a one-year exception. Under the NHL’s transition rules, teams would be allowed to spend up to the previous ceiling of $70.2 million. The Bruins would not have to move salary immediately to become cap-compliant.
In 2013-14, Thomas ($5 million average annual value), Nathan Horton ($4 million), and Andrew Ference ($2.25 million) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. It’s possible none of the three will return.
The Bruins might have to move a salary or two (David Krejci would be a candidate) to re-sign Tuukka Rask, who will reach restricted status next July. Anton Khudobin will become unrestricted at the same time.
Other effects the NHL’s proposal would have on the Bruins:
■ It will not be possible for the Bruins to trade Thomas to a team aiming to reach the lower limit. Under the previous CBA, the floor was $54.2 million. According to capgeek.com, seven teams are currently below the floor: Phoenix, Islanders, Ottawa, Dallas, St. Louis, Florida, and Colorado. The new lower limit would be $43.9 million. Every team is currently above that threshold.
■ The Bruins have three players with contract terms of five years or longer: Savard, Zdeno Chara, and Tyler Seguin. The NHL proposal stipulates that if a player with a five-year-plus contract stops playing before its conclusion, the team that signed him to the deal is responsible for the full cap hit. The Bruins carried Savard’s hit last year, and plan to do the same this season. The proposal does not mention long-term injured reserve. But it’s expected the sides will eventually agree to a status quo in LTIR. If necessary, the Bruins will place Savard on LTIR and be eligible to exceed the cap by his $4,007,143 annual hit. Chara will be 41 when his contract expires. Given Chara’s commitment to conditioning, it’s unlikely he will retire early. Seguin will be 27 when his deal concludes. There will be something seriously wrong if Seguin is traded or retires before then.
■ The proposal called for a week of training camp, with no preseason games. In theory, the brief re-entry period would benefit the Bruins. Virtually no roster turnover. Same coaching staff. Because the basic infrastructure exists, the Bruins should get off to a good start.
For Hamilton, no Niagara fall
Last Saturday, with Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien in attendance, Dougie Hamilton didn’t disappoint during Niagara’s 4-3 loss at Sarnia. “Maybe because he knew we were coming,” Chiarelli cracked. “He was playing within himself. Last year, he was really pushing the puck a lot, which is an element of his game that I like. But he had a real solid game. When he pushed the puck, he did quite well. He’s got the ability to play both sides of the puck.” Hamilton will report to main camp if and when the lockout lifts and presumably will make the varsity. Chiarelli believes Hamilton will need to adjust to NHLers’ strength down low and speed on the rush. If the lockout continues, Hamilton will remain in Niagara and participate in the World Junior Championship for a second straight season. While the plan was for Hamilton to play in the NHL this year, Chiarelli said his return to junior hasn’t been a negative. “It’s not doing him any harm,” Chiarelli said. “The fear you have with these types of players is they get into bad habits. But it’s not doing him any harm.”
College ties still bind
It’s clear that UMass-Lowell clubbed a four-bagger in hiring Norm Bazin as head coach. Lowell qualified for the NCAA tournament last year in Bazin’s rookie season. This year, the River Hawks are aiming for another visit, which doesn’t surprise Springfield Falcons goalie Curtis McElhinney. For four seasons, McElhinney played for Bazin at Colorado College. As an assistant to head coach Scott Owens, Bazin helped recruit McElhinney. “He was always upbeat,” McElhinney said. “He was a fun guy to be around. Enjoyable, I’d say. He always had a good time. A family-oriented guy.” In the fall of 2003, McElhinney’s junior season, Bazin suffered severe injuries — the worst being a severed aorta — when his car was hit by a drunk driver during a recruiting trip in Washington. The incident shook McElhinney and his CC teammates. “They were expecting their first child around that time as well,” McElhinney recalled of Bazin and wife Michelle. “Pretty difficult period. We were all just happy to see him. We didn’t know the full extent of how the recovery was going to come. For him to come back the way he has and do some of the things he’s done in the last 5-6 years, it’s been nice to see.”
Senators strong in goal
In the AHL, it will be harder to find a better puck-stopping tandem than the duo in Binghamton, Ottawa’s farm club. Robin Lehner and former Maine netminder Ben Bishop are the two farmhands tasked to mind the crease. Lehner, the 46th overall pick from the 2009 draft, projects to be an NHL ace. In a five-game stint in Ottawa in 2011-12, Lehner went 3-2-0 with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. With one more good stretch of AHL seasoning, Lehner could be ready for a full-time promotion. Bishop, acquired from St. Louis for a 2013 second-rounder, could be a solid NHL backup. The 25-year-old has appeared in 23 NHL games, all with St. Louis. Craig Anderson is the No. 1 man in Ottawa, but the 31-year-old has never gained long-term traction in any of his previous stops (Colorado, Florida, Chicago).
UMass’s Allen getting notice
UMass-Amherst defenseman Conor Allen, an undrafted junior, could be a future under-the-radar pro signing. The 6-foot-1-inch, 203-pound Allen had a strong start to 2012-13 in UMass’s 4-1 win over the University of Connecticut Oct. 13. Allen plays a pro-style game: steady, consistent positionally, good gap, solid first pass, not afraid to block shots. The 22-year-old is on the watch list of local pro scouts.
Four KHL games, including Zdeno Chara’s Lev Praha team against Alex Ovechkin’s Dynamo Moscow, have aired on ESPN3 so far. The network is scheduled to carry two more matches this month. The next one will be Monday, featuring Metallurg Magnitogorsk (players include Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar) against Dynamo Riga (ex-Bruin Martins Karsums leads the team in scoring). ESPN declined to release viewership details from previous KHL games. “We’re evaluating viewership and feedback over the course of the six games we’ve confirmed, but have nothing specific to share,” wrote ESPN public relations associate manager Kristie Chong-Adler in an email . . . Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli recently scouted first-round pick Malcolm Subban, who is expected to be Team Canada’s No. 1 goalie in the world juniors. “Terrific athlete,” Chiarelli said. “He’s got a couple things to work on. But I was very happy with what I saw.” . . . If and when NHL camps open, most clubs expect to recall only a handful of AHL reinforcements. The Bruins will most likely recall 3-5 players from Providence. Jordan Caron is a lock to be among the bunch . . . Chiarelli attended Providence’s season opener Oct. 12 against Manchester. The P-Bruins lost to the Monarchs, 3-1. “It’s a better league,” Chiarelli said. “You can just tell with 2-3 extra players. That makes a big difference. If you add two extra really good players to our level, that makes a big difference.” Manchester, for example, features slick defenseman Slava Voynov. Last year, the Russian had 20 points in 54 regular-season games for the Kings. In the playoffs, Voynov dressed for all 20 games, averaging 19:31 of ice time . . . The Boston Bruins Foundation is hosting a tasting at Morton’s steak house Monday. Guests can sample appetizers along with American craft beers. Tickets are $40, with proceeds going to the foundation. To purchase tickets, visit the foundation’s page on bostonbruins.com.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.