8 Weeks to Hockey, 8 Thoughts w/ Ryan SmithAug 21, 2018
With the Springfield Thunderbirds’ home opener now just under eight weeks away, “Voice of the T-Birds” Ryan Smith has eight thoughts as the calendar marches toward the 2018-19 AHL season. The thoughts will range from Springfield to Florida, as well as into the broader depths of the hockey and sports world.
Read his thoughts below and check back each week during the 2018-19 season for news and observations from the watchful eye of the T-Birds’ broadcaster.
1- The Florida Panthers, make no mistake, have made a monetary commitment to their hockey club that has not always been the case in the 25-year history of the franchise. Hindsight shows that the Panthers’ longer-term contracts have resulted in greater flexibility in average annual value – not one forward has a cap hit greater than $5.9 million, while top scorers Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov are each under contract through 2021-22 (Huberdeau until 2022-23). Yet that willingness to spend was even more apparent in lower-money signings that may positively impact Springfield – for example bringing in reigning AHL All-Star goaltender Michael Hutchinson from the Jets and reigning AHL defense scoring leader Jacob MacDonald from the Devils.
2- Of course, the signing that probably piqued the interests among Thunderbirds fans to the highest degree was that of forward Paul Thompson, who makes his third different stop in Springfield in his pro career. Head coach Geordie Kinnear went out of his way multiple times in 2016-17 to name Thompson as a player who exemplified the gritty, relentless style he demands of his players. It also does not hurt that Thompson has three seasons of 20+ goals in his AHL career, which doesn’t account for the 19 he scored as a Thunderbird in just 51 games two seasons ago. Between Thompson (29), Bobby Farnham (29), and Harry Zolnierczyk (30), Springfield has the deepest veteran leadership core they have had in their brief history. Which one of them wears the “C”, if any, remains to be seen. Kinnear will not be one to slot in a captain before he’s ready, as evidenced by Springfield going without one for all of last season.
3- Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the sound defensive acquisition of the offseason – former Manitoba Moose defenseman Julian Melchiori. He was a +14 in just 49 games for a Moose club that went through a massive improvement from 2016-17. Not a noted point producer, Melchiori had six points in seven playoff games for Manitoba, which is just an added bonus from a guy who stands north of 6-feet-4.
4- I’m realizing when I start putting bullet points together just how expansive the offseason docket of moves has been for Florida/Springfield. I have not even mentioned the acquisition of Mike Hoffman at the NHL level. Provided the off-ice charade in Ottawa is truly independent of Hoffman himself, the Panthers got an incredible value (three draft picks, only one of which is in the first two rounds) for a man who has 104 goals in his last four NHL seasons. That means there is one less spot on the Panthers roster for a slew of young forwards fighting for a spot. Therefore, it means Springfield should get one more very valuable offensive asset on the wing.
5- A lot of teams in the Atlantic Division improved themselves in the offseason to date, but I am not sure the Providence Bruins are one of them. When you lose an MVP candidate (Austin Czarnik), a former AHL MVP (Kenny Agostino), and your captain and defensive anchor (Tommy Cross), those are some pretty major pieces to have to replace. Couple that with the fact that a few young P-Bruins of 2017-18 could make a leap to the big club in Boston – like Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson – and suddenly the P-Bruins are asking even more of goaltender Zane McIntyre, who struggled early last season to regain his nearly unbeatable 2016-17 form. If the T-Birds can solve McIntyre, their 14 games against the Bruins could be telling of their playoff story – miss or make.
6- If you look at recent Calder Cup champions, there is almost always a young player (or more) who exceeded his years of experience. Take Toronto’s Carl Grundstrom (8g, 6a in 20 playoff games), who came over after playing in the SHL in his native Sweden as a 20-year-old. Go back two more seasons and you’ll find Oliver Bjorkstrand and Zach Werenski, who are now consistent NHL contributors after starring as rookies on a Calder Cup winning team in Cleveland. Could Owen Tippett be a similar piece for the Thunderbirds come next April? Well, not if he has anything to say about that and makes the Panthers out of training camp. Worth noting, Tippett would not be eligible to play in the AHL until the conclusion of his OHL season due to AHL/CHL policy.
7- Many Springfield players know him – actually, considering he darn near played into his 40s, most AHL and NHL players know him by now – but can we take a moment to appreciate Tom Kostopoulos for the playing career he had? You do not play nearly 1,400 professional games, serve as a captain seven times, and be heavily respected by nearly all of your teammates by accident. Even fewer players drafted in the 7th round before the year 2000 are even loosely connected to hockey in 2018. Yet here is the man known affectionately as T.K. in Wilkes-Barre. Kostopoulous in many ways represents what the AHL is all about – bettering yourself as a human and as a professional. I am less shocked about Kostopoulous staying in the Penguins organization in a player development role than I was to hear the sun came up this morning. I will not be stunned at all if he’s behind a bench in the next five years.
8- I still find myself thinking about the Humboldt Broncos a great many times in a given week. Time has allowed many other events, good and bad, to enter our brains, but the pure stinging feeling felt on April 6 is impossible to completely forget. The idea of your friends, teammates, colleagues, and coaches facing mortality so young is, in no uncertain terms, horrifying. But rather than dwell and fear, we would be better served to use life’s lack of a guaranteed tomorrow to make a positive mark on our family, on our friends, and perhaps even on the entire world.
If you watch no other video today, watch the speech given by Christina Haugan, widow to the late Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, in acceptance of the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award to see what I can only attempt to convey above. The 16 seconds of game action I and many other AHL broadcasters did not call on April 13 were the most powerful, poignant moments of my career to date.
EDIT: Originally, I thought this was going to be 8 thoughts only – until the morning of August 14, when I came across this piece from former American International goalie Ben Meisner.
I am here to tell you that if you have struggled mentally, know that you are not alone, for I have, too. There is never any shame in admitting it, either.
Be good to those in your life, folks.