There will be pro hockey played in town Saturday night.
But instead of the Blackhawks hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets at the United Center in what would have been their regular-season opener, it will be the Chicago Wolves against the Rockford IceHogs at Allstate Arena.
While the NHL lockout continues with no end in sight, the American Hockey League is up and running and poised to capitalize on the situation.
“During the last work stoppage in 2004 is when some of the best hockey was played in the American Hockey League,” said Wolves coach Scott Arniel.
It could be even better this time around.
Teams in the AHL are loaded with all the best prospects, some of whom have extensive NHL experience. Players on entry level contracts are eligible to play in the AHL without having to clear waivers.
Rockford, for example, comes to town to play the Wolves twice this weekend with 10 players who played at least one game with the Hawks last season — six of them in the playoffs in defensemen Nick Leddy and Dylan Olsen and forwards Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad and Brandon Bollig.
Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith and Jimmy Hayes are also with Rockford.
“I think the transition is a little easier, because we know three-quarters of the players who have been here before and we know their tendencies and their habits, and they know how we work as a staff as well,” said Rockford coach Ted Dent. “In saying that, the tricky part for us is going to make sure to spread the ice time around and make sure they get enough ice time because we have a lot of good hockey players on this team.
“But it’s no different with every team in the AHL. They’re going to be strong from top to bottom and our guys have to realize that.”
Arniel estimated his Wolves have “five or six” players who could have been starting the season with the Vancouver Canucks.
“That’s my guess if they started up next week, is that we’d lose five or six guys,” Arniel said. “They’ve got the (Ryan) Kesler injury and the (Roberto) Luongo situation so they would need some bodies.”
Kesler had off-season shoulder and wrist surgery while Luongo has told the Canucks he would be willing to accept a trade if the team can find a partner to take on what’s left on his huge contract.
If the Canucks do trade Luongo to either Florida or Toronto, it would pave the way for Eddie Lack to join the Canucks as Cory Schneider’s backup.
“He’s close,” Arniel said. “You can see why the Canucks are high on him. It’s lot like with Schneider, they took their time with him and now he’s ready to grab the reigns. I think Eddie has the ability to be a real good NHL goaltender.”
Lack is one of the five or six guys Arniel figures he’d lose if the lockout were to end. The others are defenseman Chris Tanev and forwards Zack Kassian, Jordan Schroeder and Steve Pinizzotto.
Veterans Darren Haydar, Brett Sterling and Andrew Ebbett are back as well.
Right now the Wolves are keeping 27 players instead of the usual 22.
“We want everyone to feel part of it and if it were to end next week or a month from now or two months, they know how we want to play,” Arniel said. “I know I’m going to lose some sleep trying to get everyone in the lineup. You may have to take guys out who are playing well.”
Elsewhere around the AHL, Oklahoma City is benefiting greatly from the Edmonton Oilers not playing with Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and possibly Taylor Hall. Hall is returning from a shoulder injury.
“They’ve pretty much got the first line from the Edmonton Oilers playing,” AHL president/CEO David Andrews said. “I think it will probably have a number of fans sample the game that might not have. And we believe that once fans sample the game, and they see the caliber of play that it’ll gain some traction.”
Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier will play for Adirondack instead of the Philadelphia Flyers while New Jersey’s Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique will skate for Albany. Goalie Braden Holtby, who won the No. 1 job with Washington in the playoffs, will be minding the net for Hershey.
“We would prefer the NHL would be playing,” Andrews said. “We think that’s the engine that drives the business of hockey and interest in the sport. So with the NHL not playing, it’s not a positive in terms of the long-term growth of our business.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.