Portland Pirates: Optimism on eve of regular season

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Following a season in which they recorded the fewest points in the 20-year history of the franchise, the Pirates have a sense of guarded optimism. The team is back to its home at the Cross Insurance Arena in downtown Portland, the players returning from last year have another season of seasoning under their belts, and the new, veteran additions to the team have a proven track record of winning at all levels.

All that’s left now: Dropping the puck on the 2014-15 campaign, which happens at home against Providence on Saturday.

“There’s a renewed excitement and we all want to rewrite the script from last year,” Portland general manager and head coach Ray Edwards said. “The guys have pride; the coaches have pride. We want to get back at it and prove we’re a good hockey team. This is a team that can do good things, and we want people to be proud of us.”

Even the team’s die-hard fans had a tough time sticking it out last season. Skating at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston because of construction and a lease dispute with their home rink in Portland, attendance waned in the second half of the campaign. For many of the players, the commute to a home game was more than an hour each way, and by the end of the season, crowds at the Lewiston rink struggled to hit 1,000 people.

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On the ice, three players were among the league leaders in many offensive categories, but there was a large drop off behind them. Portland struggled to score, and struggled to prevent opponents from scoring.

But optimism reigns with the dawn of a new season.

The issue of a home rink was resolved midway through last season. A change in ownership and management led to a new lease agreement with the team’s Portland home, renamed the Cross Insurance Arena after construction was completed.

“I think where people will see the biggest improvements will be in the concourses, the amount of bathrooms, the concessions and the overall freshness of the rink,” Portland Pirates COO Brad Church said. “They did an excellent job of modernizing the building, and I think with our improved game-ops effort, our fan experience, we’ve invested a lot of time and money into making sure when people come through the doors, they’re really going to have a great experience, both on the ice and off the ice.”

Even the players who had seen the facility before were impressed.

“It’s all top-notch now,” former Pirates captain Alex Bolduc, who re-signed with the team this season, said. “Looking around, I hardly recognized some of it. It really is one of the best in the league now.”

With a new comfort level off the ice — and a home rink within a few miles of most of the players’ seasonal homes — the players and coaching staff can refocus on the ice, as well. After winning only 24 games a year ago (out of 76), they have to.

“We wanted to be more to the identity that the Coyotes have preached,” Edwards said. “We’re a bigger team. We’re bigger through the middle ice. We want to be a team that possesses the puck more. We want to be a team that can win a territorial game. And we want to be a team that’s tough to play against — not from an intimidation side of things — but if you’re going to get the puck back from us, it’s going to be tougher to do that.”

To that end, Edwards, in his new role as general manager this season, helped assemble a team that included some tried and true AHL leadership.

“When we put this team together, we wanted to see leadership on and off the ice,” Edwards said. “We brought in a lot of guys who are used to making the playoffs, and who are used to winning once they get there. Patrick McNeil, he’s won a championship. Evan Oberg has won a championship. (Alex) Bolduc played in a Stanley Cup final. They’ve all been to the playoffs. They’re used to getting there, and not just getting there but doing well there. That’s the goal for our group.”

The team added McNeil, Oberg, Dylan Reese, Jordon Southorn and Andrew Campbell to a blue line that returns younger players Brandon Gormley, James Melindy and Justin Hache.

“That was out of necessity,” Edwards said. “All the guys we’ve been developing over the past four or five years in the organization — Gormley, (Connor) Murphy, (Mike) Stone, (Chris) Summers — they’re all up in Arizona or will be. We drafted Melindy and Hache, but they’re both early in their development phase. We wanted to surround the team with good, veteran players, but we also wanted to add some depth for the team in Phoenix, as well. A lot of these guys, if there’s an injury or they need someone in the NHL, they can go and fill in, and these are guys that can all go up and help.”

The revamped defensive group makes the guys between the pipes more excited, as well.

“We have guys who have played a lot of hockey and for successful teams,” goalie Mike McKenna said. “The core that we have is primarily a defensive core, which is great, especially as a goalie looking at it.”

McKenna is among the veterans the team added in the offseason to shore up a younger group. The 10-year pro will share duties with Louis Domingue to start the season, with both Mark Visentin and Mike Lee on the shelf with injuries.

“Last year wasn’t good enough in that department,” Edwards said. “We felt we had to get another veteran guy in here to help those younger players, and to push them, and to let them know that it wasn’t good enough. We have a really good battle going for No. 3 in the organization. Right now, Louis (Domingue) seems to have the leg up on it, but it’s early.”

The Pirates remain on the younger side up front, though Edwards is quick to point out that youth and experience are not mutually exclusive. For the second- and third-year pros, the time to put up or ship out is now.

“For a handful of guys, it’s contract season,” forward Phil Lane said. “I think we have to take on a bigger role, have some responsibility with everything. I think it will be a good year — a big year for everyone to produce and play well.”

With Bolduc added to the mix, scoring goals shouldn’t necessarily be a problem.

“When we were going through this thing, I talked to (Arizona) Coach (Dave) Tippett about two or three guys we would want to target, and we agreed that (Bolduc) would be a guy who would be at the top of our list,” Edwards said. “He was so good for us a couple years back. We’re just hoping he can do the same thing, not just for us, but for himself. He played 20 games (in the NHL) that year, that was the most games he’d played in a few years. He still has the dream to play up there, so hopefully he has the chance to do that.”

“He’s a character guy, a quality guy, a glue guy,” Edwards said.

In addition to Bolduc, the Pirates added Matt Kassian and Eric Selleck to the roster, two players who are not afraid to get physical when the need arises. But, as Selleck proved in the preseason, he can also score a goal or two.

“The first thing is to make sure we’re playing the right way,” Edwards said. “We should be able to score enough goals to win. We need to play with a team concept first. If we do that, we should be OK. We have the skill, and we’ve added the size and the grit, and we have some depth up the middle. We’re a little bigger, a little heavier, but we’re still pretty quick.”

The team’s first test will be Saturday in the season-opener against Providence at the Cross Insurance Arena. In Week 2, the team will get rolling with three more games, all on the road. It’s a scenario Edwards likes to begin a new season with a new group of players.

“We’ve got six of nine to start out with on the road,” he said. “That will help us tell the story of this team. It will give us a sense of what we might have, where we might need to tweak things a bit, and it gives the guys a chance to get to know one another better. After those 10 games, we’ll know more about ourselves and where we might be headed.”

If Edwards’ inclination is correct, the team will be in pretty good shape.

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