NHL lockout provides lift for AHL club Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

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WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Eric Tangradi had planned to be at Heinz Field for the Steelers' game against Philadelphia Sunday. Not anymore.

Tangradi also was intent upon contending for a permanent spot on the Penguins' major-league roster for the coming season, and that's not happening, either. Not yet, anyway.

And that's the primary reason Tangradi, a Philadelphia native, will have to settle for watching the Steelers and Eagles on TV.

He is one of dozens of young players who have ended up in American Hockey League training camps recently because of the lockout that has shut down the NHL the past three weeks.

Consequently, he expects to be participating in a practice in Wilkes-Barre around the time when he otherwise would have been heading to the North Shore for the football game.

How long Tangradi and those other players will remain in the AHL is uncertain -- in most cases, that's linked directly to how long the lockout drags on -- but this much is clear: As long as they are in the minors, the quality of play there should be appreciably better than usual.

As high as -- and perhaps higher than -- it was in 2004-05, the previous time the NHL slipped into suspended animation because of a labor dispute.

"Before the lockout, it was an extremely talented league," defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. "Now, with some guys coming down and it being the highest [caliber of] hockey in North America, it's just going to elevate everyone's play."

Bortuzzo, like Tangradi, defensemen Brian Strait and Simon Despres and a few others, figured to be entering the final stages of his run at an NHL job now. Instead, they spent Friday evening playing in Wilkes-Barre's 4-3 preseason shootout loss to Rochester at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Although adding three players of that quality obviously is a plus for the Baby Penguins, some other clubs will get an even greater infusion of NHL-level talent. Oklahoma City, for example, will have Edmonton forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle in its lineup when the regular season begins.

"I think every team is going to get a boost," Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes said. "Some more than others."

Without parent clubs to siphon off their most-productive players, AHL teams could benefit as much from the personnel they won't lose as from the players they will add.

"There will be much more parity in the league, night in and night out," Hynes said. "A lot of times in the American League, on any given night, a [parent] team could lose two or three key players ... and the [AHL] rosters constantly change.

"The difference this year is, you're going to have the same players, night in and night out, as long as the lockout lasts. Which means the competition will be pretty even and stiff every single night because there is more roster flexibility."

How long the lockout will last is, of course, the most pressing issue in the sport. At the moment, there is no indication the league and its players association are anywhere near an agreement on the major financial issues at the core of the dispute.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, met with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and his No. 2, Steve Fehr, Friday in Toronto and the parties are expected to remain in contact by phone over the weekend, but no meetings have been scheduled.

The collective bargaining negotiations have been in a rut for a while, and it's conceivable that some players who expected to be in the NHL this season might lose focus and develop bad habits if they're in the AHL for an extended stretch.

Tangradi, though, feels that won't be an issue in Wilkes-Barre.

"If you were in another organization in the American League, maybe," he said. "But the way things are run here in Wilkes-Barre, you're prepared to play in the NHL every day you're here.

"You do the exact same system, the exact same style of play they expect in Pittsburgh, so I think we actually have an [advantage] over a lot of players who are being sent down because we're still practicing at an NHL level and still playing an NHL style."

NOTES -- Tangradi, Philippe Dupuis and Trevor Smith scored for Wilkes-Barre in regulation. ... Enforcer Steve MacIntyre signed an AHL contract with the Baby Penguins. ... Only forwards Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis and defenseman Ben Lovejoy participated in the informal workout Friday at Southpointe.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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