By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
One would think the Johnstown Chiefs would be the last team to lead the ECHL into the future.
The Chiefs, after all, are the grizzled veterans of the ECHL, the cornerstone franchise that for years has epitomized old-school hockey playing at Cambria War Memorial where the movie “Slap Shot” was filmed.
The Tampa Bay Lightning see the Chiefs and see the future.
The Lightning are building an affiliation with the Chiefs that goes beyond the usual NHL and ECHL affiliation. They are part-owners of the Chiefs and are closely tied with the day-to-day operations and development of their prospects.
The Lightning want to build a steady and cohesive ladder system for their players from Johnstown to Springfield in the American Hockey League to Tampa.
Now the same playing system is in place in Johnstown, Springfield and Tampa.
“With the new hockey world, we realize development will be critical,” said Bill Barber, Lightning director of pro player personnel. “We are allowed to change players from the AHL to the ECHL without permission, which I think is great. We are very committed to developing young players.”
The combination of the NHL rule changes, which have created a more up-tempo offensive game and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the salary cap and restrictions on sending a player down from the NHL to the AHL, makes the Chiefs a perfect springboard for young players according to Barber.
“We have one system,” said Barber. “That is it. It is how we play in Tampa, how Springfield plays and how Johnstown is trying to play. We are very aggressive on the puck. It is almost like a five-man forecheck. It is a great system. You have to be very committed to have success with it, though.”
Barber knows a few things about the transition from NHL, AHL and ECHL having won a championship at both the NHL and AHL and being a regular in the press box at ECHL games.
“There is no question (this) is the only way to go,” said Barber of the Chiefs and Lightning affiliation. “I highly respect the ECHL. We are very pleased with our relationship with Johnstown it is only going to get stronger.”
Chief’s general manager Toby O’Brien, who moved from coaching the team to directing hockey operations this season, feels the system will work. It is just going to take a little time.
“It has worked well so far,” said O’Brien. “There were some growing pains early, but it has been a positive thing. They want to be ahead of the curve. They want to catch the new NHL in the developmental phase and be a step up on all the teams.”
O’Brien likes the idea of Frank Anzalone strictly worrying about coaching and teaching a young Chiefs team the Lightning system, while he works the day-to-day aspects of running an ECHL team.
“It is a good opportunity for myself working directly with them,” said O’Brien of the Lightning. “It is like a NHL set-up here. The coach can just coach.”
It may help the Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champs, but O’Brien knows Tampa is a long way from Cambria War Memorial, where players and fans are getting used to the new-look Chiefs, with seven or eight Lightning prospects and more passing and less smashing.
“There is going to be a youth-movement,” said O’Brien. “We will take our lumps but will try to make them better, so by Christmas and the second half of the year we are really starting to roll.”
The Chiefs headed into the weekend with only two wins, but have lost four games in overtime and two one-goal games.
“When people see the developmental role in this, they are going to really accept it,” said O’Brien. “The challenge is to get as many wins as you can at the same time. As long as you put up with some of the growing pains, it is going to be a win-win situation.”