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Top AHLers looking for NHL gigs

TheHockeyNews Ryan Kennedy
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When THN did our “Best of the Decade” issue earlier this year, right winger Darren Haydar was named the American League's top player from the past 10 years. When asked for a comment, Haydar noted he would have preferred not to be eligible — after all, his goal was to be an NHLer.

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But even after an insane college career at the University of New Hampshire (61 points as a freshman, 76 as a senior) and some amazing AHL campaigns (75 points as a rookie pro with Milwaukee in 2002-03; 122 points for the Chicago Wolves in '06-07, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Haydar only suited up for 23 NHL games total in several stints with Nashville, Atlanta and Colorado, notching eight points in the process.

And while Haydar is still trying to reach his dream of a full-time NHL career, there are two other minor league heroes who may jump in front of him this season.

Left winger Brett Sterling, all 5-foot-7, 175 pounds of him, was signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the off-season, ostensibly so the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins would have a better shot at Calder Cup glory. But here's the thing; thanks to the salary cap, this year's Pittsburgh edition really is looking like a flightless bird — the team has no wings.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal are three of the best centers in the league, but the players they will be passing to (with the exception of Chris Kunitz) don't have a lot of offensive finish to their games. Even if you put Crosby and Malkin together on a line, you'll need secondary scoring.

This is where Sterling can make his mark. Much like Haydar, Sterling has wreaked havoc on the AHL throughout his career — 97 points with the Chicago Wolves in '06-07 (with Haydar, no less) was his best — but failed to impress in the NHL with Atlanta. Of course, as a left winger, he was buried behind Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov at the time. In Pittsburgh, a good camp could mean Crosby or Malkin feeding him pucks.

Plus, the Pens have about $2 million in cap space left for the season and Sterling’s stipend is a very reasonable $500,000.

Pittsburgh's archrivals, the Washington Capitals, have the opposite problem — great wingers, but only one great center, Nicklas Backstrom. Last season, the Caps tried to plug the second-line center hole with Brendan Morrison, but decided against a sequel this summer.

That opens the door for 31-year-old Keith Aucoin, another career minor leaguer with an impressive resume. The 5-foot-9 Aucoin (sensing a theme here?) actually had five points in nine games for the Caps last year, so he has contributed. Now, he'll have to fight off fellow Hershey Bears alumnus Mathieu Perreault and Swedish rookie Marcus Johansson for a spot on the big club.

Competition for all the center jobs behind Backstrom are wide open right now and while the Caps are in surprisingly good cap shape for a team of their caliber (more than $8.5 million available with 19 players signed, according to capgeek.com), the dearth of talent on the pivot market means they really couldn't spend even if they wanted to.

While Sterling and Aucoin have had their chances before, both have excellent opportunities ahead of them — and with Stanley Cup contenders, no less. Now it's time for these diminutive scorers to play big.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column — The Straight Edge — every Friday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

Tagged: Penguins, Avalanche, Capitals, Keith Aucoin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brett Sterling

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