Garnet Exelby has zero points and 49 penalty minutes through 17 games with Rockford. (Photo by Jim Orlando)
The American League doesn’t just exist to polish first round picks and other top prospects before they head off to long NHL careers.
Many AHL players are former NHL regulars scrambling to regain the big-league roster spot they once held.
Rockford IceHogs captain Garnet Exelby is one such player. After six full seasons as an NHL defenseman with Atlanta and Toronto, the best opportunity Exelby could dig up this past summer was a training-camp invitation from the New York Rangers.
When the audition with the Rangers did not land Exelby back on an NHL roster, the 29-year-old crash-and-bang blueliner headed to Edmonton to skate with the University of Alberta Golden Bears and worked the phones in hopes of landing a job somewhere.
The salary cap and an unrelenting desire from NHL GMs to turn to young players cost Exelby opportunities in the NHL and forced him to widen his search.
“I’m not even 30 yet, so that’s kind of crazy,” Exelby said.
With the season bearing down on him, Exelby made it clear to anyone who would listen he was interested in finding a blueline job anywhere.
“I just started being proactive,” he said.
Exelby utilized his connections from his time as an Atlanta farmhand and got in touch with Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who used to be the GM of Atlanta’s AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.
“I think a lot of credit goes to him for helping me find my way to Rockford,” Exelby said.
Once a deal was struck, Exelby headed back to the AHL for the first time since 2002-03. Rockford coach Bill Peters has paired Exelby with Russian prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy on the club’s top defensive unit.
Exelby has delivered his usual no-frills, defense-minded game, which has given Vishnevskiy room for more creativity. The IceHogs have struggled to a 7-10-0-2 record so far this season, but Exelby has appeared in 18 of the team’s first 19 games and earned the club’s captaincy in early November.
“I want to be back in the NHL,” he said. “I want to get back to where I need to be. Last year was kind of a tumultuous season for me in Toronto.”
Last season, Exelby struggled to find a spot in the Leafs’ defensive mix and when he did manage to play, he didn’t play much, averaging a little more than 10 minutes of ice time per game for a bad Maple Leafs squad.
“I’m just trying to attack parts of my game and play confidently,” Exelby said. “I’ve probably played more here than I did all last year, so that is pretty exciting.”
NHL jobs can open up at any moment and a proven, low-maintenance, NHL-caliber defenseman like Exelby is an easy addition to a lineup. In the meantime, Exelby will continue to bide his time in the AHL.
“It’s still the same game that everyone loves to play,” he said. “No matter where you are, it’s more fun to play than to sit on the bench or in the stands.”
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• Buried at the bottom of the league with a 3-15-2-0 record, the Adirondack Phantoms added AHL veteran Michael Ryan Nov. 23. The Phantoms also gained the services of defenseman Danny Syvret and left winger Rob Bordson, who were acquired from Anaheim Nov. 21 for Patrick Maroon and David Laliberte.
• The Ducks weren’t done re-stocking their Syracuse Crunch affiliate, though. They swung two more trades Nov. 23, adding defender Nigel Williams from the New York Rangers in a swap for defenseman Stu Bickel, as well as center Stefan Chaput and right winger Matt Kennedy, who came from Carolina for center Ryan Carter.
• After a dreadful October, the Providence Bruins have put together a 7-1-1-0 run to pull themselves back into the Eastern Conference’s top half and a fourth-place spot in the Atlantic Division. Meanwhile, the Peoria Rivermen, who opened the season with seven wins in their first eight games, went on a 2-6-0-1 skid before assembling three consecutive wins last week, which pulled them to third in the West Division…
•The Hartford Wolf Pack will officially change their name to the Connecticut Whale after their Friday, Nov. 26 game at Bridgeport.
From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.