Bandits' brass turns start-up focus to players

THE BALTIMORE SUN

First, the Baltimore hockey team got its name: Bandits. Then came the logo. Now, with the cosmetics out of the way, management is focusing on weightier issues, like selecting the players who will wear the raccoon across their chests.

Bandits general manager Pierre Gauthier and coach Walt Kyle are evaluating talent and testing the free-agent market. With training camp a month away, they are working on a tentative roster.

For both men, it is their first time constructing a team in the American Hockey League. Gauthier and Kyle worked with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim's previous affiliate in the International Hockey League.

"This is a good time for us to switch to the AHL," Gauthier said. "In [Anaheim's] first two years in the league, we didn't have enough kids to field a full minor-league team. Now, we feel we're ready to do that, and the mission of the AHL is great player development. That's why we are here."

Some of the players projected to be in Baltimore this fall have AHL roots that date to the days of the Skipjacks. The Ducks signed free-agent forward Jerrod Skalde, 24, who played with Utica in 1993 (60 points in 59 games). Although Skalde could win an NHL job in training camp, it is likely he will spend at least part of his season at the Baltimore Arena.

"He's an explosive player," said Kyle, who coached Skalde in the IHL. "He's a guy that could make the Ducks, and dominate down here."

Mike O'Neill, the Bandits' probable starting goalie, is also an AHL veteran. A first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 1988, O'Neill went 13-7-6 with a 3.12 goals-against average for Moncton in 1991-92. O'Neill was another free-agent signing.

"Right now, he's the third goalie on the [Anaheim] totem pole," Gauthier said. "He's a strong call-up-type guy, and he will be a very strong No. 1 goalie for Baltimore."

The Ducks have 22 players returning from last year's NHL club, and two players, forward Steven Rice and defenseman Don McSween, who missed all of last season with injuries. Gauthier said both players could spend time in the AHL to rehabilitate, but McSween will not be able to play until March. Rice tore up the AHL in 1992, when he scored 32 goals in 45 games with Cape Breton.

NHL teams carry 24 players on their rosters, so many of the youngsters in Anaheim's system will come up through Baltimore. Kyle expects he'll put a mix of experienced players and AHL rookies on the ice.

"You're not going to win with 24 rookies and you're not going to win with all old guys, either," Kyle said. "We want to have guys with enthusiasm. Even the 24- and 25-year-olds can see the light at the end of the tunnel. They all want to get to the NHL."

Among the team's best prospects are defensemen Nikolai Tsulygin, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound Russian chosen on the second round in 1993, and Darren Van Impe, 6-0, 200.

Tsulygin is not the only potential Bandit who would have to adjust to life in a new country.

Igor Nikulin, 23, played previously for the Russian national team, and 18-year-old Pavel Trnka played professionally in the Czech Republic.

"This is a whole new way of life for these guys," Gauthier said. "They have to learn English and the culture of North America -- they have never even had a bank account before. . . . Both guys should start in Baltimore."

Oleg Mikulchik, 31, a 6-2, 200-pound free-agent defenseman, spent the past five years in the AHL with New Haven, Moncton and Springfield. He was signed by the Mighty Ducks in late July to provide a strong veteran presence on Baltimore's blue line. Mikulchik and recent signee Jason Marshall also could compete for the spot as the seventh or eighth defenseman on Anaheim's roster.

The Bandits should have plenty of size at forward as well.

Craig Reichert (6-1, 196), a third-round pick in 1994, and Jeremy Stevenson (6-2, 215) will be making their professional debuts. Scott Chartier (6-1, 200) and Mark DeSantis (6-0, 205) played for Kyle in the IHL. While Chartier and Stevenson will be counted on to score, free-agent left wing Denny Lambert should provide toughness up front.

Baltimore is hoping Maxim Bets, a 1993 second-round choice by St. Louis, regains his 100-point scoring touch. Bets excelled in the Western Hockey League, but last year he struggled with San Diego, before he was lent to Worcester to finish out the 1994-95 season.

"I feel very comfortable with the club," Gauthier said. "I know a lot of the other clubs and what they have, and we have a competitive team. I don't know if we have a championship club, but we are going to have a lot of young guys with talent here."

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