The American Hockey League Season begins tonight, with the Rangers’ affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, opening tomorrow at 7 pm. Blueshirt Banter participated in an SB Nation collaboration which takes a look at the 2019-2020 Atlantic Division. You can also take a look at previews for the other AHL divisions.
SBN AHL Divisional Preview - ATLANTIC
Bridgeport Sound Tigers (New York Islanders)
Noel Fogleman, Lighthouse Hockey
Last Season: 43-24-6-3, 95 points, 2nd place
Key Additions: G Jared Coreau, F Simon Holmstrom, F Colin McDonald, F Mason Jobst, F Cole Bardreau, F Arnaud Durandeau, F Nick Schilkey, D Thomas Hickey
Key Losses: G Jeremy Smith, F Connor Jones, F Ben Holmstrom, F Stephen Gionta, F Mike Sislo, F Chris Bourque, F Scott Easnor, D Chris Casto, D Yannick Rathgeb
One Player to Watch: Oliver Wahlstrom
Like its parent club, the Sound Tigers returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence. Head coach Brent Thompson, who many thought would have been replaced when Lou Lamoriello took over the Islanders, led Bridgeport to its best regular season in a decade. The biggest surprise in Bridgeport came from Otto Koivula, the 4th-round pick in the 2016 draft, shifted over to center in season and enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign, 46 points in 69 games. Expect Koivula to be considered for a call up if needed. The Joshua Ho-Sang saga continues. The polarizing forward cleared waivers this week. His camp has requested a trade and is away from the Sound Tigers for now.
One player who needs a bounce back season is Kieffer Bellows, who finished the regular season with three goals in his last 37 games. The 2016 first-round pick had a strong showing in the playoffs, scoring two goals in the five-game loss to Hershey, one of which won the opening game in the series. Oliver Wahlstrom, had a strong training camp with the Islanders, will begin his first full season in professional hockey after a disappointing freshman year at Boston College. The 2018 first-round pick joined the Sound Tigers on an amateur tryout last season and had a strong playoffs, four points in five games. Wahlstrom could make his NHL debut sometime this season. A surprise late addition to the team is 2019 first-round pick Simon Holmstrom. The Islanders elected to send the 18-year-old Swede to the AHL rather than sent him back to Swedish. The Sound Tigers now have four first-round picks drafted by the organization on the roster. The defensive corp will get a boost from Thomas Hickey, who cleared waivers.
Charlotte Checkers (Carolina)
Justin Lape, Canes Country
Last season: 51-17-7-1, 110 points, 1st place, Calder Cup Champions
Key losses: Andrew Poturalski, Patrick Brown, Martin Necas (graduation), head coach Mike Vellucci, Dustin Tokarski, Tomas Jurco
Key additions: Alex Lintuniemi, Chase Priskie, Hunter Shinkaruk, Kyle Wood, Brian Gibbons
One player to watch: Julien Gauthier - The 2016 21st overall pick has yet to make his NHL debut but it’s only a matter of time. The third year forward is a force on the ice and developing into a very solid power forward. He finished the year with 41 points in 75 games and showed improvement in many aspects of his game. Gauthier was one of the last cuts of the preseason and made it difficult for Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour to send him back to Charlotte. With many of last year’s top-six gone for the Checkers, Gauthier will be trusted with more minutes from head coach Ryan Warsofsky and should be up to the task.
Why people should care/tune in to your team: All eyes are on the defending Calder Cup Champions as they look to defend their title. They’ll face an uphill battle after losing key players like Andrew Poturalski (Anaheim organization) and Martin Necas (graduation) and losing their leader, head coach Mike Vellucci after he departed for Wilkes-Barre Scranton. The return of Janne Kuokkanen will be a much needed addition after he missed significant time in the back half of the season with a season-ending lower body injury. Younger players like Julien Gauthier and Morgan Geekie will be asked to do more in expanded roles. Alex Nedeljkovic returns as one of the league’s top goaltenders after just missing the cut for the back-up role in Carolina. While repeating as champions will be tough, the team looks to half enough firepower left to stay competitive.
Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers)
Adam Herman, Blueshirt Banter
Last season: 29-36-7-4, 69 points, 8th place, Missed playoffs
Key losses: John Gilmour, Peter Holland, Lias Andersson
Key additions: Filip Chytil, Vitali Kravtsov, Danny O’Regan, Igor Shesterkin
One player to watch: On a team loaded with players worth watching, perhaps none are more intriguing than 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravtsov. The Russian import will face challenges in his move to North America, but having already proven himself in the KHL and now more physically fit, the teenage phenom should make noise in the AHL, perhaps so much that his stay in Hartford is limited. He’s also simply an incredibly exciting player visually. Kravtsov can create offense by himself, pulling off creative passes and impressive dekes in one-on-one situations. Kravtsov is not only productive, but worth the price of admission.
Why should care/tune in to your team?
Hartford have hardly been worth paying attention to on the whole for the past four seasons, and the Rangers have responded with a comprehensive overhaul of the entire team. An out-of-touch coaching staff has been replaced with one that is much more expansive and forward-thinking. The organization unquestionably has the top prospect pool in the NHL, and they’ve stocked Hartford with a significant amount of its foundation. Filip Chytil, the aforementioned Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin are elite prospects, while the likes of Adam Huska, Tim Gettinger, Joey Keane, and Ryan Lindgren lead a second wave of depth. These prospects have been insulated with a competent group of veteran AHLers in Vinni Lettieri, Danny O’Regan, and Darren Raddysh. Both in terms of youth development as well as winning hockey, the expectation should be for Hartford to be one of the most dynamic teams in the AHL this season.
Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals)
Luke Adomanis, Japers’ Rink
Last season: 43-25-4-4, 94 points, 3rd place, lost in 2nd Round
Key losses: F Nathan Walker, F Riley Barber, F Hampus Gustaffson, F Juuso Ikonen, F Hunter Fejes, F Grant Besse, F Max Kammerer, F Dylan Steman, F Jayson Megna, F Mason Mitchell, D Ryan Sproul, D Aaron Ness, D Joey Leach
Key additions: G Logan Thompson, C Philippe Maillet, F Kale Kessy, D Erik Burgdoerfer, D Tommy Hughes, D Tariq Hammond, F Matt Moulson, F Matthew Weis, D Ed Wittchow, F Cole Ully, F Brett Leason, F Kody Clark, F Riley Sutter, D Alexander Alexeyev, D Martin Fehervary
One player to watch: Alexander Alexeyev. The big Russian has smarts, wheels, and good offensive instincts. He should be physically ready for the AHL, it’s a matter of how quickly he adapts every other part of his game. If he adapts off the bat he should have a big year for Hershey. His one downfall is health, he’s had two major knee injuries already and missed all of the Capitals training camp and preseason due to a shot to the head at the prospect tournament. Staying healthy is paramount for the Bears and Capitals moving forward.
Why should people care/tune in to your team?
The offseason has seen a lot of turnover for the Hershey Bears, losing some great players such as Riley Barber, Nathan Walker, and Aaron Ness. But at the same time they will be getting an injection of a lot of young talents such as Alexander Alexeyev, Brett Leason, Riley Sutter, and full seasons of Joe Snively and Bobby Nardella who both signed last spring out of college. Surround that with two new vets of Philippe Maillet and Matt Moulson, who combined for 116 points in 136 games for a very bad Ontario Reign, the Bears should have a good mix of youth and veteran experience.
Starting in net, the Bears have a very strong duo of Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek. Samsonov has won the backup job in Washington but wouldn’t be surprised to see Vanecek and Copley both get games in the NHL season. Either way, having two of those three will make a very deadly combo.
The defense will be very strong for the Bears as they will have the highly touted Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary (though he is currently with the Capitals), and Nardella, who had a strong camp. Add to this that Christian Djoos somehow made it through waivers and will be with the Bears until the Capitals have make room for him. The last season Djoos was in the AHL three years ago he scored 58 points in 66 games. Having two full NHL seasons and a Stanley Cup under his belt should make Djoos even deadlier. Former first round pick Lucas Johansen needs to have a healthy, productive season if he doesn’t want to be forgotten so expect a big year from him. Colby Williams and Erik Burgdoefer will round out the vets and help guide the youth.
On forward, it’s a whole lot of baby faces. Leason, Sutter, and Kody Clark are all making the jump from juniors. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Snively both played some last season but will get their first fulls seasons this year. Garret Pilon, Brian Pinho, and Shane Gersich, all very skilled forwards, will look to build off their freshman years and make a case for a call up. There aren’t a whole lot of veterans in the forward ranks, just Moulson, Maillet, Liam O’Brien, and Michael Sgarbossa, but they’ll be needed to balance the new kids and teach them the pro game.
Add it all together, the Bears should have a very fun team to watch this season. They have speed, skill, and physicality to spread around. Backed by their strong goalies, reliable puck moving defensemen, and potential high ceiling offense they could make a case for a top team in the league. Of course, youth can also be a pitfall; too many players learning the ropes at the same time can cause issues as seen last season when the Bears got off to a rough start. It’s but to head coach Spencer Carberry and the experienced players to keep them on track. Buckle up because it should, at the very least, be an interesting season in Hershey
Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers)
Bradley Keffer, Broad Street Hockey
Last season: 39-30-4-3, 85 points, 5th place, Missed playoffs
Key losses: Phil Varone, Chris Conner, Mike Vecchione, Connor Bunnaman, Colin McDonald, and Carsen Twarynski.
Key additions: Cal O’Rielly, Morgan Frost, Andy Andreoff, Isaac Ratcliffe, Nate Prosser, Chris Bigras, Tyler Wotherspoon, Felix Sandstrom, and possibly Joel Farabee.
One player to watch: While there are a number of really good, young forwards on the Phantoms’ roster, Morgan Frost will probably be the focus of many during his stay. And for good reason. Selected 27th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Frost is coming off back-to-back 100-plus point seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, and had he not gotten hurt during training camp there’s a decent chance he would be starting the season in the NHL with the Flyers. If things go well early his stint in the AHL may be short, just as Carter Hart’s was a season ago.
Why people should care/tune in to your team:
There’s little doubt that last season would have gone differently for Lehigh Valley had the Flyers’ organization as a whole not been in turmoil. Ron Hextall was relieved of his duties as Flyers’ General Manager in November, and just a month later the departure of then-head coach Dave Hakstol followed. Already down reigning AHL MVP Phil Varone due to an early season recall, it was then that the Phantoms also lost head coach Scott Gordon for the rest of the season, as he would take over as interim head coach of the Flyers. Now with Gordon back in the fold, a talented prospect-rich forwards corps, and a revamped defense, the Phantoms should be able to get themselves back into the playoff picture.
However there is still a bit of uncertainty. Philippe Myers, who is a clear number one defenseman at this level, may be on the team now, but it’s only a matter of time until he’s back with the Flyers. Due to the team being up against the salary cap ceiling the Flyers only have 20 healthy skaters on the roster, and once their three injured players are cleared to return, they’ll have the cap space needed to call up reinforcements from Lehigh Valley. Myers, Farabee, and even Frost could all feasibly be called up within the first few months of the season.
Still, returning players in Mikhail Vorobyev and Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who have been two of the team’s best 5-on-5 play drivers over the last two seasons, should be stabilizing forces, among others. And German Rubtsov, whose first professional season was cut short by a season-ending shoulder injury in just game fourteen, is an exciting playmaker who can almost be considered a new addition. He had a promising start to the season with 10 points, and had established himself as an all-situations player for the team early on. They’ll be looking for him to continue where he left off. With his shot, Greg Carey can always be relied on to score a good amount of goals, and T.J. Brennan is still one of the better power play quarterbacks in the league. The talent is certainly present.
Now, the goaltending situation is a bit hazy, but not in a bad way. Alex Lyon will be returning and will likely continue to act as the team’s starter, while rookie Felix Sandstrom will be entering his first full-season in North America. Sandstrom, who had a .910 save percentage in the Swedish Hockey League last season, was a third round draft selection of the Flyers in 2015. The Flyers also signed veteran netminder J.F. Berube, and 2017 third round draft pick Kirill Ustimenko. All four could see time with the Phantoms this season, but at least one of them, possibly two, won’t be with the team at the start of the season. Ustimenko may start the season in the ECHL with the Reading Royals.
Two seasons ago this team was a Calder Cup contender, falling short in the Conference Final to the eventual champions, the Toronto Marlies. That team won 47 regular season games en route to finishing first in the division, and this year’s team is even better, at least on paper. They’ll have to prove it once the puck drops, but the 2019-2020 Phantoms look to be an exciting, competitive club.
Providence Bruins (Boston)
Dan Ryan, Stanley Cup of Chowder
Last season: 38-27-8-3, 87 points, 4th place, lost in first round
Key losses: Jordan Szwarz, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Gemel Smith, Zane McIntyre, Karson Kuhlman (NHL), Anton Blidh (injury)
Key additions: Jack Studnicka, Pavel Shen, Jakub Lauko, Oskar Steen, Kyle Keyser
One player to watch: Jakub Lauko is a guy worth keeping an eye on. The 19-year-old Czech wing had an impressive camp with the NHL Bruins in September. If the team wasn’t already pretty solid and expecting to contend for a Cup, it wouldn’t have been a shock to see Lauko break camp with the NHL club.
He’s fast, has great hands, and seems to have a nose for scoring goals. He put up 3 points in Providence’s two preseason games, and he put up 60 points in 63 games in the QMJHL last season, leading the Memorial Cup in scoring and helping the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies take home the trophy.
Why people should care/tune in to your team:
The P-Bruins had a decent, if uneven, season last year, one that ended with the team flaming out against the eventual champions in the first round. They’re getting a lot of offensive firepower this year, and with several guys who arguably deserve an NHL look, they should be a fun team to watch.
The NHL Bruins are pretty stacked and are in “win now” mode, meaning a lot of players who might otherwise get a shot are instead playing in the minors. Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril could probably be bottom-pairing defensemen on a younger NHL team, while Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic, and even Lauko might get looks up front on a younger team.
Still, with all of this youth and energy comes inexperience, so it could be another up-and-down campaign. With longtime P-Bruin Zane McIntyre leaving for Vancouver, the P-Bruins will instead rely on a platoon of Dan Vladar, Maxime Lagace, and youngster Kyle Keyser, with one likely spending time with ECHL Atlanta.
The Bruins don’t have a ton of high-end defense prospects in the system, so that could be an area of weakness for them this season. However, they should have more than enough firepower up front to keep themselves in games where the defense is a little leaky.
Springfield Thunderbirds (Florida)
Todd Little, Litter Box Cats
Last season: 33-29-9-5, 80 points, 7th place, missed playoffs
Key losses: G Sam Montembeault (graduated), F Dryden Hunt (graduated), F Harry Zolniercyzk, D Jacob MacDonald, D Ludwig Bystrom,
Key additions: F Owen Tippett, F Aleksi Heponiemi, F Kevin Roy, F Rodrigo Abols, F Dominic Toninato, D Tommy Cross, D Ethan Prow, D Brady Keeper, G Philippe Desrosiers, G Ryan Bednard
One player to watch: Owen Tippett
The Thunderbirds have missed the playoffs three straight times since they took the place of the departed Falcons as Springfield’s AHL’s franchise. With a bevy of talented new forwards joining the club, that could change as soon as this season.
Springfield’s forward ranks now boast two of the Florida Panthers top prospects in Owen Tippett and diminutive Finn Aleksi Heponiemi. Many Panthers fans were disappointed to see Tippett, picked 10th overall in 2017, among the final three cuts from training camp after he scored three preseason goals. Tippett, who possesses a laser-like shot, broke the 30-goal barrier in each of his last three OHL seasons and should give the T-Birds offense a much-needed jolt. Don’t be surprised if he is called up, perhaps for good, if he gets off to a hot start in the AHL. Heponiemi might need a little more time to adjust to the North American game, but his future is bright after he piled up 46 points in 50 games in 2018-19 for Karpat in Finland’s Liiga.
Up front, the Thunderbirds also added former Anaheim Ducks prospect Kevin Roy, who has put up some nice offensive numbers for the San Diego Gulls; intriguing Latvian speedster Rodrigo Abols lit the lamp 18 times in Sweden last year; and former Colorado Avalanche prospect Dominic Toninato, who was a surprisingly late cut from training camp, to go along with the likes of rising 30-goal scorer Anthony Greco and grizzled veteran Paul Thompson.
Over the summer, the Panthers signed AHL vets Ethan Prow and Tommy Cross to help stabilize the back end after Jacob MacDonald and Ludwig Bystrom moved on. Riley Stillman, a fourth-rounder in 2016, is about ready to make the jump to the NHL, just missing out on a roster spot in Sunrise. Brady Keeper is another young blueliner with plenty of talent and NHL potential, but he needs more time and professional seasoning after leaving the University of Maine in the spring.
In net, Springfield has Chris Driedger, who led the AHL with a .924 save percentage, returning to be the clear cut number after prospect Sam Montembeault won the backup job in Florida behind Sergei Bobrovsky. Driedger will form what should be a very formidable battery with former Dallas Stars second-rounder Philippe Desrosiers and Bowling Green University standout Ryan Bednard, a seventh round pick in 2015 currently stationed at ECHL Greenville, who might have the goods to make it to the NHL one day.
A strong offseason has Springfield pointed in the right direction, and as with its parent club in South Florida, anything less than a playoff berth will be a disappointment.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh)
David Straub, Pensburgh
Last season: 36-30-7-3, 82 points, 6th place, missed playoffs for first time in 17 years
Key losses: D Ethan Prow, D Chris Summers, F Jimmy Hayes
Key additions: Head coach Mike Vellucci, G Dustin Tokarski, F Andrew Agozzino, D David Warsofsky, D Pierre-Olivier Joseph
One player to watch: D Pierre-Olivier Joseph, acquired by Pittsburgh in the Phil Kessel trade, makes his pro debut, as will prospects Jordy Bellerive and Kasper Bjorkqvist. There are plenty of holdovers from last year’s squad, though, and with a new, championship-caliber coach leading the team now, it’s worth keeping an eye on almost everyone to see how they develop under a new coach.
Why people should care/tune in to your team
WBS is a largely unchanged team from last season, with the few departures from last season replaced by capable alternatives, and with the league’s defending Calder Cup champion head coach, Mike Vellucci taking the helm for the departed Clark Donatelli. The clear upgrade in coaching should lead to improved development for everyone involved, possibly leading to one or more in-season graduations to Pittsburgh; look to the twin Sams, Miletic and Lafferty, and Adam Johnson as your likeliest callups.
WBS looks to also have a much more stable goaltending situation this year over last year, with defending Calder Cup champion goalie Dustin Tokarski signing with the AHL Penguins. Tokarski will be joined by prospect Emil Larmi to start the year, who looked excellent in his two preseason appearances, one of which was a shutout. Casey DeSmith also rejoins the WBS net after clearing waivers from Pittsburgh due to a cap crunch.
Look for the top affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins to rejoin the Calder Cup playoffs in the first year of their new 10-year lease to play in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.