AHL POWER RANKING: Zadina gets Griffins back on track
Starting this week and continuing each Wednesday, EP Rinkside will serve up a weekly AHL Top 10. This feature will focus on the leaders around the 31-team circuit with a look into their best prospects and their NHL-AHL player development picture.
1. CHARLOTTE CHECKERS (CAROLINA HURRICANES)
17-6-1-0 – 35 POINTS
This past weekend was a rare bump in the road for the Checkers, who have stormed their way through the AHL for much of the first two months of the regular season. First, Hurricanes forward Valentin Zykov was plucked from the waiver wire by the Edmonton Oilers. Last season with the Checkers, Zykov’s 33 goals led the AHL, and he could have been a major addition for the Checkers, who sit 15th in the AHL at 3.42 goals per game. A tough five-game road trip started with back-to-back losses to the Providence Bruins and Hartford Wolf Pack, the first time that they have lost two games in a row all season. But they bounced back Sunday afternoon in a return trip to Providence, bombarding the P-Bruins with 47 shots, erasing a 2-0 third-period deficit, and winning the game in overtime, 3-2. Goaltender Scott Darling was sent down by the Hurricanes to find his game and started two of the three games on the weekend, allowing two goals in each start. Captain Patrick Brown is up to six goals this season, one goal off his seven in 68 regular-season games in 2017-18. This week they visit Hartford again and finish the trip visiting the Springfield Thunderbirds before heading home for a six-game homestand.
2. SAN JOSE BARRACUDA (SAN JOSE SHARKS)
13-3-1-2 – 29 POINTS
Success starts from the net out with the Barracuda, who lead the AHL with a .763 point percentage. Their plus-25 goal differential through 19 games and 2.32 goals-against per game also top the league board. Czech rookie goaltender Josef Korenar continues his impressive introduction to the AHL. The undrafted 20-year-old, who played nine games last season with HC Dukla Jihlava on loan from the Sharks, is 8-1-1 | 2.18 | .922 and is pushing veteran Antoine Bibeau for work. Forward Francis Perron, an overlooked piece who went westward alongside Erik Karlsson in the trade with the Ottawa Senators, continues to impress. He is up to 9-11-20 in 19 games so far, putting him only six points off his AHL career high. The 2014 seventh-round pick by Ottawa came to San Jose for his crucial third pro season off a disappointing 4-11-15 performance last season for the Belleville Senators. If the Barracuda can put their power play on track (25th overall), that would be a further boost. Holding a six-game point streak (4-0-1-1), they start a difficult stretch of four of five games away from home Friday with a weekend home-and-home series against the Bakersfield Condors.
3. IOWA WILD (MINNESOTA WILD)
13-4-3-2 – 31 POINTS
Something is better than nothing, and Iowa has made sure it a habit to at least get something for the better part of the past month. The Wild have a nine-game point streak (5-0-2-2) and have not lost in regulation since November 10th. They grabbed three of four points on a difficult two-game visit to the Colorado Eagles this past weekend, no small feat. Kaapo Kähkönen has taken over the number-one job in net with veteran Andrew Hammond out, and he has run with the opportunity, opening eyes across the AHL. Kähkönen won the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month award for November thanks to a 5-0-3 | 1.21 | .960 line. Minnesota took him in the fourth round in the 2014 NHL Draft and stationed him for three Liiga seasons in Finland, most recently with Lukko Rauma. With Iowa, his 1.45 GAA and .950 save percentage lead the AHL, he put together a 222:22 shutout streak, and his three shutouts tie him for the league lead. In all he is 6-1-3 in 10 games this season after slowly being worked into the goaltending rotation at the start of the season.
4. SYRACUSE CRUNCH (TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING)
12-5-2-0 – 26 POINTS
The parallels to last season are eerie for the Crunch. Start slowly, explode in November, and put together a dominant stretch that digs themselves out of their early-season hole. In 2017-18, it was a 10-game win streak that overcame starting the season with four victories in their first 16 games. This season it has been a 10-0-2-0 run that has pushed the Crunch into the thick of contention – they are nine points behind Charlotte for the Eastern Conference lead, but they hold five games in hand. Much like the Wild did at Colorado, the Crunch were able to go make a difficult two-game trip profitable. They took three of four points in Cleveland against the Monsters thanks to strong work from Eddie Pasquale before he was recalled by the Lightning. Rookie forward Alex Barré-Boulet has a nine-game point streak (6-6-12), and is looking like every bit the find after being named the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year in 2017-18 for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (where he was also league most valuable player). As usual, veteran sniper Cory Conacher continues to pick apart the AHL. He has a 11-game point streak (9-15-24) and is second in AHL scoring at 27 points (10-17-27) in only 15 games. It has not been all good news for the Crunch, however. Key forward Michael Bournival’s run of bad medical luck continues, a story that has plagued him for much of his career. After finally getting into the Syracuse line-up, he was injured this past weekend and will be out “long-term,” according to Lindsay Kramer of Syracuse.com. The Crunch are able to stay home this weekend for a pair of game, starting Friday against the Binghamton Devils and continuing Saturday for a showdown against the North Division-leading Rochester Americans.
5. ROCHESTER AMERICANS (BUFFALO SABRES)
13-6-2-0 – 28 POINTS
A hot start has given way to some cooling as the weather has cooled in Western New York. Without a doubt, the loss of blueliner Lawrence Pilut on recall to the Sabres is a tough loss for a group that earlier lost experience in Taylor Fedun in a trade to the Dallas Stars organization. But a strong start in Buffalo (save for a recent stumble) could be good for the Amerks, who have frequently fallen victim to roster instability in recent seasons when the Sabres struggled. Veteran Zach Redmond continues to be a force on the Rochester blue line, and his 13 goals put him only two off the pace of league leader Brooks Macek of the Chicago Wolves. They get two home games this week before the trip into Syracuse. After that, they will have a nice stretch of five of their next six dates on home ice.
6. MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS (NASHVILLE PREDATORS)
14-7-3-0 – 28 POINTS
After a rare down year, the Admirals are back to their usual impressive form. The Nashville-Milwaukee connection has supplied some of the best AHL-developed talent over the past 15 years, and forward Eeli Tolvanen is the latest player to make that trip. The Predators recalled the 19-year-old, the 30th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. He has a modest 11 points (4-7-11) in his first 21 AHL games, but it is very much worth remembering that he is only 19 years old and brought only one season of pro experience (last season with Jokerit Helsinki of the Kontinental Hockey League) with him to Milwaukee. The Admirals, who have won five of their past six contests, face a challenging two-game set at the Texas Stars on Wednesday and Friday before moving on to San Antonio.
7. LEHIGH VALLEY PHANTOMS (PHILADELPHIA FLYERS)
13-6-1-1 – 28 POINTS
The big question, of course, is how the upheaval inside the Philadelphia boardroom could shake down to Lehigh Valley. New general manager Chuck Fletcher takes over for Ron Hextall, who assembled one of the best prospect groups in the NHL. On the ice, change could hit the Philadelphia roster should the struggles continue. At that point, the Flyers’ problems could well become the Phantoms’ headache, too. However, the Phantoms continued to go about their business last week on a three-game Canadian road tour. Amid the gloomy week in Philadelphia came some happy news from that trip thanks to rookie netminder Carter Hart. Heralded as the Flyers’ future number-one goaltender, the AHL has given the Western Hockey League star a rude introduction to the pro game. He had back-to-back weekends with rough starts against the Providence Bruins, but he put up a strong effort against the Laval Rocket this past Friday. After a night off in Belleville, he returned Sunday afternoon and held the Toronto Marlies to two goals on 35 shots. If the 20-year-old Hart can become the force in net, the Phantoms could be a force in the Eastern Conference. Certainly we already know that the Phantoms can put the puck in the net – their 4.10 goals per game lead the AHL while Phil Varone (28 points) and Greg Carey (26 points) sit first and third in league scoring, respectively. Their special-teams play has been excellent – Lehigh Valley is fifth on the power play and ranked third on the penalty kill. Cleveland visits Wednesday and Saturday with a stop-by from the Hershey Bears sandwiched in on Friday.
8. TUCSON ROADRUNNERS (ARIZONA COYOTES)
11-5-2-1 – 25 POINTS
After years of losing AHL affililiates, the Coyotes are seeing success again at the AHL level. Last season the Roadrunners advanced to the second round against Texas, the eventual Western Conference representative in the Calder Cup Final. This season they have continued that success with new head coach Jay Varady and the loss of several key roster pieces. The recall of forward Conor Garland, whose 19 points (8-11-19) lead the Roadrunners, is not ideal from a Tucson perspective, but he has become one of the real development success stories in the Arizona organization. A powerhouse scorer in the QMJHL for the Moncton Wildcats, Garland was an Arizona fifth-round pick in 2015 who had a slow start to his AHL career from an offensive production standpoint. The loss of Tucson’s 2017-18 excellent forward trio of Dylan Strome (traded to the Chicago Blackhawks), Lawson Crouse (since graduated to Arizona), and Nicholas Merkley (knee injury) opened up an opportunity for Garland that he has taken. The Pacific Division is rather intense, and the Roadrunners welcome the rival San Diego Gulls on Wednesday before receiving the Ontario Reign for back-to-back home games this weekend.
9. GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (DETROIT RED WINGS)
13-7-0-2 – 28 POINTS
It seemed only a matter of time before the Griffins would figure it out, and that wake-up call to the rest of the AHL has arrived. Detroit stocked up in the offseason AHL free-agent market, but the Griffins’ decidedly mediocre 2-5-0-0 started was not what anyone in the organization had in mind. However, a five-game win streak and a seven-game point streak (6-0-0-1) has erased much of that October damage. A strong base of veterans has picked up the scoring load. After suffering through the Red Wings’ early-season rocky start, Filip Hronek has benefited from additional time in Grand Rapids and has 4-10-14 in 16 games from the Grand Rapids blue line. Having just turned 19 years old, rookie forward Filip Zadina (7-8-15) is handling the move to the pro game from the QMJHL after the Red Wings took him sixth in the NHL Draft this past June. The Griffins need veteran Harri Säteri to return to form, though Czech free-agent addition Patrik Rybár has been a nice find for the Griffins. Starting Wednesday, they face a stretch of three of four games on the road
10. SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS (FLORIDA PANTHERS)
12-6-1-2 – 27 POINTS
The Panthers’ investment in experienced talent this past summer has paid off in Springfield. Long an organizational weakness, the Panthers have started to amass some intriguing talent at the AHL level and supplemented it with quality veterans. Florida’s AHL scene is not in the elite crowd yet, but there are definitely signs of life stirring. Forward Jayce Hawryluk, something of a disappointment in his first two pro seasons, is starting to justify the Panthers taking him in the second round in 2014. He has 5-17-22 in 21 games, leading the T-Birds scoring ranks. Rookie forward Henrik Borgström (4-14-18), the 23rd pick in the NHL Draft back in 2016, is handling the transition well. Even at 25 years old, forward Anthony Greco continues to hang around in the prospect picture for Florida after a 29-goal season in 2017-18. After a slow start, he piled up five goals in three games last week, including a hat trick against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers last Wednesday. Florida re-assigned goaltender Michael Hutchinson back to Springfield this week just in time for a tough three-in-three weekend that features a home date against Charlotte on Saturday.