WILLIAMS: Trades aplenty in the AHL as stretch run approaches
Did the NHL trade deadline come two months early in the AHL this season?
No, but it feels that way as general managers across the NHL and AHL have wasted little time in jumping into action after the holiday roster freeze.
Chalk it up to a mix of a thin market for goaltenders who can walk the line between NHL recall option and AHL starter, injuries, and teams itching to shake up their rosters as the AHL season nears its midpoint.
THREE DAYS, THREE TEAMS
Somehow it seems fitting to see the Philadelphia Flyers and Mike McKenna in the same transaction line.
The Flyers have already ready rolled through six goaltenders as their season continues to melt down, and McKenna has been on the move throughout his career.
But even by McKenna’s standards, this has been an especially hectic start to 2019, and it took another turn on Friday when the Flyers claimed him on waivers from the Vancouver Canucks. For the 35-year-old McKenna, it is the latest in a wild week that has taken him through three NHL organizations since the calendar rolled over to a new year.
His time with the Canucks lasted all of two games as a back-up to Jacob Markstrom. Vancouver had acquired him from the Ottawa Senators along with forward Tom Pyatt on Wednesday in a multi-player trade that brought goaltender Anders Nilsson to Ottawa and also landed Utica Comets forward Darren Archibald with the Belleville Senators. In a scheduling quirk, the trade happened hours before the Canucks and Senators met at Canadian Tire Centre. That meant McKenna and Nilsson each walked down the hallway, met their new teammates, and spent the night on the bench in back-up roles.
The Canucks’ apparent plan behind the move – move out Nilsson’s $2.5 million cap hit, create a spot in Vancouver for Comets netminder Thatcher Demko, and put McKenna in Utica – certainly made sense. With Comets goaltender Richard Bachman out, McKenna would have given the Comets a reliable number-one option as they try to make a second-half push.
But the NHL waiver wire and the Flyers put a halt to that plan. Star prospect Carter Hart has had an uneven start to his NHL career since his promotion to the Flyers, and goaltending health in Philadelphia always seems tenuous at best.
McKenna has played in the AHL for 12 different NHL organizations (including two stints in the Ottawa and Tampa Bay Lightning organizations) since turning pro in 2005-06. After helping to lead the Texas Stars to Game 7 of the Calder Cup final this past June, he secured a one-year contract with Ottawa. The plan there was to station him in Belleville, where he could mentor key prospect Filip Gustavsson.
However, McKenna’s time in Belleville lasted all of six games. Ottawa back-up Mike Condon struggled and was sent to Belleville, prompting McKenna’s recall to the NHL club. Condon played one game for Belleville before heading to the injury list. McKenna ended up staying nearly two months in Ottawa, playing 10 games (his most in the NHL since 2008-09 with Tampa Bay) and going 1-4-1 | 3.96 | .897.
OK. I know this has been a wild week. And I'm going to look like a Munson for the foreseeable future with mismatched equipment. But remember, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. ?
— Mike McKenna (@MikeMcKenna56) January 4, 2019
Elsewhere in the organization, Marcus Högberg started the season with their ECHL affiliate, the Brampton Beast, earned a recall to the AHL on November 28, logged a month in Belleville, and then departed for Ottawa on December 27. Ottawa incumbent Craig Anderson is also out of the line-up, so Högberg has started Ottawa’s past three games.
With Ottawa (15-21-5) and Philadelphia (15-20-5) each parked at the bottom of the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings with unsettled goaltending situations, only time will tell where everything settles.
But Vancouver did enact what was left of the plan by recalling Demko on Friday. The top prospect can now compete with Markstrom, whose contract expires after the 2019-20 season, as he tries to make the full-time jump after two-plus seasons in the AHL. The 23-year-old has put together an 8-5-1 | 2.55 | .911 line over 16 games with the Comets. A 2014 second-round pick, expect to see him receive every opportunity in Vancouver. The 20-20-4 Canucks sit one point out of a wild-card spot going into their Saturday-night visit to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
— Mike McKenna (@MikeMcKenna56) January 4, 2019
As for the Comets, well, their goaltending tandem shrunk to one after Demko’s recall. Ivan Kulbakov, a 22-year-old Belarussian, will handle the workload, at least for now. He has gone 5-6-2 | 3.98 | .880 through 13 games for the Comets, though he is coming off allowing eight goals in his most recent outing on December 28.
With Kulbakov on an AHL contract, that leaves the Canucks down to two healthy NHL-contracted goaltenders at the pro level, Markstrom and Demko.
Plug one leak, and another one (or two) springs.
That has been a common theme this season for Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. The organization lost two AHL-bound goaltenders to the waiver wire on the same day in training camp when Calvin Pickard went to the Flyers and Carolina grabbed Curtis McElhinney. After a productive offseason retooling the defending Calder Cup champion’s roster, Keefe suddenly had a massive hole in net.
AHL veteran Jeff Glass signed with the Marlies. But early-season struggles, he fell out of the goaltending rotation and eventually was shipped to the San Diego Gulls in December. Kasimir Kaskisuo could have been a number-one option for the Marlies, but he went down to an injury on the second weekend of the season, missed a month, and has yet to regain the form that he showed last season while on loan to the Chicago Wolves. Through 11 games, he is carrying a 3-5-0 | 4.12 | .866 stat line. Eamon McAdam began the season in the ECHL with their affiliate, the Newfoundland Growlers, but he went to Toronto to replace Kaskisuo. The 24-year-old Penn State product had limited AHL experience over three seasons with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers before an offseason trade to the Toronto organization. He has taken the team lead for the Marlies with 15 games, but he is 7-4-1 | 2.99 | .891.
Marlies management has always been aggressive about remedying problems, but the AHL goaltending market has been thin this season.
So, veteran netminder Michael Hutchinson looked to be the long-awaited answer for the Marlies when the Leafs acquired him from the Florida Panthers this past weekend. While the 28-year-old had struggled with the Springfield Thunderbirds, he is a proven AHL number-one goaltender with NHL experience on top of it. Last season with the Manitoba Moose, he fashioned a 17-5-1 | 2.08 | .935 AHL season.
Hutchinson made his Marlies debut this past Monday, stopping 27 of 31 shots from the powerhouse Charlotte Checkers at Coca-Cola Coliseum.
Then the plan came undone. With Frederik Andersen already ailing, Garret Sparks took a shot to his mask in practice and was put in concussion protocol. That necessitated recalling both Hutchinson and Kaskisuo for the Leafs’ Thursday matinee against the Minnesota Wild. Hutchinson ended up taking the start in a 4-3 loss.
Andersen ended up practicing on Friday morning, and Kaskisuo was sent to the Marlies. At least for now.
The Marlies sit at 15-13-3-2, putting them fifth in the North Division and four points out of a playoff spot (albeit with three games in hand). They go into a grinding three-in-three weekend that starts Friday night on the road against the Binghamton Devils before continuing Saturday night on the road against the Syracuse Crunch followed by a return visit from the Checkers at home Sunday afternoon.
The goaltending problems continue out west as well.
With the San Antonio Rampage trying to stay in the Central Division race, they needed help in net with Ville Husso injured. The Rampage take a 16-17-1-0 mark on the road this weekend for a pair of games against the Chicago Wolves. San Antonio has rallied from a 3-12-0-0 start to move to within seven points of the fourth-place Milwaukee Admirals in the division.
So, the parent St. Louis Blues put in a call and procured veteran San Diego goaltender Jared Coreau from the Anaheim Ducks for future considerations. The 27-year-old Coreau, who won the Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2017, went 3-6-3 | 3.57 | .895 in a 13-game stint in San Diego. Kevin Boyle has taken on more playing time in San Diego, making Coreau expendable.
Rookie Evan Fitzpatrick is in St. Louis to back up Jake Allen. But Fitzpatrick is 20 years old and has spent most of this season in the ECHL with the Tulsa Oilers. Husso has yet to find his past form and is 5-13-0 | 3.33 | .885 in 20 games for the Rampage. Jordan Binnington has excelled for the Rampage and help carry them to within striking distance of a playoff spot, but he could be a recall option for the Blues after spending three weeks in the NHL before going back to San Antonio this past Sunday.
San Antonio sent AHL-ECHL bubble forward Jared Thomas to the Gulls for future considerations as part of a separate AHL deal.
QUICK TO STRIKE
Much like the Marlies, the Wolves are never reluctant to act.
With forward Brandon Pirri, the AHL’s leading scorer, is on recall to the Vegas Golden Knights and showing no sign of slowing his torrid scoring pace in the NHL. He has piled up 7-2-9 in six NHL contests. All of that has come after he tore apart the AHL with 17-24-41 for the Wolves.
The Wolves acquired Manitoba Moose power forward Tye McGinn, something that could offer the 28-year-old a career jolt. He is 2-4-6 in 26 games this season, but he does bring a pair of 20-goal AHL seasons to his name. When surrounded by high-end offensive talent, something that the Wolves possess in abundance, he can find the net. He put up 10 goals in 21 regular-season games for Syracuse in 2016-17 before going on a 5-11-16 run in 22 playoff games in the team’s run to the Calder Cup final.
The move cost the Wolves veteran defenseman Jimmy Oligny, who went to Manitoba in a separate deal between the Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets. He is a reliable 25-year-old in his fifth AHL season and had an assist in 16 games for the Wolves. He earned his first NHL contract this past summer, signing with the Golden Knights after four seasons in Milwaukee.
A familiar face is back to help guide a deep group of Carolina prospects through the second half of the AHL regular season and what could be a long playoff run.
AHL-leading Charlotte filled a blue-line hole after Michal Cajkovsky took a KHL deal with Dynamo Moscow by signing veteran Bobby Sanguinetti to an AHL contract. The 30-year-old headed to the Checkers fresh off a four-game spin at the Spengler Cup with HC Davos. Last season in Switzerland, he went 11-18-29 in 46 regular-season games for HC Lugano before a run to the NLA final.
A 2006 first-round selection by the New York Rangers, his NHL career stalled at 45 regular-season games. But he is a familiar face with the Carolina organization, having spent three seasons there and playing 40 regular-season games for the Hurricanes along with time in Charlotte. He has played 378 AHL regular-season games.
Fiore, 22, is in his second pro season and 6-5-11 in 25 AHL games. Last season he put up 18 goals as an AHL rookie and made his NHL debut with Anaheim. Murphy is a 23-year-old with an offensive touch. He came to Arizona for Tucson’s stretch drive and playoff run last season and ended up dressing for eight games with the Coyotes as well. He is 6-9-15 in 30 AHL games this season.