J-F Berube.
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NHL Prospects

AHL WEEKEND: Net shortage

Friday nights in the AHL mean the start of a busy weekend. EP Rinkside has this look around the 31-team league to set you up for this weekend’s slate.


The NHL trade deadline sits 10 days away, and its impacts often extend to AHL rosters.

But one would understand if some of those NHL organizations also put a help-wanted sign out for experienced goaltending for their AHL affiliates. Strong goaltending has eluded many playoff contenders. While net struggles have not necessarily proven fatal for a team’s playoff chances to this point of the season, no AHL team with goaltending above the league-average .901 save percentage is out of contention.

Where exactly any goaltending solutions could come from is another issue entirely. Only four AHL teams (the Hartford Wolf Pack, Laval Rocket, Ontario Reign, and Stockton Heat) look to be out of contention at this point, and all of them have had significant goaltending struggles and/or are not in a position to move out a prospect anyway.

Naturally, all of this means that offense has increased around the AHL this season to a clip of 4.57 percent goals per game. At this point last season, AHL contests averaged 5.91 goals per game; going into play this weekend, AHL clubs are combining for 6.18 goals per game. Interestingly, shots per game have actually decreased one percent, going from 30.1 shots per game to 29.8 in that same span.

Even with Collin Delia looking settled with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Rockford IceHogs have had excellent performances from Anton Forsberg and Kevin Lankinen. Rockford’s team .918 save percentage leads the AHL. Right behind them are the San Jose Barracuda’s one-two punch of dynamic AHL rookie Josef Korenar and Antoine Bibeau, who clock in at .915 collectively. Eric Comrie’s excellent season has the Manitoba Moose at .912 and still in playoff contention despite ranking 29th in shots-against (33.8 per game).

Czech veteran Pavel Francouz has been strong for the Colorado Eagles after making the move from the KHL. Colorado has a .909 team save percentage. Spencer Martin stepped in while Francouz was injured recently and provided phenomenal goaltending for the Eagles. After that top-four come the Syracuse Crunch (.907). Despite an ever-changing goaltending cast, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms are tied with the Iowa Wild at .906. Five more teams (the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Bakersfield Condors, Milwaukee Admirals, Grand Rapids Griffins, and Rochester Americans) are above league-average goaltending while the San Antonio Rampage are exactly at .901.

Where the numbers really turn interesting are with clubs that have had performances below the league average. Workhorse Alex Nedeljkovic (.907) has held his own for the AHL-leading Charlotte Checkers, but they are at .898 as a team. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov own the net for the Hershey Bears, but Samsonov’s early-season adjustments put the Bears at .896. That ties them with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. At .895 are the Chicago Wolves, Providence Bruins, and San Diego Gulls, all legitimate Calder Cup contenders if they can maintain their current overall team play. Behind them are the Tucson Roadrunners (.894), Utica Comets (.892), and Texas Stars (.891). Even the Belleville Senators (.890), Binghamton Devils (.887), and Cleveland Monsters (.885) are hanging around as well in the playoff race.

Absolute necessity finally prompted the Vancouver Canucks to address their depleted goaltending depth chart. With Jacob Markström unable to play, Thatcher Demko injured, and no Comets goaltenders under NHL contract, the Canucks had to dip into the OHL and recall 19-year-old Michael DiPietro from the Ottawa 67’s to start against the San Jose Sharks earlier this week. One 7-2 loss later, the Canucks acquired Hartford Wolf Pack goaltender Marek Mazanec from the New York Rangers the following day. DiPietro later returned to the 67’s with Markström again ready to play.

Vancouver’s lack of organizational goaltending depth forced the Comets into a makeshift tandem of 22-year-old Ivan Kulbakov, who had eight AHL games to his name going into the season, and 37-year-old PTO Michael Leighton, whose 493 regular-season AHL games rank him eighth in AHL history among goaltenders. Kulbakov is playing on an AHL contract.

A season-ending injury to Richard Bachman, Demko’s recall to the Canucks, and the loss of would-be Comets netminder Mike McKenna on waivers in January left the Comets in a predicament. Kulbakov took on a heavy workload, but he clearly needed help as the Comets cycled through assorted options. So on January 15th, they turned to Leighton, who had not played at all this season other than a brief stint with Ontario that went poorly. He has again re-iterated that the AHL is not just a league for twenty-somethings, posting a 4-1-0 | 2.40 | .918 stat line for the Comets. Through it all, the Comets have managed to reach 60 points, tying them for fifth overall.

And then there are the Toronto Marlies, whose .881 save percentage ranks ahead of only Stockton (.877) in the 31-team AHL.

Mazanec’s trade marked a rare sort of move this season among AHL rosters, where goaltending moves have been at a minimum. After the training camp waiver-wire losses of Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney and an early injury to Kasimir Kaskisuo, reliable goaltending eluded the Toronto Marlies for more than two months. Finally they managed to land veteran Michael Hutchinson from Springfield in a December 29th trade. Earlier that month, they had shipped out Jeff Glass to San Diego after he had not proven to be a solution.

But even Hutchinson, a 28-year-old veteran of 111 regular-season games, has not been able to fully solve the Marlies’ difficulties in keeping pucks out of the net. He has gone 5-1-2 | 3.12 | .891 through eight games with the Marlies. Kaskisuo is 7-7-2 | 3.52 | .877 through 18 appearances. Toronto is 28th at 3.46 goals-against per game.

However, it is an extremely thin goaltending market for any team looking for the boost that better goaltending might provide.

NHL organizations need an experienced third goaltender on the organizational depth chart, someone who can be a first-recall option in net if an injury hits the NHL roster. With Hartford’s playoff chances having fizzled and goaltender Dustin Tokarski scheduled to be an unrestricted free-agent this summer, he could be an option for some other AHL club with playoff plans. But with Mazanec gone, losing Tokarski would leave the Rangers with either Brandon Halverson or Chris Nell as their next recall options. The NHL team’s needs come first, and that arrangement would not work for the Rangers.

In Cleveland, J-F Bérubé has not been up to past AHL form and is also slated for unrestricted free-agency this summer. However, Cleveland still is within striking distance of the North Division playoff line. More importantly, if the parent Columbus Blue Jackets move out goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, they may need Bérubé to take his spot on the NHL roster.

The clock is ticking.

AHL playoff races are starting to take shape with two months to go in the regular season. As a reminder, the top four teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions qualify for postseason play.

A strong first-half team, Springfield is falling quickly from Atlantic Division contention after a 3-6-1-0 slide. Hershey and Lehigh Valley have built a five-point spread on the T-birds.

In the North Division, seven points separate fourth and seventh place. With Cleveland visiting Belleville, a clean two-game sweep for the Senators would deliver a serious blow to Cleveland’s North Division playoff hopes. Thanks to a 10-game point streak (7-0-0-3), the Senators have built a three-point advantage on Cleveland, hold fifth place in the division, and have drawn to within three points of the fourth-place Marlies. The Monsters picked up a 5-2 victory earlier this week with Rochester. Belleville has three home dates in four days this weekend as the Rocket visit on Monday afternoon.

Three points separate five teams in the Central Division. Holding down fourth place is Rockford at 54 points. Also at 54 points are the Milwaukee Admirals. With 53 points is Texas, a team that has slumped badly in the past month, losing nine of 12 contests. One point behind the Stars is San Antonio at 52 points followed by 51-point Manitoba.

Bakersfield holds a one-point lead on San Jose the Pacific Division lead, but the Barracuda own three games in hand. Three points out of first place is San Diego. Tucson has a two-point advantage for fourth place.

Eastern Conference teams that have faded from contention are Hartford (nine points out) in the Atlantic Division and North Division club Laval (12 points out). In the Pacific Division, Ontario has long since been out of contention, and they are 18 points down. Joining them is Stockton, 11 points below the playoff line.

Providence has added 909 games of NHL regular-season experience to the line-up for the second of five consecutive 3-in-3 weekends. Forward Lee Stempniak signed a PTO with the P-Bruins. He has not played this season but is 203-266-469 in his NHL regular-season career. Injury issues last season held him to 37 games with the Carolina Hurricanes (3-6-9).

A home-and-home series with the Ontario is on tap for Bakersfield, who have won 13 consecutive games, the AHL season’s longest such streak. They visit Ontario on Friday night.

The annual February mammoth road trip continues for the Rampage, who face a 3-in-3 weekend. It finishes with a Sunday afternoon clash at Rockford. This year’s 10-game journey across three time zones has started 1-2-0-0 for the Rampage, who scratched out a 2-1 win at Milwaukee earlier this week. They head to Southern California next weekend to see Ontario and San Diego.

Laval’s season continues to crumble once again. Last overall in the AHL in 2017-18, Montreal Canadiens management undertook an extensive offseason overhaul with Laval at the management and coaching levels and nearly turning over the entire roster. Montreal brought in several proven AHL veterans, but recalls and a crush of injuries have undone much of those plans. Proven scoring forward Alexandre Grenier has been held to 14 points (8-6-14) in 48 games, and Charlie Lindgren has had enduring struggles in net. An 11-3-1-3 push helped Laval recover from a poor opening two months, but seven consecutive losses (0-6-1-0) have buried the team in last place in the Eastern Conference.

That Rocket line-up took several major losses in the past week. Captain Byron Froese and experienced blueliner went to Lehigh Valley in an NHL deal. Montreal lost forward Kenny Agostino, originally a key Laval offseason free-agent signing before sticking with the Canadiens, on waivers to the New Jersey Devils. Forward Hunter Shinkaruk is out of the line-up. Defensemen Noah Juulsen and Gustav Olofsson along with forward Antoine Waked already have been out for significant periods, and shoulder surgery ended forward Michael McCarron’s season.

Injuries have hit the Arizona Coyotes organization, and that includes Tucson. Defenseman Kyle Capobianco sustained a season-ending lower-body injury while on recall to Arizona. Despite having dress 17 skaters (one fewer than normal), the Roadrunners managed to scratch out a point this past Tuesday on the road against the Barracuda. That 2-1 shootout loss marked the midpoint of a six-game road trip that continues with back-to-back contests this weekend with Texas. Forwards Emil Pettersson and Jérémy Grégoire have made impacts quickly since arriving from Milwaukee in an NHL trade for forwards Adam Helewka and Laurent Dauphin on February 8th. Petterson has grabbed four assists, and Grégoire has chipped in a pair of goals.

Binghamton has made a substantial addition – literally. Binghamton signed New Jersey Devils 2017 fourth-round pick Nikita Popugaev to an AHL deal. The 20-year-old forward spent this season in the KHL with Amur Khabarovsk before going to Binghamton. He goes 6-foot-6, 217 pounds and picked up one goal in 37 KHL games, averaging 7:30 per game while with Khabarovsk.

Two key Philadelphia Flyers prospects have been sent to Lehigh Valley as they recover from long-term injuries. Forward Pascal Laberge (hip surgery) went to the Phantoms. Philadelphia also sent defenseman Samuel Morin (knee surgery) on an AHL conditioning assignment. Philadelphia drafted Laberge in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft, and he has missed all of his first pro season so far. Morin, 23, has battled a run of injuries recently and was injured in the Calder Cup Playoffs last May. He went to the Flyers 11th overall in 2013.

Philadelphia also sent NHL veteran netminder Brian Elliott to the Phantoms on a conditioning assignment. He is 6-7-0 | 2.59 | .911 in 14 games for the Flyers and had been on injured reserve since November 15th. Elliott would be the seventh goaltender to appear in a game for Lehigh Valley this season.

Hartford’s Brandon Halverson, a Rangers second-round choice in 2014, is getting another look in net at the AHL level. In the final season of his entry-level contract, the 22-year-old had struggled in the past at the AHL level, going 10-21-0 | 3.50 | .889 in 32 games. But he put together a 15-13-0 | 2.67 | .924 performance in 30 games for the ECHL’s Maine Mariners this season. He delivered a 43-save effort against the Marlies this past Wednesday night and has stopped 89 of 97 shots (.918) in making three consecutive starts for the Wolf Pack.

Grand Rapids and Syracuse each are tied for the AHL lead in empty-net goals at 12.

AHL fans can watch the Wolves-Moose game on Friday for free via Facebook Watch. Face-off is 7 p.m. ET. A 10-0-0-1 tear at Bell MTS Place has pushed the Moose into Central Division contention. Their latest effort in Winnipeg came this past Wednesday night in a 4-2 victory against the Wolves.

Friday – Toronto at Providence: These Marlies are trying to fend off Belleville and had a flat effort in a 3-2 loss at Hartford two nights earlier. The P-Bruins have been dominant at home, going 16-3-3-0 at Dunkin’ Donuts Center and shutting out Syracuse, 4-0, this past Sunday. Providence plays a 3-in-3 weekend on home ice.

Saturday – Lehigh Valley at Hershey: After sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference for much of the first half, the Bears’ 12-0-0-1 march has put them into a fourth-place tie at 57 points with the Phantoms in the Atlantic Division, something that was a seven-point gap a month ago.

Sunday – Milwaukee at Manitoba: Milwaukee takes six consecutive losses into the weekend and starts a seven-game road trip with a pair of games in Winnipeg.

San Diego lost forwards Max Jones (14-14-28) and Troy Terry (16-25-41) to the Anaheim Ducks but gained blueliner Korbinian Holzer and forward Adam Cracknell as changes continue in Orange County….Stockton forward Curtis Lazar (16-20-36) is off to the Calgary Flames on recall….Texas (Denis Gurianov) and Tucson (Michael Bunting) each have key forwards back for their two-game set at H-E-B Center this weekend….Utica’s blue line will be without Luke Schenn, who is off to the injury-ravaged Canucks….Belleville is without forward Darren Archibald and defenseman Cody Goloubef, who are on recall to the Ottawa Senators….Grand Rapids added forward Martin Frk, a key piece of the 2017 Calder Cup championship team, and defenseman Dennis Cholowski from the Detroit Red Wings….Through Thursday, 82 AHL players have made their NHL debuts this season.

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