Another eight-month journey begins this Friday for the American Hockey League, the NHL’s top developmental league.
A parade of first-round picks are on their way to the AHL to begin their pro careers as rookies. They will be taking a well-established path to the NHL — in any given season nearly 90 per cent of NHL players are AHL alumni.
Since the Charlotte Checkers took the Calder Cup on June 8th, another busy offseason has shuffled players, coaches, and management across the 31-team AHL.
To catch you up on a hectic summer and set up the AHL’s 84th season, here are key areas of interest:
CAN CHARLOTTE REPEAT?
The AHL has not had a repeat Calder Cup contender since the Hershey Bears took back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.
Last season’s Checkers (the Carolina Hurricanes affiliate) stormed through the regular season with 51 wins and 110 points. From there Charlotte cruised past the Providence Bruins and Hershey Bears, took out the Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Final, and then finished off the Chicago Wolves in a tidy five-game Calder Cup Final.
However, the summer hit the Checkers dramatically. It started with the departure of Mike Vellucci to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after he won the Louis A. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s top head coach. Stout back-up goaltender Dustin Tokarski later joined him with the AHL Penguins via free-agency.
Then free-agency hit. Calder Cup Playoff MVP Andrew Poturalski landed a deal with the Anaheim Ducks. Tomas Jurco, an excellent late-season addition, earned a new contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Captain Patrick Brown and forward Nicolas Roy went to the Wolves in separate moves. Forward Martin Necas has earned a season-opening roster spot with the parent Carolina Hurricanes. Sniper Aleksi Saarela shipped out to the Chicago Blackhawks in a trade, though it did yield new goaltender Anton Forsberg. Reliable defencemen Dan Renouf (Colorado Eagles) and Josiah Didier (Providence) also signed elsewhere. Standout veteran Trevor Carrick went to the San Jose Sharks organization.
New head coach Ryan Warsofsky will be asked to manage that offseason change but the praise that he earned from Vellucci for his work as a Charlotte assistant coach last season is reason for optimism for Canes and Checkers fans.
FIRST-ROUND FACES AND MORE
AHL rosters have a heavy first-round shine to them this season.
Defensively, Adam Boqvist will be with the Rockford IceHogs at age 19 after the Chicago Blackhawks took him eighth overall in the 2018 NHL Draft. Moritz Seider, chosen by the Detroit Red Wings sixth in this past June’s NHL Draft, is off to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Along with New York Rangers standout prospect Vitali Kravtsov up-front with the Hartford Wolf Pack, there is Morgan Frost with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers) after back-to-back 100-point OHL seasons. Ryan Poehling will play for the Laval Rocket (Montreal Canadiens), Owen Tippett is with the Springfield Thunderbirds (Florida Panthers), and the Los Angeles Kings will start Rasmus Kupari with the Ontario Reign at age 19.
The new talent extends far beyond first-round pedigrees as well. Chase Priskie, a late-blooming NCAA talent who was a Hobey Baker Award finalist at Quinnipiac, is a new face on the Charlotte blue line while 2016 Columbus Blue Jackets second-rounder Andrew Peeke of Notre Dame will go to the Cleveland Monsters. Joseph Duszak, a Hobey Baker Award finalist with Mercyhurst, will develop in the Marlies system. Jérémy Davies starts with the Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators) after being a Hobey Baker Award nominee for Northeastern.
Forward Jason Robertson is with Texas after his 117 points in 62 regular-season games between the Kingston Frontenacs and Niagara IceDogs led the CHL last season. And there are still two more Hobey Baker Award finalists with Patrick Newell (St. Cloud State) off to Hartford and New York Islanders prospect Mason Jobst (Ohio State) is bound for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
NEW HEAD COACHES
Vellucci and Warsofsky are not the only head-coaching changes going into this season.
In Cleveland, Mike Eaves will return to the AHL after a 26-year absence. The long-time University of Wisconsin head coach last worked in the AHL in 1993 with Hershey. Scott Gordon will return to his post with Lehigh Valley after his interim stint in Philadelphia to finish last season. Kris Knoblauch takes over with the Hartford.
Out in San Diego, Dallas Eakins earned a promotion to parent Anaheim. Replacing him with the Gulls be another figure with previous NHL head-coaching experience. Kevin Dineen takes over for Eakins with the Gulls, who went to the Western Conference Final this past spring.
One coaching constant remains – Roy Sommer is back for his 22nd season as the San Jose organization’s AHL head coach.
Still-young prospects sometimes need a new opportunity, and a few of them are getting that chance.
Eric Comrie, who had been stuck on the Winnipeg Jets depth chart and was slated for his fifth season with the Manitoba Moose, was claimed by the Arizona Coyotes on waivers on Tuesday. His excellent play with the Moose nearly carried them to a playoff spot after the team’s poor start. He went 25-20-2 | 2.69 | .917 in 47 games with Manitoba.
Saarela is another player in need of a fresh start, though he remains in the AHL. The 22-year-old owns one of the AHL’s most potent shots, and his 30 goals led Charlotte in the regular season.
Several AHL’ers have parlayed strong performance into NHL jobs.
The list starts with AHL MVP Daniel Carr, who piled up 71 points (30 goals, 41 assists) in 52 regular-season games for the Wolves. That effort only yielded a brief stint with the Vegas Golden Knights, so Carr departed for Nashville via free-agency on a one-way deal and secured an opening-night roster spot with the Predators.
Teammate Cody Glass will start with the Golden Knights after his excellent playoff run with the Wolves. Chosen sixth in the 2017 NHL Draft, Glass took on a prominent role in a deep Wolves line-up and had a strong finish to a campaign that had been interrupted by a midseason injury.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have a long history of rewarding performance with the Syracuse Crunch, and Carter Verhaeghe is the latest example. His 34 goals tied teammate Alex Barré-Boulet for the AHL regular-season lead, and he will start the season with Tampa Bay.
Texas forward Denis Gurianov, a healthy scratch at different points in the team’s charge to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, has revived his standing inside the Dallas organization and earned an opening-night NHL job. Defenceman Tucker Poolman will start with the heavily revamped Winnipeg defence corps after spending last season with Manitoba.
In a league full of change, few things are as dependable as AHL playoff hockey in Toronto late into the spring.
The Marlies’ trip to the Eastern Conference Final this past May was their fifth such appearance in eight seasons. After winning the Calder Cup in 2018, they pushed Charlotte to six games and gave the Checkers their biggest scare of the postseason.
And once again, the Marlies are shaping up as the successful blend of youth and experience that has sent a parade of players on to the parent Toronto Maple Leafs since head coach Sheldon Keefe arrived in 2015.
Toronto signed playmaking forward Kenny Agostino, who spent much of last season with the New Jersey Devils and won the Les Cunningham Award as AHL MVP in 2016-17. Agostino joins a group featuring Darren Archibald, Pontus Aberg, Tyler Gaudet, Nic Petan, Garrett Wilson, and long-time NHL forward Matt Read that will form a deep base for strong young prospects in Jeremy Bracco, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall, and Yegor Korshkov.
Next up are the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the league's 21st best prospect pool.@MitchLBrown has a comprehensive breakdown of their 15 best prospects, with a scouting report on each.
— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) July 26, 2019
The blue line sustained several losses, starting with prospects Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. A significant loss in defenceman Calle Rosen to the Colorado organization is another challenge to overcome as well, but Kevin Gravel (Edmonton) and Jordan Schmaltz (San Antonio Rampage) constitute NHL recall options for the Leafs.
A FULL MAKEOVER IN HARTFORD
The New York Rangers’ offseason work carried far beyond the NHL roster.
Rangers management is desperate to rebuild the organization’s player-development system. Hartford has missed the postseason in six of the past seven seasons and finished last in the Atlantic Division in 2018-19. But Knoblauch will have much more with which to work this season.
Start with an influx of elite prospects in goaltender Igor Shesterkin (St. Petersburg) and Kravtsov (Chelyabinsk) from the KHL. Forward Filip Chytil is also back in Hartford after spending 2017-18 with the Wolf Pack as an 18-year-old. The Rangers also brought in blueline experience from the Marlies with Vincent LoVerde, a two-time Calder Cup champion. Young blueliner Ryan Lindgren is back for further AHL development. Danny O’Regan adds further forward strength.
The Rangers have struggled badly to generate much from Hartford in recent seasons. That could begin to change this season.
THE GRAND RAPIDS ASSEMBLY LINE
The road to Detroit runs through Grand Rapids, as far as the Red Wings are concerned.
That had been a hallmark for Detroit for years, and it will continue with Steve Yzerman. He implemented that strong emphasis on AHL-based development to considerable success while with Tampa Bay.
But this season is taking that trend to a new level.
The Griffins will have five Detroit first-rounders in their line-up, including Seider.
From the 2018 NHL Draft class are forwards Filip Zadina (taken sixth) and Joe Veleno (30th overall). Then there is forward Michael Rasmussen, the ninth overall pick from the 2017 NHL Draft. Rounding out the group is the 19th pick from the 2015 NHL Draft, forward Evgeny Svechnikov. He won the Calder Cup with the Griffins in 2017 but missed last season with a knee injury.
NHL FACES IN AHL PLACES
Familiar NHL names find themselves in the AHL, be it for salary-cap considerations or performance.
OFF THE ICE
AHL president and chief executive officer Dave Andrews will present the Calder Cup one more time next June.
[Read more: 1-on-1 With AHL CEO & President Dave Andrews]
Andrews will complete his 26th and final AHL season leading the AHL. In that time he has taken the AHL from a 16-team loop based in the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada to a 31-team league stretching from Quebec to Southern California. Each NHL team now has its own sole AHL affiliate, and NHL organizations have poured resources – financial and otherwise – into their AHL operations. Earlier this week the AHL welcomed its 32nd team with the addition of Palm Springs as the new top affiliate for Seattle.
The process of creating a search committee to identify potential candidates to replace Andrews next summer will now move into full swing. An opportunity to run the NHL’s top developmental league is a rare opportunity, and it is expected that there will be an abundance of interested candidates.