AHL POWER RANKINGS: Checkers conquer regular season, playoffs next
For the final time in the regular season, EP Rinkside serves up the weekly AHL Power Rankings, a look at the top Calder Cup contenders across the 31-team circuit and their player development picture.
All 16 invitations to the Calder Cup Playoffs have now been claimed. The Charlotte Checkers will start out as a strong favorite to win their NHL organization’s first Calder Cup since 1991. One day after the regular season ended, and there has already been one head-coaching change. Up next will be eight intriguing playoff match-ups in the AHL’s always-dicey best-of-five first-round format.
AHL TOP 10
1. CHARLOTTE CHECKERS (CAROLINA HURRICANES)
The Checkers did not glide into the Calder Cup Playoffs, winning five of their final six games and outscoring their opposition, 25-12. They took a two-game sweep from the desperate Cleveland Monsters. Back-up Dustin Tokarski has been a masterful addition after a late-season move from the Hartford Wolf Pack. He went 7-0-0 | 1.14 | .956 in seven games and has allowed head coach Mike Vellucci to keep Alex Nedeljkovic fresh. With 110 points, the Checkers finished two points shy of the Carolina/Hartford Whalers organization’s record. That 112-point mark was established by the 1984-85 Binghamton Whalers, though that team played an 80-game schedule. Charlotte also had 51 wins, one short of the franchise AHL record that the Whalers set that same year. Defenseman Jake Bean remains on recall with Carolina, and that is a difficult loss for the Charlotte blue line. They have to start on the road against the Providence Bruins. That will not be an easy test in a best-of-five series, but this Checkers team enters the Calder Cup Playoffs as the clear-cut favorite.
Last Week: #1 – 19th week in a row
2. SYRACUSE CRUNCH (TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING)
What an interesting week it has been in the Tampa Bay organization. With the Lightning on the shocking brink of elimination in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Meanwhile in Syracuse, the Crunch finally fended off the rival Rochester Americans and put up their second consecutive 100-point season. Depending on how the Lightning’s week unfolds, the Crunch could benefit from that messy situation. Defensemen Jan Rutta and Cameron Gaunce would be freed to rejoin Syracuse. They face the Cleveland Monsters in the AHL version of this Columbus-Tampa Bay organizational match-up. Cleveland is by no means an easy match-up, but Syracuse’s exceptional special-teams play is a major asset going into the postseason. The Crunch are a bona fide Calder Cup contender.
Last Week: #2 – (▲+1)
3. CHICAGO WOLVES (VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS)
Because the AHL has an uneven schedule among its teams, point percentage is utilized to determine the Western Conference regular-season champion. That means that the Bakersfield Condors (.654) would have home-ice advantage on the Wolves if the teams meet in the Western Conference final even though the Wolves outpaced Bakersfield by nine points. While the losses of Daniel Carr and Brooks Macek continue to leave a massive hole in the line-up, 2017 sixth overall pick Cody Glass has arrived from the WHL to add another offensive option for head coach Rocky Thompson. This is a team with a potent blue line, a dangerous group of forwards, strong special-teams play, and goaltending that has gelled well throughout the season. They will oppose the Grand Rapids Griffins, who nearly blew a playoff spot because of a late-season crash.
Last Week: #2 – (▼-1)
4. ROCHESTER AMERICANS (BUFFALO SABRES)
Shutting down the Amerks will be a difficult test for the Toronto Marlies. Rochester possesses deep, balanced scoring and had six players with 20 or more goals. Victor Olofsson had an excellent season in hitting 30 goals in 66 games; this postseason should be his farewell to the AHL. C.J. Smith finished with 28 goals, Taylor Leier chipped in 22 goals, Wayne Simpson and defenseman Zach Redmond finished at 21 goals, and Danny O’Regan reached 20 tallies. Scott Wedgewood is capable of providing strong playoff goaltending, and heralded Sabres goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is now on the Rochester roster. While the Amerks were the AHL’s top road team, they had a lot of trouble on home ice, and that is a problem that will needed to be corrected to have a lengthy playoff run. Dangerous on the power play and capable on the penalty kill, the Amerks are a well-rounded team.
Last Week: #4 – 2nd week in a row
6. BRIDGEPORT SOUND TIGERS (NY ISLANDERS)
Bridgeport was well-tested by a difficult eight-game homestand in the final month of the season. The parent Islanders look like they will be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for an extended period; the Sound Tigers do not have forwards Tanner Fritz (injured) and Michael Dal Colle (on NHL recall). Their rather pedestrian special-teams play, including a 24th-ranked power play, was something that they were able to overcome in the regular season, but they need it to improve in the spring. However, Bridgeport’s Christopher Gibson–Jeremy Smith goaltending tandem offers head coach Brent Thompson plenty of flexibility in case one struggles. Bridgeport is a well-structured and very hard-working team that should be well-suited for a playoff grind. The Hershey Bears gave Bridgeport a difficult season series. That included taking two wins on Bridgeport ice, where the Sound Tigers only lost 12 times all season. Islanders 2018 first-rounder Oliver Wahlstrom has fit well into the Bridgeport line-up.
Last Week: #5 – 2nd week in a row
6. HERSHEY BEARS (WASHINGTON CAPITALS)
How good was Hershey’s second-half surge? Last place in the Atlantic Division at the halfway point of their season, they went 27-5-4-2 in their final 38 games. That would project to a 120-point pace over a full 76-game regular season (the AHL record for a 76-game schedule is 114 points by the 2015-16 Marlies. In 1972-73, the Cincinnati Swords had 113 points on a 76-game schedule in the pre-OTL/SOL era). Hershey came close to improving on a remarkable second-half turnaround even further by nearly grabbing home ice from the Sound Tigers only to fall one point short. Mike Sgarbossa and Riley Barber made Hershey the only team other than Syracuse to have two players with 30 or more goals. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have found their goaltending groove, though Vanecek remains on recall to the Capitals. Like the Sound Tigers, Hershey had a lot of home-ice success. Giant Center is one of the toughest buildings in the AHL for visiting teams.
Last Week: #6 – 2nd week in a row
7. BAKERSFIELD CONDORS (EDMONTON OILERS)
Not only did the Condors take the Pacific Division title, they also avoided a potential first-round headache in the San Diego Gulls. That will make San Diego a problem for the San Jose Barracuda to solve, at least for now. Instead the Condors will see the Colorado Eagles, a team that had to fend off the Tucson Roadrunners to earn a first-round date against Bakersfield. The Condors start the series with two games in Colorado, a potentially tricky situation in a best-of-five series. With upheaval on the horizon in Edmonton and an abundance of question marks there this summer, the postseason is a critical opportunity for several Condors prospects. Bakersfield pulled out of a minor late-season skid and finished the final week of the regular season with three consecutive wins. They have a strong line-up back from Edmonton and are in no danger of player recalls. Escaping the Pacific Division is looking like it will be a difficult path, so avoiding a drawn-out battle with the Eagles would be helpful.
Last Week: #7 – 2nd week in a row
8. SAN JOSE BARRACUDA (SAN JOSE SHARKS)
An excellent first half had the Barracuda’s in the AHL’s highest echelons, but they could only manage a 17-14-2-1 second half. They struggled with Bakersfield in the second half, but a 7-2-0-0 finish put the Barracuda in a battle with the Condors for the Pacific Division title until the second-to-last day of the regular season. Their struggles with Bakersfield contributed in part to the Barracuda landing a tough first-round match-up with San Diego. San Jose had a 3-2-0-0 record against San Diego in five second-half meetings, but the Gulls have reloaded for the postseason. Still, the San Jose penalty kill is capable of standing up to what could be a potent San Diego power play. If the Sharks exit the postseason early, that would also return Josef Korenar to the Barracuda goaltending picture. For now, Antoine Bibeau is a capable solution for head coach Roy Sommer. The Barracuda also have well-balanced scoring; this is a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Veteran T.J. Hensick’s addition in February gave the Barracuda a point-per-game set-up man and some veteran experience.
Last Week: #9 (▲+1)
9. PROVIDENCE BRUINS (BOSTON BRUINS)
Somebody has to face Charlotte in the first round, and Providence drew that assignment. But the P-Bruins are not a pushover by any means. Goaltender Zane McIntyre struggled in the final two weeks of the season, but he had a three-month revival for Providence before that following a poor start to his season. One issue could be Boston needing to reach into the Providence line-up to add players, especially if a physical first-round series leaves them bruised. Providence needs veteran forward Paul Carey back from Boston before they face the Checkers, but they have until Saturday. Carey gives a Providence an elite sniper on par with anyone that the Checkers can offer. With the first two games of the series in Providence, the P-Bruins cannot afford an early stumble. Charlotte only lost three or more home games in a row once this season. Providence’s third-ranked penalty kill is a potential source of frustration for the Checkers.
Last Week: #10 (▲+1)
10. TORONTO MARLIES (TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS)
The Marlies had plenty of say in the conclusion to the North Division playoff race. They won on the road against the Belleville Senators and then dropped their season finale to the Cleveland Monsters, which helped in part for Cleveland to take fourth place. Now the Marlies must face Rochester without goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who is with the Leafs. They have a fourth-ranked power play, something that they may need if the series turns offensive. Toronto had 11 double-digit scorers come through town this season, but only eight remain on their roster. Defenseman Calle Rosen is also on recall to the Leafs. This has not been the typically dominant Marlies of recent seasons, but this is a risky first-round opponent for Rochester. In some ways, this might be head coach Sheldon Keefe’s best season behind the Toronto bench, even without the gaudy point totals of the past.
Last Week: #8 – (▼-2)
11. SAN DIEGO GULLS (ANAHEIM DUCKS)
The hoped-for haul from Anaheim is not quite as bountiful for the Gulls, but it still ranks among the best of any NHL organization going into the AHL postseason. Injuries to forward Troy Terry and Brendan Guhle blunted some of the impact of that talent infusion from Anaheim, but San Diego can still roll four lines that rank among the best in the AHL. Kevin Boyle had a breakthrough season in net for San Diego, and Sam Carrick sparkled with a team-leading 32 goals and 61 points. The Gulls are one of the few remaining AHL teams out there still capable of being well-suited for a knock-down-drag-out playoff series. But they need to better utilize the spirited home environment that San Diego fans provide them. They took their season series with San Jose and are an extremely dangerous Pacific Division third-seed.
Last Week: #14 (▲+3)
12. MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS (NASHVILLE PREDATORS)
Milwaukee’s explosive 11-2-0-1 finish took the Admirals from the fringes of the Central Division race into first-round home-ice advantage against the Iowa Wild. They have a stingy penalty kill that will make for a clash of strengths against the Iowa power play. Goaltender Troy Grosenick, excellent all season, had to leave their game this past Saturday night and did not play in their season finale. But the Admirals do have Tom McCollum, a reliable veteran. Nashville 2017 first-round pick Eeli Tolvanen has heated up recently, and that gives Milwaukee another useful weapon.
Last Week: #12 – 2nd week in a row
13. IOWA WILD (MINNESOTA WILD)
Finally Iowa managed to stop an eight-game losing streak, but it took the arrivals of top-flight forwards Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway, and Luke Kunin from Minnesota to halt it. Iowa ripped off three victories in a row to conclude the schedule and put a Minnesota affiliate into the AHL postseason for the first time since 2013. They already had a deadly power play (second-best in the AHL) before the Minnesota trio arrived in town last week. Goaltender Andrew Hammond had a strong final week of the regular season.
Last Week: #18 (▲+5)
14. CLEVELAND MONSTERS (COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS)
Despite a difficult final week that featured back-to-back games against the Checkers, Cleveland completed a solid late-season push. Forward Zac Dalpe carried Cleveland down the stretch, rolling up 18 goals in his final 22 games. However, Columbus recalled him on Monday. Defenseman Adam Clendening is always still with the Blue Jackets. Cleveland needs both players back as soon as possible. Forwards Sonny Milano and Alex Broadhurst returned from long-term injuries this past week, but captain Nathan Gerbe and goaltender Jean-Francois Bérubé are still injured. Veteran goaltender Brad Thiessen has had a strong down-the-stretch performance as Cleveland’s new number-one goaltender.
Last Week: #15 (▲+1)
15. GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (DETROIT RED WINGS)
There is nothing like a nine-game losing streak to send a team into the postseason. But that is the Griffins’ story, and they had an extremely poor finish to their season Their final three defeats were not close ones, either. Outscored 16-4 in those three loses, Grand Rapids also finished with a 5-0 loss in the regular-season finale. That loss saw them go down three goals in the opening two minutes of the game. It also cost them home-ice advantage and landed them a very difficult first-round opponent. Their special-teams play has been horrible all season. The power play finished 30th while their penalty kill crashed to 29th. Perhaps the Griffins can end this slump, but at the moment they look ripe for a quick first-round exit.
Last Week: #11 – (▼-4)
16. MANITOBA MOOSE (WINNIPEG JETS)
The Moose rank among the true hard-luck teams in the AHL this season. Their 39 wins tied them for seventh in the AHL yet they missed the postseason. Even a 28-14-3-2 charge after falling into last in the AHL after Christmas was not enough to put the Moose into the postseason. But the Winnipeg organization did learn that rookie goaltender Mikhail Berdin has the potential to be a number-one AHL goaltender next season, depending on what, if anything, the Jets decide to do with Eric Comrie.
Last Week: #13 – (▼-3)
17. COLORADO EAGLES (COLORADO AVALANCHE)
Dividing a road series against the Wolves followed by a home split with the Barracuda helped the Eagles to just slip past the Tucson Roadrunners. Having veteran goaltender Pavel Francouz back in a significant asset for the Eagles. He could be capable of handling the Bakersfield attack. The power play must improve after finishing last in the AHL this season, however.
Last Week: #19 (▲+2)
18. TEXAS STARS (DALLAS STARS)
The schedule could not have lined up more favorably for Texas – two home dates against the last-place San Antonio Rampage and one more contest at San Antonio. Instead Texas lost both games at home, though their fate was already sealed even before that second home loss to the Rampage. In all, it means that last season’s Calder Cup finalist will miss the postseason altogether this season. That puts the Stars in a group that includes the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Rockford IceHogs as teams that missed after going to the AHL’s final four last spring. It also wastes an opportunity for the Dallas organization to take a look at several key prospects in AHL playoff competition.
Last Week: #16 – (▼-2)
19. BELLEVILLE SENATORS (OTTAWA SENATORS)
Much like Texas, this is an opportunity lost to evaluate top prospects under the glare of AHL playoff pressure. Instead Belleville delivered a flat performance at home to the Amerks in their regular-season finale that allowed Cleveland to take the final North Division spot. Ottawa management and fans had staked a lot of hope in a playoff appearance for Belleville. Instead those top prospects will be going home for the summer.
Last Week: #17 – (▼-2)
20. LEHIGH VALLEY PHANTOMS (PHILADELPHIA FLYERS)
For all of the Phantoms’ setbacks, not the least of which is missing the postseason, they did finish the season well. Their 39 wins put them in the same non-playoff boat as Manitoba.
Last Week: #23 (▲+3)
21. TUCSON ROADRUNNERS (ARIZONA COYOTES)
Three losses in their final four games spoiled a late resurgence for the Roadrunners. A solid team for the first four months of the season, the Roadrunners fell 11 points out of a playoff spot. They clawed back into the playoff hunt and pushed the race to this past Saturday.
Last Week: #20 – (▼-1)
22. ROCKFORD ICEHOGS (CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS)
The IceHogs faded badly down the stretch in a six-team playoff race that afforded no margin for such error.
Last Week: #21 – (▼-1)
23. WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON PENGUINS (PITTSBURGH PENGUINS)
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 16-season playoff streak is over. Expect a lot of change this summer.
Last Week: #22 – (▼-3)
24. SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS (FLORIDA PANTHERS)
A big offseason push by Florida to solidify the organization’s AHL roster did not pay off after a strong beginning. But goaltender Chris Driedger emerged as a second-half success story.
Last Week: #25 (▲+1)
25. UTICA COMETS (VANCOUVER CANUCKS)
The Comets sent long-time AHL defenseman Jaime Sifers off in style into retirement with a solid final weekend.
Last Week: #24 – (▼-1)
26. STOCKTON HEAT (CALGARY FLAMES)
Much like Springfield, this was a promising roster that never figured it out.
Last Week: #26 – 3rdnd week in a row
27. SAN ANTONIO RAMPAGE (ST. LOUIS BLUES)
It may not be much, but taking rival Texas into the offseason with them perhaps is a small prize for the Rampage.
Last Week: #27 (▲+2)
28. LAVAL ROCKET (MONTREAL CANADIENS)
Laval played out the string for a second consecutive season.
Last Week: #27 – (▼-1)
29. HARTFORD WOLF PACK (NEW YORK RANGERS)
Head coach Keith McCambridge lost his job Monday, but he was in a no-win situation well before that. Rangers management shipped out his top two scorers (including the team captain while the team was still in contention). This was, by the way, the fourth season in a row that a Hartford captain was traded midseason. McCambridge’s two veteran goaltenders were lost in late-season deals, and goaltending prospect Alexandar Georgiev was recalled to New York for good. All of that followed an unwieldy three-goaltender rotation. Mix injuries, recalls, and a roster with more people coming and going than a train station, and you end up with this season. But this continued a string of futility that was well underway long before McCambridge arrived.
Last Week: #27 – (▼-2)
30. BINGHAMTON DEVILS (NEW JERSEY DEVILS)
With Jack Hughes all but officially on his way to New Jersey, he will take at least one roster spot in New Jersey that was filled by a rotating cast of Binghamton recalls this season.
Last Week: #30 – 3rd week in a row
31. ONTARIO REIGN (LOS ANGELES KINGS)
Veteran goaltender Peter Budaj has skated off into retirement, the first of what looks like will be many changes across the Los Angeles organization.
Last Week: #31 – 3rd week in a row