The AHL is nearly at the quarter-pole for the 2013-14 season, with most teams approaching the 20-game mark in their season. Teams are beginning to find their strengths and weaknesses, and some players – like Tyler Toffoli – have already been called up to their NHL affiliate.
Here, then, is a rundown of the season so far in the AHL's Eastern Conference.
Teams to watch
The Albany Devils (11-7-0-1, 2nd in the Northeast Division) have surprised everyone with their success so far. Although they are without NHL-ready or almost-NHL-ready talent at any position, the Devils have performed well to begin the season. Joe Whitney (8 G, 12 A) has led the team offensively while Reid Boucher has adjusted admirably to the AHL, tallying eight goals and eight assists so far. Jon Merrill, the Devils top prospect on defense, scored seven points in 11 games before being recalled to Newark in early November. In his NHL debut, Merrill suffered an upper body injury, and had not played another hockey game until last Monday, when he was sent back to Albany to get his timing right. Top goaltending prospect Scott Wedgewood has struggled so far, with a 4-4-1-0 record, a 2.66 goals-against average, and .891 save percentage. While there is no way to know if Albany will keep it up, Devils' fans have to be pleased with the early season success.
If you're looking for a balanced team, check out the Providence Bruins, where the talent is definitely there. Featuring 12 skaters with five or more points – and nine with 10 or more – the Bruins have plenty of firepower. Led by Ryan Spooner (3 G, 13 A) and Matt Fraser (11 G, 3 A, 17 PIM), the Bruins' forwards epitomize the depth the Boston Bruins organization has become known for over the last few years. Joe Morrow leads the way for offensive-minded defensemen with two goals and 10 assists, while David Warsofsky and Zach Trotman hold down the fort defensively with their +5 ratings. Some work still needs to be done on defense as the Bruins have allowed almost as many goals as they have scored (+3 goal differential). The goalie tandem of Niklas Svedberg and Malcolm Subban has been quite good, although Subban is still finding his footing in professional hockey. While the depth in Boston should keep the Providence roster mostly intact this season, don't be surprised to see members of this Providence team on the Boston playoff roster come April.
Currently the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Manchester Monarchs have scored the third most goals in the conference. A third of the Monarchs' season has been played without their top line of Linden Vey, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, all of whom have found themselves with the Los Angeles Kings due to injuries and other factors. The trio each tallied 11 or more points (Toffoli had 12) in 10 games (15 for Pearson) before taking the plane ride to Los Angeles. Currently leading the way in Manchester are Brandon Kozun (6 G, 12 A, +8) and Jordan Weal (2 G, 15 A, +11). Defensively, rookie Derek Forbort has impressed, with seven points to go along with his +9 rating. Martin Jones has been solid in net, posting a 9-2-3-2 record with a 2.24 goals-against and .927 save percentage in 13 games before being recalled to Los Angeles to replace the injured Jonathan Quick. While the Monarchs don't have the history of success many other teams in the league do, they have proven to have more than enough talent to stay at the top of the conference for a long run.
For goaltending success in the AHL, look no further than the Anaheim Ducks affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals. The Admirals have the real deal in rookie goaltender John Gibson. Gibson, who has played in 16 of the Admirals 19 games, has been incredible, with a goals-against average of 2.03 and a save percentage of .937. Their goaltending situation was expected to change when Viktor Fasth returned from injury, sending Frederik Andersen – who has played well in Anaheim – back to Norfolk. However, when Fasth suffered another injury, Andersen was called back up, giving Gibson back complete control of the Admirals' goaltending situation. But, after an incredible and unsustainable pace to start the season, Gibson has begun to level off a bit. In six games in October Gibson went 3-1-2 with a 1.44 goals-against and .953 save percentage, he has gone 4-3-1 with a 2.45 goals-against and .927 save percentage since then. While his numbers are still impressive, with the goalie depth ahead of him in the Anaheim organization, Gibson will need to stay stellar to get a shot next season.
Players to watch
One of the most interesting teams this season has been the Syracuse Crunch. With former head coach Jon Cooper and a good number of the core members of the 2013 AHL Eastern Conference Champion squad now in Tampa Bay, the Lightning's top affiliate has not been as powerful as it has been the last two seasons. However, the fourth place Crunch have one of the AHL's best compatriot duos in Russians Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov.
The Eastern Conference's best rookie and overall leading goal-scorer is Kucherov. The 20-year-old, 2011 second round pick has 13 goals and 11 assists in 17 AHL games. Tied for second in the AHL in goals and points, Kucherov has already made a name for himself in the North American game.
While impressive, Kucherov is just one half of the two headed monster that came from the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2011 draft. Sophomore Namestnikov – who tallied 21 points in 44 games for the Crunch in his rookie season – was the Lightning's first round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. Namestnikov seems to have found his footing in the AHL this season, netting eight goals and 13 assists in 16 games so far. Namestnikov is fourth in the conference in points, and seventh overall in the AHL. While this duo may not see NHL time this season, chances are high that they will be a big part of Tampa's organization for years to come.
Portland Pirates rookie Tobias Rieder has also had an incredible start to his season. Rieder missed the start of the season with a broken foot, but has not shown any signs of rust, at least where scoring is concerned. In his six games in the AHL, Rieder has scored six goals, three on the power-play. In the two games since then, Rieder continued to put up points, recording an assist in each of the contests. While his point-per-game production is likely unsustainable as the season progresses, Rieder is absolutely a player to keep on an eye on, thanks to his knack for being around when scoring happens.
Eastern Conference Hot List
1. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Syracuse Crunch
Kucherov is first in the Eastern conference in goals and points, and has just begun his professional career. With a talented Crunch team, Kucherov should continue to shine.
2. John Gibson, G, Norfolk Admirals
Gibson is only in his first season in the AHL, but he has already earned himself a starting job and place at the top of the “best AHL goalie” discussion. With injuries plaguing the Anaheim netminders, Gibson is in a great position to shine as the starter.
3. Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Syracuse Crunch
Namestnikov's first season in Syracuse was not the strongest (7 G, 14 A in 44 games), but if his totals so far are any indication, last season may simply have been a case of a rookie finding his way in the AHL. Having already matched his point production from a season ago, look for Namestnikov to keep up his pace over the course of the 2013-14 season.
4. Simon Despres, D, Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins
Despres is the perfect example of an AHL star ready for the NHL. His defense has always been his strong suit, but his offensive game has developed in a way not necessarily expected. He will be up in Pittsburgh as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
5. Mike Hoffman, LW, Binghamton Senators
After an injury-plagued 2012-13, Hoffman has started off 2013-14 with a bang. Getting back on track in his development, Hoffman is a prospect to keep your eye on.
Each month during the season, HF will be presenting a notebook feature for the two AHL conferences
Follow Mark Volain on Twitter via @markcvolain