AHL Eastern Conference notebook, December, 2013

By Mark Volain

Keith Kinkaid - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Albany Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid, shown here playing for New Jersey in an NHL preseason game, has been among the top goaltenders in the AHL so far in the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As the AHL season has entered full swing, so have the NHL recalls. Many AHL players have already seen considerable time in the NHL, or have spent a large number of days traveling between where their parent club is playing, and where their AHL team is located.

Nearing the 35-game mark in the 2013-14 season, the race in the Eastern Conference is beginning to take shape, with the Manchester Monarchs and Springfield Falcons leading the way.

Teams to Watch

The Manchester Monarchs are rolling. Even with losing their top line due to the Los Angeles Kings' needs for a few weeks (Tyler Toffoli remains in Los Angeles), the Monarchs have stood strong at the top of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference as a whole. Their record of 23-9-2-4 is second best in the Eastern Conference, and their 52 points ranks them second in the entire AHL.

They are led by wingers Nick Deslauriers and Tanner Pearson, each of whom have scored 13 goals. Center Jordan Weal leads the team in points with 30, the majority of which came from his knack for finding the open man (he has 22 assists). Andrew Bonardchuk and Vincent LoVerde lead the team defensively, posting +23 and +20 ratings, respectively. In goal, Martin Jones had taken the NHL by storm after the Jonathan Quick injury, which allowed rookie Jean-Francois Berube to step in and post very solid numbers between the pipes. Berube has a 13-6-2 record to go along with a respectable .919 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average.

The Falcons time is now. After years of finishing in the bottom of the league, the Columbus Blue Jackets organization is finally beginning to reap the rewards of their elevated draft spots. While the parent club is still figuring things out, the AHL affliate in Springfield has had almost a season-and-a-half of a great team.

The Falcons are first in the Northeast Division with a record of 25-5-1-3, the lowest number of outright losses (and therefore best winning percentage) in the entire AHL. Their 54 points leads the Eastern Conference. The Falcons have won eight of their last 10 games, despite players like captain Ryan Craig and goalie Mike McKenna being shuffled back and forth between Columbus and Springfield. Jonathan Marchessault has reclaimed his scoring touch and now leads the team in goals (12), assists (15), and points (27). With a strong team with talented defenders in front of him, 24-year-old netminder Jeremy Smith has filled in nicely for McKenna, recording a 16-4-2 record and an acceptable .907 save percentage. Barring major injuries, the Falcons look poised for another run for the Calder Cup.

Goaltending gurus

Martin Jones has returned to Manchester after his stint with the Kings. But even in his absence, the Eastern Conference has been stymied by a trio of goaltenders having great seasons.

Albany's Keith Kinkaid has been incredible for the Devils, with an AHL leading goals-against average of 1.92, the only GAA in the league below two. Kinkaid is also second in save percentage (.927) and wins, and has been a revelation for an Albany Devils team that was not expected to be as strong as they are.

The St. John's IceCaps don't have the strongest team in the AHL, but goalie Eddie Pasquale has kept them in many games, en route to an above .500 record so far. Pasquale has a goals-against average of 2.25, good for third in the Eastern Conference. He also has a .923 save percentage, also third in the Eastern Conference.

Worcester Sharks rookie goaltender Troy Grosenick has surprised fans so far. In limited action (13 games), Grosenick has a solid 6-5 record to go along with a decent .914 save percentage and a good 2.33 goals-against average (sixth in the Eastern Conference).

Players to Watch

Offensively, fans need to look no further than Mike Hoffman for production. The 24-year-old Binghamton Senators' star is second in the league in points, with 40 points on 16 goals and 24 assists. Earlier in the season we expected him to do well for the Senators, but the development of a scoring touch to this degree was not expected.

Top draft pick/AHL rookie Ryan Strome of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers seems to have found his footing in the AHL now, as he is second in the Eastern Conference in points with 33 of his own. However, the majority of Strome's points came from his assist total (24). Look for Strome to turn up the scoring in the latter part of the season.

The Albany Devils have been led by Joe Whitney, a 25-year-old who has led the team in points each of the last two seasons. Whitney's 32 points are good for ninth in the league, stemming from his 12 goals and 20 assists. Look for Whitney to continue his scoring ways as the Devils have come to expect it from him.

Eastern Conference Hot List

1. Kieth Kinkaid, G, Albany Devils

The American netminder is second in the AHL in goals-against average and tied for the most shutouts, twelfth in save percentage, and ninth in wins. He is a big part of Albany's early success, and will need to keep it up to keep the Devils in a playoff spot. He has the talent to do so.

2. Matt Fraser, LW, Providence Bruins

Although he was recalled to the Boston Bruins a few weeks ago due to injuries, Fraser is still tied for goal-scoring lead in the Eastern Conference with 16. When Boston gets healthy, expect Fraser to be sent back down where he should continue his dominance of the AHL. However, there is always the chance he hangs on with Boston.

3. Mike Hoffman, LW, Binghamton Senators

His injury-plagued 2012-13 season is clearly behind him. Hoffman is tied with Fraser in the Eastern Conference with 16 goals, and leads the conference with 40 points. He is on pace for at least a 30-30 season.

4. Joe Whitney, LW, Albany Devils

The 25-year-old is ninth in the league in points with 32 on 12 goals and 20 assists. He leads the Devils in points, as has been the case the last two seasons. Look for him to try to take it to the next level in 2014.

5. Brenden Kichton, D, St. John's IceCaps

Who is Brenden Kichton? Just the Eastern Conference points leader for defensemen. Kichton – a rookie out of WHL – has seven goals and 20 assists for the IceCaps. A smaller defenseman somewhat in the mold of Brian Campbell, Kichton relies on his hockey smarts and could end up with a nice AHL, and potentially, NHL career.