Top rookies in the AHL

By Colin Barnicle

We may only be weeks into the 2008-09 season, but a group of young players have already charged out of the gate to provide the AHL fans with a taste of what appears to be an exciting race for the Dudley “Red” Garrett Trophy for the league’s outstanding rookie.  While the final outcome of this race will ultimately be decided by a myriad of factors (injury, NHL call-ups, playing time, etc.), several players have been sparking early on.

The two most noteworthy standouts at this point appear to be Portland forwards Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy.  As of Sunday, Nov. 9, Kennedy led all AHL rookies in scoring with 17 points (4 goals and 13 assists).  Gerbe trails by two points and while both have provided the Pirates with a healthy dose of offense, they have both been remarkably consistent for first-year players.  Kennedy has managed to tally a point in 10 of 11 games.  Similarly, Gerbe’s 10 goals in 11 games this season are enough to rank him second in the league.  Swedish goaltender Jhonas Enroth is making his North American pro debut this year with the Pirates.  Buffalo’s second round selection at the 2006 entry draft has been splitting time with Adam Dennis and posting a solid 5-1-0 record early in the season.  Enroth earned his first shutout in the AHL and turning aside 29 shots against Norfolk on Oct. 31, and currently has a 2.67 GAA and .912 save percentage.

The Hershey Bears also have considerable rookie talent filling out this year’s roster, with center Mathieu Perreault, wingers Oskar Osala and defenseman Karl Alzner putting in fine, if less consistent, efforts this season.  Perreault and Osala currently top the team’s rookies in scoring with 11 points apiece.  Osala’s 9 goals in 15 games this season have him locked into a six-way tie for third in the league in goals scored, and Perreault currently has 3 goals and 8 assists in 13 games.  Although never projected to be a top point-producer in at the professional level, Alzner has recorded a respectable 7 points (2 goals, 5 assists) in 15 games, and is currently a +8.

In Hamilton, Bulldogs’ rookie trifecta of centers Ben Maxwell, David Desharnais, and left wing Max Pacioretty have enjoyed strong starts to the 2008-09 campaign.  Maxwell, a Montreal 2nd round pick in 2006, ranks third among AHL rookies with 12 points (5 goals and 7 assists) in 14 games.  Pacioretty, a University of Michigan standout and 2007 first round pick has nine points (1 goal, 8 assists).  Desharnais, last year’s ECHL MVP with Cincinnati, was rewarded with a two-year contract with Montreal as a result of his play.  He  has 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in 14 games this season.  Desharnais has proven himself capable in all game situations, with both power-play and shorthanded tallies early on.

The Syracuse Crunch duo of Russian forwards Maksim Mayorov and Nikita Filatov have made their presence felt on score sheets throughout the league early in the season.  These are surprising accomplishments given their relative newness to the North American game and their ages-  Filatov is 18 and Mayorov in 19.  Filatov, the Blue Jackets’ first pick in this past summer’s draft has 8 points (5 goals, 3 assists) in Syracuse only stands to build upon that number as he becomes more comfortable with his Syracuse linemates.  Mayorov has put up nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) in 12 games with the Crunch.  In very limited action in Syracuse, goaltender Steve Mason has looked solid enough for a recall to back up Fredrik Norrena during Pascal Leclaire’s injury in Columbus.  Should Leclaire recover quicker than expected, or should the Jackets want to swap out Mason for Dan LaCosta, Mason may see more starts come his way in Syracuse.

In Lowell, the Devils have several rookies making an impact out of the gate, most notably right wingers Matt Halischuk and Vladimir Zharkov, and defenseman Tyler Eckford.  Halischuk, a standout at last year’s Memorial Cup tournament, seems to have kept his scoring at steady pace with 8 points (5 goals, 3 assists) in Lowell, and had one assist in his NHL debut earlier in the season.  Former University of Alaska all-star Eckford has amassed 8 points (1 goal, 7 assists) in 12 games, and is currently Lowell’s highest-scoring defenseman.  2006 third round pick Zharkov has posted 7 points (4 goals, 3 assists) in 13 games in his first professional season in North America.

The Reebok Edge AHL Rookie of the Month of October honors went to Grand Rapids forward Justin Abdelkader, yet another in the seemingly endless line of promising prospects in the Detroit Red Wings system.  The former Michigan State standout has produced well with 9 points in 11 games (7 goals, 2 assists) on the season, despite four straight pointless games through early November.

A somewhat surprising amount of offensive production in Binghamton has come from rookie forward Zack Smith.  Ottawa’s third round pick in the 2008 draft, Smith was passed over in his first two draft-eligible years before a breakout campaign last season with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos.  He is currently ranked fourth in Binghamton scoring with 12 points (9 goals, 3 assists) in 12 games, and tied with five other players for third in the AHL’s goal-scoring race.

In Philadelphia, former Gatineau star Claude Giroux is currently the highest-scoring Phantoms forward with 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in 14 games.  The 2006 first-rounder has proven to be one of the Phantoms’ best snipers, with four goals coming on the power play. 

San Antonio winger Brett MacLean currently leads the Rampage in scoring with 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists) in 13 games.  MacLean, who led the OHL in goals scored last season, also holds the dubious honor of having the best plus/minus rating (+3) on a defensively weak team.

Rookie center Nick Spaling is also off to a strong start in Milwaukee.  Like Halischuk, Spaling is another Kitchener alum who appears to be carrying an outstanding Memorial Cup performance into his professional career, having put up 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) in his first 10 professional games.

Goaltending prospects Ben Bishop and Peter Mannino have proven themselves up to the task of facing the AHL’s most feared snipers.  Peoria goaltender Bishop has adapted exceptionally well in a year that has seen him move from his starter’s job with the U-Maine Black Bears to Peoria to an impressive stint with the big club in St. Louis.  In limited action this season, he is 2-2-0 with a 2.44 GAA and a save percentage of .907

Bridgeport goalie Mannino was expected to back up Yann Danis much of the year, but with Rick DiPietro’s injury and Danis’ subsequent NHL call-up, Mannino has been moved into the starting role with the Sound Tigers.  Never drafted, the University of Denver alum has been making Islanders’ management look smart for signing him ever since.  Mannino presently holds a 5-1-2 record with a 2.53 GAA, a .912 save percentage, and a professional shutout under his belt.