2014-15 AHL Preview: Senators, Penguins still look strong in the East Division

By Tony Androckitis
Josh Archibald - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Josh Archibald begins his pro career after a breakout season offensively with the University of Nebraska-Omaha (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

 

Before the St. John’s IceCaps knocked off the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in last year’s AHL Eastern Conference Final, the conference’s champion and representative in the Calder Cup Finals had come out of the East Division the last ten years.

 

Arguably the most competitive division in the league, the East Division features a new team this season in the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Phantoms re-located back to Pennsylvania from Glens Falls this season and will be playing at the PPL Center in downtown Allentown. With the Phantoms back in the division, the Syracuse Crunch were moved to the Northeast Division where the Phantoms played last season as the Adirondack Phantoms.

 

The renewed tri-state rivalry in PA between Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the Phantoms makes this season all the more intriguing for a division predicated on getting to the finals year in and year out.

 

Binghamton Senators

Last Season: 44-24-3-5, 96 points – First Place, East Division

Eliminated by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – First round.

 

Graduted to NHL: Mike Hoffman, Cody Ceci, Mark Boroweicki and Mark Stone

Key Departures: Stephane Da Costa, Corey Cowick, Jim O’Brien

Key Additions: Aaron Johnson and Carter Camper

Incoming Rookies: Ryan Dzingel, Garett Thompson, Max McCormick, Alex Guptill and Chris Driedger

 

There’s no reason the Binghamton Senators can’t contend for the division title again in 2014-15. They are loaded with talented prospects across the board.

 

Losing Stephane Da Costa to Europe and the likes of Mark Stone and Cody Ceci to the NHL are definitely big holes to fill, but off-season acquisitions Aaron Johnson and Carter Camper, along with some incoming rookie forwards from the college ranks, has the Senators looking very much like the strong team they were in 2013-14.

 

In net, they’ll return starter Andrew Hammond – a 25-game winner in his rookie season last year who looked much more consistent as the season went on. They also bring in another young goaltender, Chris Dreidger, who looked good at the 2014 Leafs Rookie Tournament in London, ON in mid-September.

 

The defense stays relatively the same, minus Ceci and Mark Boroweicki, but adds a veteran in Aaron Johnson to a core that already includes Alex Grant, Patrick Mullen, Frederik Claesson, Chris Wideman, Michael Sdao and Troy Rutkowski, giving the Senators a deep and balanced defense.

 

Grant, Mullen and Wideman are offensive defenders that can move the puck and create offense. The trio combined for 26 goals last season. Rutkowski is an offensive defenseman who put up good numbers with the Portland Winterhawks in four years in the WHL, but was mainly an ECHL defenseman in the Ottawa Senators‘ system last season, appearing in just 12 AHL games with the Senators last season.

 

Many consider Claesson to be the best nearly NHL-ready, stay-at-home defenseman in the organization, and veteran Johnson and rookie Sdao round out a solid defensive core.

 

The Seantors’ best strength is their plethora of goal-scoring forwards, led by Matt Puempel (31 goals last season), Shane Prince (21 goals) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (20 goals). The Senators seemed to replace the playmaking Da Costa, who bolted overseas, with another talented center in Carter Camper. Camper was traded last season from the Bruins organization to Columbus, switching AHL uniforms from Providence to Springfield, but was an effective player with 51 points (12 goals and 39 assists) in 60 AHL games in 2013-14.

 

Promising rookie forward Ryan Dzingel had a breakout season in 2013-14 with Ohio State University and made an immediate impact upon his AHL arrival late last spring. His college teammate Max McCormick is also turning pro in the Ottawa organization so it is quite possible the Buckeyes duo can re-unite this season at the AHL level.

 

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

Last Season: 42-26-3-5, 92 points – Second Place, East Division

Eliminated by St. John’s – Eastern Conference Finals

 

Graduated to the NHL: Zach Sill, Andrew Ebbett, Simon Despres and Scott Harrington

Key Departures: Peter Mannino, Brendan Mikkelson, Chuck Kobasew, Brian Gibbons and Harry Zolnierczyk

Key Additions: Jeff Zatkoff and Taylor Chorney

Incoming Rookies: Matt Murray, Derrick Pouliot, Conor Sheary, Josh Archibald, Bryan Rust, Matia Marcantuoni, Scott Wilson and Jean-Sebastien Dea

 

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have had their last two seasons end with Eastern Conference Finals losses, but they will look to improve upon that with a solid returning core coupled with several talented incoming rookie forwards – a swift change of pace from recent years.

 

Conor Sheary was one of the biggest surprises of the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs for the Penguins as he at one point was credited with an eight-game point-scoring streak in the playoffs before a scoring change cut the streak in half. The small forward is quick and hard to contain in open ice. His shiftiness paired with his speed and competitiveness makes him an interesting prospect, though he is not on an NHL contract with the parent Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

Josh Archibald was a 2014 Hobey Baker Award finalist after a 29-goal campaign with the University of Nebraska-Omaha last season and continued to impress in the rookie tournament and AHL preseason, where his high-end speed and offensive abilities landed him on the score sheet often.

 

Arguably one of the fastest skaters in the league could be on the WBS Penguins roster if rookie Matia Marcantuoni makes the team. He has showcased that blazing speed, along with success on the penalty kill and in the face-off department. He could be a solid bottom-six role player, with the high-end speed to create a problem for opposing defenses.

 

There is also two more college forwards turning pro in the Penguins organization in former Notre Dame standout Bryan Rust and UMass-Lowell’s Scott Wilson. Both are a little more well rounded than their peers from the Canadian junior leagues. Both scored goals in the preseason for the AHL Penguins.

 

And then there’s Jean-Sebastien Dea, who might be that diamond in the rough prospect with pure goal scoring ability. Dea dominated the QMJHL the past two seasons and looks to continue to score goals at a regular pace at the pro level starting this fall.

 

The Penguins still have plenty of near NHL-ready prospects on their farm club, with former Boston College defenders Philip Samuelsson and Brian Dumoulin looking to lead the way at the AHL level. The Pens also have some physical defensemen in the pipeline in stay-at-home physical defenders Reid McNeill and Harrison Ruopp.

 

Add in captain Tom Kostopoulos and scoring center Nick Drazenovic with checking forwards Dominik Uher and Adam Payerl, along with Pittsburgh’s backup goaltender from last season, Jeff Zatkoff, and there’s no doubt that the Penguins will be contenders in the Eastern Conference again this season.

 

Norfolk Admirals

Last Season: 40-26-3-7, 90 points – Third Place, East Division

Eliminated by St. John’s – Second round

 

Graduated to the NHL: John Gibson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Emerson Etem and Rickard Rakell

Key Departures: Andre Petersson, Brad Thiessen, Garnet Exelby, Steve Eminger, Luca Sbisa, Viktor Fasth and Zack Stortini

Key Additions: Jason LaBarbera, Brad Winchester and Nathan McIver

Incoming Rookies: Josh Manson, Jaycob Megna, Kevin Lind, Nicolas Kerdilles, Stefan Noesen and William Karlsson

 

The Anaheim Ducks weren’t overly active in free agency for their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, with the Admirals looking to replace some guys from last year’s squad who have moved onto the NHL. The Admirals brought in some added toughness in Steve MacIntyre and Nathan McIver, but ultimately it is going to be a young group bolstered by some veteran role players.

 

John Gibson is starting the season in Anaheim, which means Igor Bobkov and Jason LaBarbera man the Norfolk nets in 2014-15. Bobkov split time between the ECHL and AHL last season, while LaBarbera is an established veteran goaltender.

 

On defense, Josh Manson, Jaycob Megna, and Kevin Lind look to learn from the older defensemen like Jesse Blacker and Mat Clark. Second-year pro Kevin Gagne looks to lead the defense offensively.

 

The Admirals have a trio of rookie forwards to watch, two of which made their presence felt at the end of last season. William Karlsson tallied nine points in nine AHL regular season games last spring, and Nic Kerdilles tallied four points in six games after a big year at the University of Wisconsin. Stefan Noesen also turns pro in Anaheim’s farm system this season, following four offensively productive seasons in the OHL with the Plymouth Whalers.

 

What will be interesting for the Admirals is whether or not they can get enough production from their younger players against opponents in the division, which is arguably one of the toughest divisions in the AHL. They have a veteran goaltender to help ease the transition, but nonetheless some of these rookie forwards and defensemen are going to get big minutes at the AHL level this season.

 

Hershey Bears

Last Season: 39-27-5-5, 88 points – Fourth Place, East Division

Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

 

Key Departures: Ryan Potulny, Jeff Taffe, Julien Brouillette, Tyson Strachan, David Kolomaitis, David Leggio, Brandon Segal and Ryan Stoa

Key Additions: Eddie Pasquale, Philippe Cornet, Chris Conner, Tim Kennedy

Incoming Rookies: Chandler Stephenson and Caleb Herbert

 

After missing the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season, you knew that changes would be made to one of the league’s most decorated franchises. Enter a new head coach – Troy Mann – and a wealth of new players into the fold and the Bears will certainly have a new look heading into the 2014-15 season.

 

It all starts in net with Philip Grubauer who, before the acquisition of Justin Peters via free agency this summer, might have had an NHL backup position in Washington.

 

The new-look defense still has Cameron Schilling and Tomas Kundratek on the blue line, but will add a promising prospect in Connor Carrick – who played in some AHL games at the tail end of last season after appearing in 35 games with Washington in 2013-14.

 

Up front, former Penguin Chris Conner looks to lead the way offensively while veterans Tim Kennedy and Dane Byers help in mentoring the younger forwards.

 

It will be interesting to see how all the changes both on and off the ice play out this season for the Washington Capitals’ AHL affiliate.

 

Lehigh Valley Phantoms

Last Season as Adirondack: 30-38-2-6, 68 Points – Fourth Place, Northeast Division

Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

 

Graduated to the NHL: Jason Akeson

Key Departures: Cal Heeter, Tye McGinn, Kris Newbury, Ben Holmstrom and Bruno Gervais

Key Additions: Andrew Gordon, Rob Zepp, Darrol Powe and Zack Stortini

Incoming Rookies: Anthony Stolarz, Robert Hagg. Shayne Gostisbehere, Jesper Pettersson, Taylor Leier and Scott Laughton

 

Despite limited success the past few seasons, there is quite a buzz surrounding the Philadelphia Flyers‘ AHL affiliate heading into the 2014-15 after a change in scenery from Glens Falls, NY to downtown Allentown, PA. The Phantoms also have a very talented group of rookies coming into the fold.

 

Anthony Stolarz showed flashes of great play in the AHL preseason, but the Phantoms have named veteran Rob Zepp as the number one goalie to start the season. Zepp was very solid in his start in the team’s preseason finale as well as an NHL exhibition game with the Flyers against the New Jersey Devils.

 

Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg are two defensemen that Flyers management will have a close eye on, with the distance between the clubs now being so short. Both have shown flashes of why they are highly-touted, so it will be interesting to watch their development in the AHL this season alongside a young core of defensemen.

 

Despite the recent surge of young defensemen, it is also a point of concern for the Phantoms heading into the season. Outside of Brandon Manning and Oliver Lauridsen, there isn’t much pro experience to be had on the Phantoms blue line. Head coach Terry Murray was quick to point out that the defense is very young and that mistakes will be made, which probably was a factor in starting with Zepp as the number one goalie.

 

There are also some talented young forwards who have made a good first impression, namely Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier. Throw in veteran scorer Andrew Gordon on the wing and you have a pretty dangerous top-line. The trio was active in the preseason finale vs. Albany and, though they didn’t score any goals, it is only a matter of time to get down some timing plays and chemistry – something they look to accomplish with a full week of practice leading up to the season opener vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

 

The Phantoms have brought in a solid group of veterans and also have spread it out amongst several skill sets. They have the veteran scorer in Gordon, but they also have a physical power forward/enforcer in Zack Stortini and Darrol Powe to bring a wealth of experience down the middle. The Phantoms will, at the very least, be a fun team to watch in 2014-15.

 

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey