2014-15 AHL Preview: Marlies look to repeat in improved North Division

By Tony Androckitis
Greg McKegg - Toronto Marlies

Photo: Toronto Marlies forward and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg doubled his point total in his second AHL, and is looking to break through to the NHL at some point in 2014-15 (courtesy of John Rivera/Icon Sportswire)

 

The Western Conference’s North Division is another AHL division with a new team as the Calgary Flames moved their AHL club from Abbotsford, BC to Glens Falls, NY. The now Adirondack Flames are in the North Division, while the Lake Erie Monsters have been moved to the Midwest Division.

The Utica Comets will host the 2015 AHL All-Star Game this season, which will go back to an East vs. West format as opposed to an AHL All-Star team against a team from overseas as was done last season.

The real question in the division is whether or not any of the teams in it can keep pace with the Toronto Marlies, who cruised to a division crown last season while being only one of two teams from the division to qualify for the postseason.

Toronto Marlies

Last Season: 45-25-2-4, 96 points – First Place North Division
Eliminated by Texas – Western Conference Finals

Graduated to the NHL: Stuart Percy and Brandon Kozun
Key Departures: Drew MacIntyre, T.J. Brennan and Jerry D’Amigo
Key Additions: Petri Kontiola and Brendan Mikkelson
Incoming Rookies: Antoine Bibeau, Viktor Loov, Erik Knodel, Tom Nilsson, Matt Finn, Brady Vail, Connor Brown, Patrick Watling and Ryan Rupert

The Marlies lost some significant talent across the board after a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2013-14, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in contention for their fourth straight North Division title in 2014-15.

Gone to free agency are last year’s starting goaltender Drew MacIntyre and top offensive defensemen, T.J. Brennan. Two members from the 2013-14 squad – forward Brandon Kozun and defenseman Stuart Percy – are in the NHL with the parent Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Marlies will rely on two younger guys in goal – Garret Sparks and Christopher Gibson – to pick up the slack. Both were used sparingly behind MacIntyre last season. Antoine Bibeau is another goalie in Toronto’s system to keep an eye on, as the rookie turns pro this fall. Bibeau was especially sharp in the annual rookie tournament in London, ON where he shut out the Pittsburgh Penguins in the tournament’s final game.

The Marlies have several rookies entering the AHL on defense this season. With the loss of Brennan from the back end, the Marlies signed former Penguins defenseman Brendan Mikkelson to an AHL contract to help stabilize the defense.

The Marlies will look to replace Brennan’s offensive production with a talented offensive defenseman in rookie Matt Finn. Finn – a two-time captain of the OHL’s Guelph Storm – had a phenomenal season in 2013-14, recording 61 points (14 goals, 47 assists) in 66 regular season games and adding 14 more (five goals, nine assists) in 20 playoff games. Toronto holds high hopes for their second round pick in 2012. A pair of Swedish-born defensemen – Viktor Loov and Tom Nilsson – will be making their North American pro debut, as well.

Up front, the Marlies bring back several forwards from last year’s core including Spencer Abbott, Greg McKegg, Josh Leivo and Trevor Smith. They’ll also add a few rookies, including Connor Brown. Brown nearly doubled his offensive output last season with the Erie Otters (OHL). While playing alongside 2015 top prospect Connor McDavid definitely helped Brown, this was not always the case and not the sole reason for his offensive outbreak – 128 points (45 goals, 83 assists) in 68 regular season games.

Another sixth round pick from 2012 that could make an impact in his rookie season is Ryan Rupert, a former London Knights (OHL) forward who scored 21 goals last season.

Adirondack Flames

Last Season: 43-25-5-3, 94 points – Second Place, West Division
Eliminated by Grand Rapids – First Round

Graduated to the NHL: Paul Byron
Key Departures: Ben Street, Blair Jones, Chad Billins, Corey Locke, Brett Olson, Joey McDonald and Reto Berra.
Key Additions: Brad Thiessen, Nolan Yonkman, Sena Acolatse, Mark Cundari and Mathieu Tousignant
Incoming Rookies: Ken Agostino, Bill Arnold, Bryce Van Brabant, Brett Kulak and Patrick Seiloff.

The Calgary Flames re-located their AHL affiliate out of Canucks’ territory in Abbotsford and moved them to Glens Falls, NY, where the Philadelphia Flyers farm club played last season. As a result, they were moved to the North Division for this season.

The AHL Flames saw several veterans move on in free agency, but they have bolstered their depth with some veterans on the back end and look to be led by some explosive offensive forwards, most of whom are entering their first or second full season of pro hockey.

The Flames brought in Brad Thiessen to form a goaltending duo with Joni Ortio, who in his first full season in the AHL was very good with a 27-8-0 record.

On defense, Nolan Yonkman and Mark Cundari were brought in to stabilize a relatively young and inexperienced Flames blue line. The Flames return Tyler Wotherspoon, whose steady defensive game was on point during his rookie season. Entering his second year of pro hockey, Wotherspoon could see himself as a mid-season call up when injuries arise as he did last season.

The Flames will also have a pair of rookie defensemen who saw some AHL action last spring in Brett Kulak and Patrick Seiloff. The former put up three points in five regular season games before appearing in the postseason with the Flames, while Sieloff missed almost the entire 2013-14 season after a staph infection forced him out. Sieloff appeared in two regular season games and looks to turn pro in the fall and stay healthy.

The forwards are going to be fun to watch this year in Glens Falls as several rookies excelled last season in Abbotsford. The trio of Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland and Corban Knight all turned heads in 2013-14. With a year of experience under their collective belts, that trio is looking to build off that performance and lead the charge this year. Add in returning leading scorer Max Reinhart – entering his third year of pro hockey – and the AHL Flames look to be just as potent offensively as they were a year ago.

Rochester Americans

Last Season: 37-28-6-5, 85 points – Second Place, North Division
Eliminated by Chicago – First Round

Graduated to the NHL: Rasmus Ristolainen, Nick Deslauriers and Mark Pysyk
Key Departures: Kevin Porter, Jamie Tardif, Colton Gillies and Brayden McNabb
Key Additions: Zac Dalpe and Akim Aliu
Incoming Rookies: Andrey Makarov, Brady Austin, Jake McCabe, Mikhail Grigorenko, William Carrier, Justin Kea and Jordan Samuels-Thomas.

After a first round exit in the playoffs last year, the Americans look to get back to the postseason in 2014-15 and make their mark with several talented prospects as the Buffalo Sabres continue to rebuild.

Goaltender Andrey Makarov didn’t look out of place in 10 regular season games in late March and into April last season. He started all five of the Amerks postseason contests, as well, and should see significant playing time behind starting goaltender Nathan Lieuwen.

Rookie defenseman Brady Austin will get a chance in the AHL right away as the Amerks blue line lacks depth with Ristolainen and Pysyk having moved on to Buffalo. Austin is big, listed at 6-4 and 225 pounds, but had no trouble contributing offensively last season with the London Knights. Jake McCabe – who is currently on injured reserve in Buffalo – will also likely begin his pro career in Rochester when he’s healthy. McCabe is a two-way defenseman who can do a little bit of everything and could carve out a prominent role on the Rochester blue line before the end of the season.

Rochester will look to lean on younger forwards for offensive production this season with Mikhail Grigorenko, William Carrier, Justin Kea and Jordan Samuels-Thomas all turning pro in the fall.

Although Grigorenko had two separate stints in the NHL, he was returned both times to his junior team and needs to work on rounding out his game as he enters his first full pro season. There’s no doubting his offensive upside or why he was chosen 12th overall by the Sabres, but his play away from the puck needs improvement.

William Carrier has missed some time over the past two seasons due to injuries, but when he was healthy he was on a point-per-game average or more offensively. While he’s not the biggest body on the ice, he plays more like a 6-3 power forward would while still having good hands and a good shot. If he can stay healthy, he should be a regular contributor at the AHL level this season.

Another forward with an injury history is sniper Joel Armia. Coming off a broken wrist and adjusting to the North American game didn’t produce the results many thought he would achieve, but he seemed to look more comfortable as the season wore on and was one of the Amerks best forwards in their first round series against Chicago last spring. Look for a bounce back year from Armia in 2014-15.

Utica Comets

Last Season: 35-32-5-4, 79 points – Third Place, North Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: Linden Vey
Key Losses: Benn Ferriero, Colin Stuart, Pascal Pelletier, Stefan Chaput, Zac Dalpe and Zach Hamill
Key Additions: Jacob Markstrom, Bobby Sanguinetti, Dustin Jeffrey, Ryan Jones and Wacey Hamilton
Incoming Rookies: Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, Mike Zalewiski and Ronalds Kenins

If not for a slow start to the franchise’s first season in the AHL, the Comets might have been a playoff team in 2013-14. They’ve added some depth to the AHL roster over the summer and, coupled with talented first- and second-year pros, look to be much more steady heading into the 2014-15 season.

Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Guance look to get their pro careers started in Utica this season. Shinkaruk is coming off of off-season hip surgery and will need to show he hasn’t lost a step before getting a chance with the big club. Gaunce impressed many at the Vancouver Canucks‘ training camp and will need to continue working on his game at the AHL level this season. Both should be interesting players to watch for Comets fans.

The Comets have plenty of second-year pros coming in and looking to build off of their performances last season. This includes Alexandre Grenier, who tallied 17 goals and added 22 assists as a rookie last season. The power forward looks to continue developing his game in Utica in hopes that he can earn his first NHL recall this season.

Defenseman Frank Corrado is a young, smooth skating defenseman who is highly regarded in the Vancouver organization. Many thought he would start the season in the NHL, but an injury in the preseason resulted in Corrado being sent back to Utica. Corrado got his first taste of NHL action in his rookie season in 2013-14 and knows what it takes to get back to that level.

The Comets now have two talented goaltenders looking to split time at the AHL level this season. Returning second-year pro Joacim Eriksson was a big reason why the Comets were able to be a .500 hockey club last season as he was heavily relied upon in 2013-14. This season, with the addition of Jacob Markstrom, Eriksson will once again need to prove himself capable of handling starting goaltender minutes.

Hamilton Bulldogs

Last Season: 33-35-1-7, 74 points – Fifth Place, East Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: Dustin Tokarski, Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi
Key Losses: Peter Budaj, Mike Blunden, Patrick Holland and Martin St. Pierre
Key Additions: T.J. Hensick, Drayson Bowman, Jake Dowell, Eric Tangradi and Magnus Nygren
Incoming Rookies: Charles Hudon, Daniel Carr, Jacob de la Rose, Sahir Gill and Mac Bennett

The lack of depth hurt the Bulldogs’ chances of competing in the division last year, but with several additions in the offseason, the team looks to be more competitive in 2014-15.

Second-year pro Sven Andrighetto looks to lead the Bulldogs offensively alongside a stronger supporting cast that includes incoming rookies Charles Hudon and Jacob de la Rose. The wealth of young talent and their ability to play a full two-way game could translate to the team having success this season.

Hudon looks to be a complete player who can play in all situations and forward positions, bringing a high hockey IQ to Montreal’s AHL affiliate. He has the high-end offensive talent to add a much needed secondary scoring touch to a team that lacked it last season.

De la Rose is another player with speed and two-way ability, and he will be making the transition to North American hockey this fall, where his speed and tenacity will be more noticeable. Having competed against men overseas, De la Rose looks to make a seamless transition to North American pro hockey.

With Nathan Beaulieu and Jared Tinordi moving up to Montreal, guys like second-year pro Darren Dietz will get more ice time and be leaned on for some offensive support from the back end. Before turning pro, Dietz led all WHL defensemen with 24 goals in the 2012-13 season.

In goal will be a mix of youth and experience with Mike Condon and Joey McDonald manning the net for the Bulldogs in 2014-15.

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