2014-15 AHL Preview: No clear favorite as Falcons look to repeat in Northeast

By Tony Androckitis
Kevin Czuczman - New York Islanders

Photo: Bridgeport Sound Tigers defenseman and New York Islanders prospect Kevin Czuczman saw some action in the NHL at the end of last season, but will begin the 2014-15 season with the Sound Tigers (courtesy of Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

 

With the Adirondack Phantoms re-locating to Allentown and moving to the East Division, the 2013 Eastern Conference champion Syracuse Crunch have been added to the AHL‘s Northeast Division. With a lot of roster turnover amongst all of the teams and a new team in the mix, the division appears to be up for grabs in 2014-15.

Springfield Falcons

Last Season: 47-23-1-5, 100 points – First Place, Northeast Division
Eliminated by Providence – First Round

Graduated to the NHL: Michael Chaput, Jack Skille, Tim Erixon, Cody Goloubef
Key Losses: Carter Camper, Jonathan Marchessault, Patrick McNeill, Jean-Francois Jacques, Darryl Boyce, Andrew Joudrey, Dallas Jackson, Paul Thompson
Key Additions: Mike Hoeffel, Corey Cowick, Jerry D’Amigo
Incoming Rookies: Anton Forsberg, Kerby Rychel, T.J. Tynan, Josh Anderson, Oskar Dansk

The Springfield Falcons won the Northeast Division last season, but with a lot of roster turnover from last year to this year it will be interesting to see where the team fits in the division picture in 2014-15.

It all starts with two highly regarded goaltending prospects in net for the Falcons as Oskar Dansk and Anton Forsberg battle for ice time. Forsberg started the season opener, but both look to split time to begin the season until a true number one emerges.

Kerby Rychel is coming off of an 89-point season (34 goals, 55 assists) between the Windsor Spitfires and Guelph Storm in the OHL. He followed up a stellar regular season with an even better postseason – 32 points in 20 games – on the way to a Memorial Cup final loss to the champion Edmonton Oil Kings. The power forward looks to continue his offensive success at the pro level with Springfield and could carve out a spot in the NHL by season’s end.

T.J. Tynan turns pro this fall after 38 points (eight goals, 30 assists) in 40 games as Notre Dame’s alternate captain last season. His ability to set up his teammates makes up for what he lacks in size. Although he isn’t overly big, he can develop into a solid two-way forward who could be an asset on the penalty kill.

Josh Anderson is another rookie looking to make an immediate impact at the AHL level. The 6’3 forward looks to play the power role in front of the net, but has the speed to get up the ice quickly and be effective on the back check as well.

The additions of Mike Hoeffel and Jerry D’Amigo gives the Falcons a much-needed scoring boost to replace the losses of Marchessault and Camper, but it will be up to the defense and play of the young goaltenders to determine how successful the Falcons are in 2014-15.

Albany Devils

Last Season: 40-23-5-8, 93 points – Second Place, Northeast Division
Eliminated by St. John’s – First Round

Graduated to the NHL: Jon Merill and Adam Larsson
Key Losses: Harri Pesonen, Mattias Tedenby, Mike Hoeffel, Artem Demkov, Alexander Urbom
Key Additions: Paul Thompson, Steve Bernier, Peter Harrold
Incoming Rookies: Graham Black, Joe Faust, Ben Johnson, Ben Thomson

Much like their NHL parent New Jersey Devils, the Albany Devils play a defense-first style of game and aren’t afraid of setting up a neutral zone trap when carrying a lead or trying to hold onto a one-goal lead late in games.

With goaltenders Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood in the fold, it’s not a bad strategy. In his third pro season in 2013-14, Kinkaid set career highs in wins (24) and shutouts (4) en route to his first Calder Cup playoffs experience last spring. Wedgewood didn’t look out of place last season, either. He finished his rookie year with four shutouts and a 16-14-3 record, and as a second-year pro looked solid in a preseason win over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

With a number of changes on defense, the question becomes whether or not Albany can play that shutdown defense that their style of play is tailored to.

They have the size, with three of their top-six defensemen – Seth Helgeson, Raman Hrabarenka and Corbin McPherson – hopping over the boards and standing 6’5”. Helgeson played 74 games as a rookie last season, and the big defender is transitioning to the pro game well, making it easy to pair him with any kind of player. Hrabarenka – entering his third pro season – is a similar big, physical defenseman who added a bit of a scoring flare last season, leading the Devils back end with six goals and 15 assists.

Forward Graham Black was the only rookie to make the Albany Devils’ opening night roster, coming off a 97-point season with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos. It’s a feel-good story on Black, who battled an illness that nearly forced him out of hockey a few years prior to him signing his entry-level contract this past spring.

Still, the Devils have several talented forwards looking to make the next step with top scorers Joe Whitney, Reid Boucher, Mike Sislo and Stefan Matteau looking to lead the charge. The team’s style allows them to play in typically lower scoring affairs and be competitive on an almost nightly basis. Just how tight the defense is in 2014-15 will have the greatest effect on the outcome of their season.

Hartford Wolfpack

Last Season: 37-32-1-6, 81 points – Third Place, Northeast Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast
Key Losses: Danny Syvret, Aaron Johnson,Darroll Powe, T.J. Hensick, Micheal Haley
Key Additions: Cedric Desjardins, Chris Bourque, Chris Mueller, Ryan Potulny, Joey Crabb and Nick Tarnasky
Incoming Rookies: Mat Bodie, Samuel Noreau, Steve Spinell, Ryan Haggerty, Chris McCarthy, Richard Nejezchleb

The Wolfpack were very active in the off-season transactions list as they brought in a bevy of talent up front to help offset what looks to be a young core of defensemen. They also added a goaltender to strengthen their depth in net.

The forward core in Hartford should be fun to watch with Chris Bourque joining the team along with his brother Ryan, a former long-time Hershey Bears forward; Ryan Potulny; and a Calder Cup champion with Texas last year in Chris Mueller.

Not a single defenseman on the roster was born in the 1980’s, meaning the Wolfpack has the youngest blue line core in the AHL. That’s not to say the Wolfpack’s back end lacks talent, but there is not much depth or experience to be had on the roster.

The oldest by age is Conor Allen, who is just entering his second pro season with 72 AHL games and 3 NHL games of experience. Allen will need to lead a very young and inexperienced defense and lead by example to show he belongs at the next level. Allen, along with incoming rookie Mat Bodie, look to lead the charge from the back end. Bodie is highly regarded following his role in leading Union College to an NCAA Championship as captain of the team with 39 points (eight goals, 31 assists) in 40 games.

Dylan McIlrath is the ‘vet’ with just 120 games of AHL experience and 2 in the NHL entering his third pro season, but he has been hampered by knee injuries.

The Wolfpack might forge a new rivalry with the newest member of the division – Syracuse – having Cedric Desjardins as their starting goaltender this season. The former Crunch goaltender is coming off of a rough season in Syracuse as the team as a whole did not perform well. He looks for a fresh start in Hartford with giant 6’8” goaltender Jason Missiaen backing him up.

Syracuse Crunch

Last Season: 31-32-4-9, 75 points – Fifth Place, Northeast Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: Brett Connolly, Nikita Kucherov, Vladimir Namestnikov, J.T. Brown, Andrej Sustr
Key Losses: Dana Tyrell, Matt Taormina, Jon DiSalvatore, Evan Rankin, Dmitry Korobov
Key Additions: Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden, Jerome Samson, Matthew Corrente
Incoming Rookies: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus, Jake Dotchin, Henri Ikonen, Joel Vermin and Cody Kunyk 

After a 2013 Calder Cup final appearance, the Crunch had a tough year in the highly competitive East Division last season and were decimated by injuries and call-ups to the parent Tampa Bay Lightning. The Crunch have seen several players move on to the NHL in the past two seasons and look to right the ship in 2014-15.

The Crunch will get an extra boost with the arrival of forward Jonathan Drouin on a two-week maximum conditioning stint starting this weekend. Drouin broke his thumb in training camp and, since he didn’t appear in any preseason games, he will start his pro career in the AHL to get down his timing and get in some game experience.

In addition to Kristers Gudlevskis in net this season, the Lightning’s first round pick from 2012 – Andrei Vasilevskiy – joins the Crunch after a successful 14-8-5 season in the KHL as a 19-year-old. Vasilevskiy will spend his first season in North America in the AHL to adjust his game to the smaller rink, but if not for the Evgeni Nabokov signing in Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy might have been penciled in as an NHL backup.

If incoming rookie defenseman Slater Koekkoek can stay healthy, he will be an asset to the Crunch’s blue line. Koekkoek ended all of his junior seasons since 2010-11 with injuries and certainly has some durability questions surrounding him, but when healthy is a solid two-way defender with a great shot and high offensive instincts. He tallied 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists) in 62 games last season with the Windsor Spitfires.

Up front, new additions Jerome Samson and Jonathan Marchessault and returning second-year pro Cedric Paquette look to lead the offensive charge for the Crunch. Paquette tallied 20 goals as a rookie in the AHL last season and finished his season in the NHL with Tampa Bay, appearing in four Stanley Cup playoff games. With two goals in his first two games this season, look for Paquette to make the jump back up to the NHL soon.

Bridgeport Sound Tigers

Last Season: 28-40-2-6, 64 points – Fifth Place, Northeast Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: Matt Donovan and Ryan Strome
Key Losses: Anders Nilsson, Joe Finley, Chris Bruton, Justin Johnson
Key Additions: David Leggio, Harry Zolnierczyk, Kael Mouillierat, Colton Gillies, Justin Courtnall, C.J. Stretch
Incoming Rookies: Ryan Pulock, Kevin Czuczman, Adam Pelech, Jesse Graham, Mark Nemec, Lukas Sutter, Sebastien Collberg

While the New York Islanders were busy adding pieces to their NHL roster, they also bolstered the farm club with NHL-ready talent. Combine that with an interesting group of incoming rookies and the Sound Tigers look much improved heading into the 2014-15 season.

Up front, the addition of scorers Harry Zolnierczyk and Karl Mouillierat gives the Sound Tigers a new dimension on offense missing from last season – a secondary scoring touch. That will open things up for returning forwards Anders Lee, Johan Sundstrom and John Persson.

An intriguing forward prospect to watch in the AHL for Islanders fans will be Sebastian Collberg, acquired in the Thomas Vanek trade. A fresh start in a new organization should provide the Swedish forward a better chance to showcase his skills. He will have to adjust to the North American game, but has been playing against men overseas in the SHL already and possesses a quick, accurate shot and, despite having a small frame, shows a willingness to go the dirty areas of the ice.

The Sound Tigers will have a very young and inexperienced blue line, with seven of the eight defenders on the roster entering their first full season in the AHL.

Leading the way among the rookies on the back end is Ryan Pulock, an offensive defenseman with a big shot from the point. After another strong season in the WHL in 2013-14, Pulock joins the Sound Tigers and looks to make an immediate impact at the AHL level in order to keep his name in the conversation with the many NHL-caliber defensive prospects in the organization.

Adam Pelech is another rookie looking to crack the AHL lineup this fall. A puck-moving, two-way defender who tallied a career-high 54 points in the OHL last season, Pelech continues to improve, and with the plethora of talent on the Sound Tigers’ back end, he won’t be rushed in his development.

Kevin Czuczman was a highly sought after free agent out of Lake Superior State University who signed with the Islanders and appeared in 13 NHL games last season. He’ll begin with Bridgeport this fall, looking to continue to develop his overall game and get back to the NHL later this year.

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey