2014-15 AHL Preview: No clear favorite in talented Midwest Division

By Tony Androckitis

Marek Mazanec - Nashville Predators

Photo: Milwaukee Admirals goalltender and Nashville Predators prospect Marek Mazanec had a taste of NHL action during the 2013-14 season, playing well in a 25-game stint with the NHL club (courtesy of John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

The AHL’s Midwest Division features several talented incoming rookies including Rockford’s Teuvo Teravainen and Grand Rapids’ Anthony Mantha, as well as several key prospects entering their second pro season such as Chicago’s Ty Rattie and the duo of Miikka Salomaki and Colton Sissons in Milwaukee.

The Lake Erie Monsters have joined the division this season, having competed in the North Division last year. While the Wolves won the division last season, the Griffins, IceHogs and Admirals all look to challenge for the division title in 2014-15.

Chicago Wolves

Last Season: 45-21-5-5, 100 points – First Place, Midwest Division
Eliminated by Toronto – Second Round

Graduated to the NHL: Jake Allen, Petteri Lindbohm
Key Losses: Taylor Chorney, Evan Oberg, Brent Regner, Mark Cundari, Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Bolduc
Key Additions:  Mathieu Brodeur, Terry Broadhurst, Colin Fraser, Jeremy Welsh, John McCarthy, Rob Bordson
Incoming Rookies: Jordan Binnington, Petteri Lindbohm, Matthew Register, Jake Chelios, Gergo Nagy and Yannick Veilleux

It all starts in net for Chicago, with Jake Allen moving on to the parent St. Louis Blues and opening a battle between last year’s backup, Matt Climie, and rookie Jordan Binnington.

Climie seems to have a hold on the top spot for now, opening the 2014-15 season with a 3-0-0 record including a shutout, but Binnington is certainly the future number one goalie moving forward.

Binnington was forced to mainly ECHL duties last season, but didn’t disappoint. He went 23-13-3 in 40 ECHL games with Kalamazoo last season, and looks to push Climie for the number one spot this season.

There was a complete overhaul at defense over the summer as David Shields and Brent Regner are the only returning defenders from 2013-14. Shields had a breakout year in 2013-14, tripling his point total from the year before while taking on a larger role in the AHL. He’s looking for much of the same in 2014-15.

After spending the last three seasons in the KHL, veteran defenseman Brent Sopel (659 NHL games) looks to stabilize a young blue line along with former Calgary Flames defenseman, Chris Butler.

The Wolves still have Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin up front, and both look to build off of successful rookie seasons with even better results in Year Two. Rattie led the team in scoring last season with 31 goals, and Jaskin looks to elevate his game in a top-six role this season to build off of the 29 points (15 goals, 14 assists) in 42 games he earned in his rookie season in 2013-14.

Another forward emerging to the forefront is rookie Yannick Veilleux, who looks to play a power forward role in his first pro season this fall with the Wolves. At 6’2 and 205 pounds, he has the size but is looking to round out his game in the defensive zone and be more consistent on a nightly basis to make even more of an impact this year.

Grand Rapids Griffins

Last season: 46-23-2-5, 99 points – Second Place, Midwest Division
Eliminated by Texas – Second Round

Graduated to the NHL: Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheehan, Gustav Nyquist, Luke Glendening, Andrej Nestrasil
Key Losses: Cory Emmerton, Adam Almqvist, Calle Jarnkrok, Jordin Tootoo, Tristan Grant and David McIntyre
Key Additions: Chris Bruton, Kevin Porter and Andy Miele
Incoming Rookies: Anthony Mantha, Mark Zengerle, Tomas Nosek, Andreas Athanasiou, Mattias Backman and Richard Nedomlel

Between players leaving and moving up to the NHL, the Griffins lost five of their top seven scorers from last season’s squad. To offset that, the Detroit Red Wings bolstered the AHL scoring depth with one of last year’s leading scorers in the AHL in Andy Miele and a goal-scoring veteran in Kevin Porter.

Still, younger players like returning second-year pro Teemu Pulkkinen and incoming rookies Anthony Mantha (currently injured), Andreas Athanasiou and Tomas Nosek will need to pick up the slack offensively.

If not for an injury during training camp, many thought Mantha would be in the NHL. Instead, he’ll likely start his pro career in the AHL upon being cleared to play. Mantha was an offensive machine in the QMJHL in 2013-14, tallying 120 points in 57 regular season games. He’s due back in a couple weeks and will head to Grand Rapids for his first pro games. By all accounts, his scoring prowess from juniors is expected to carry over.

Like Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou is a former junior star making the jump.  He was with the Griffins for the close of last season and looks to use his blazing speed and skating ability to create offense at the AHL level this season.

A wild-card is Tomas Nosek, who the Red Wings signed out of the Czech Republic over the summer.  He was given a long look by the Wings in the preseason but Detroit is overloaded at center, so he begins his North American pro career in the AHL.

The Griffins also have several prospects on the blue line worth watching this season, including returning second-year pros Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko and Ryan Sproul. All three are nearly NHL-ready and would likely be in the NHL if not in an organization loaded on the blue line like Detroit is.

Ouellet is capable of playing in all situations, making him a true two-way defenseman. He may never be thought of as a point producer, but his keen passing skills and lock-down coverage in his own zone have turned heads. His appearance in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs should trigger how the organization feels about his game. He’ll likely be the first defenseman recalled to Detroit this season.

Sproul had concerns about the defensive aspects of his game coming into his AHL rookie season in 2013-14 but quelled them with a solid season. He has more offensive upside than his counterparts in Grand Rapids and tallied 32 points in his first pro season. He looks to continue to round out his game in his second year in the AHL.

The Griffins are certainly in contention for the division title again this season, and if not for all of the injuries in Detroit last season, might have been looking to repeat as division champs entering this season.

Milwaukee Admirals

Last Season: 39-24-6-7, 91 points – Third Place, Midwest Division
Eliminated by Toronto – First Round

Graduated to the NHL: Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok and Taylor Beck
Key Losses: Bryan Rodney, Simon Moser, Mathieu Tousignant and Joonas Rask
Key Additions: Tristan Grant
Incoming Rookies: Jimmy Oligny, Jonathan Diaby, Garrett Noonan, Johan Alm, Brendan Leipsic, Viktor Arvidsson, Pontus Aberg, Frederick Gaudreau, Felix Girard and Joe Pendenza

The Admirals didn’t lose much from their roster last season aside from Filip Forsberg making the Nashville Predators‘ roster. In fact, several players were moved to the ECHL to make room for a wide variety of talented incoming rookies that make up half of the roster.

Milwaukee will lean on returning second-year pros Miikka Salomaki and Colton Sissons to carry the offensive load this season, but have several rookies looking to burst onto the pro scene as well – Brendan Leipsic, Viktor Arvidsson and Pontus Aberg to name a few.

Leipsic put up great numbers offensively while in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks and even plays with an edge on the ice, racking up penalty minutes as often as goals and assists. While undersized, Leipsic is off to a great start with six assists in his first four games with Milwaukee this season.

Arvidsson and Aberg are both entering their first North American pro seasons after playing in Sweden last year.

Arvidsson was the oldest player drafted over the summer, but was the third in scoring for SHL champion Skelleftea last season. He’s another rookie off to a good start with Milwaukee, having tallied a hat trick in Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Iowa Wild.
 
Aberg is also off to a fine start with Milwaukee, with four points (three goals and an assist) in his first four AHL games. He is another guy that will be relied upon to create offense in a young Admirals lineup, though his abilities away from the puck and in the defensive zone need some work.

The Admirals also have four rookies on defense this season – Johan Alm, Jonathan Diaby, Garrett Noonan and Jimmy Oligny.
The biggest defenseman on the AHL roster is Diaby, a monster at 6’5 and 246 pounds, but he showed some offensive upside in his last season in the QMJHL. His size and physical play can complement almost any puck-moving defender in the organization.

Johan Alm is another former member of SHL champion Skelleftea that is solid in his own zone and has good skating ability for a guy of his size. Alm is still developing and could be a solid two-way defender for the Predators sometime in the near future.

The Admirals return their talented young goaltender, Marek Mazanec, for the 2014-15 season. He looks to build off of an 18-win rookie season with a solid grasp on the number one spot this year. He’s off to an impressive 4-0-0 start with one shutout so far this season.

Rockford IceHogs

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

Graduated to the NHL: Anti Raanta, Jeremy Morin
Key Losses: Jason LaBarbera, Terry Broadhurst, Brandon Pirri. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brian Connelly
Key Additions: Scott Darling, T.J. Brennan, Zach Miskovic, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Cody Bass and Peter Regin
Incoming Rookies: Ville Pokka, Stephen Johns, Matt Carey, Ryan Hartman and Teuvo Teravainen

The IceHogs look to rebound from a disappointing 2013-14 season and contend for the Midwest Division crown this season following some solid off-season pickups and some high-end prospects coming to town.

The IceHogs saw both goaltenders from last year’s roster move on, but replaced them with a solid veteran in Michael Leighton and up-and-coming Scott Darling.  Leighton recently recorded his 37th career AHL shutout over the weekend, tying him for third all-time in shutouts in the AHL. Darling worked his way from the ECHL ranks to Milwaukee last season in his rookie year, with an impressive six shutouts and a 13-6-2 record in 2013-14.

The Chicago Blackhawks also bolstered their depth on defense by adding the AHL’s leading scorer on defense last year in T.J. Brennan to join an already elite offensive defenseman in Adam Clendening.

They also have a talented rookie turning pro this fall in former Notre Dame standout Stephen Johns. Johns has the size and solid defensive play of an NHL prospect, but began to improve his puck moving skills as well in his final collegiate season. Adjusting to the pro style game from college will take some time, but if all pans out well Johns could very well end up in Chicago in the very near future.

The most intriguing prospects for the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate are up front with incoming forward rookies Teuvo Teravainen and Ryan Hartman.

Teravainen is the top prospect in the Blackhawks’ organization and the most talented offensive weapon in the system with Rockford this season. The 19-year-old looks to transition to the North American pro game after playing overseas in his native Finland, but a seamless transition will probably end up with Teravainen in the NHL before the season’s end.

Hartman didn’t look out of place in nine AHL games at the tail end of last season, tallying seven points (three goals and four assists) in those nine games. He will look to continue his offensive prowess in his first full pro season this fall.

Whether or not the IceHogs can lean on younger forwards to carry the offensive workload remains to be seen, but the future is bright with the Chicago Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate.

Lake Erie Monsters

Last Season: 32-33-1-10, 75 points – Fourth Place, North Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: Zach Redmond
Key Losses: Matt Hunwick, Bryan Lerg, Mark Olver, David Van Der Gulik, J.T. Wyman
Key Additions: Bruno Gervais, Ben Street and Kenny Ryan
Incoming Rookies: Roman Will, Cody Corbett, Borna Rendulic, Dennis Everberg, Troy Bourke and Sam Henley

Injuries derailed the Monsters’ 2013-14 season in the North Division, and now they enter the Midwest Division looking to get things back on track in 2014-15.

The Monsters are currently without their top two goaltenders as both Calvin Pickard and Sami Aittokallio are on recall to the Colorado Avalanche, but it gives rookie Roman Will a chance to get some pro experience.

An injury cut Duncan Siemens’ rookie season to just 46 games, so the returning second-year pro hopes to stay healthy and rebound from an up-and-down 2013-14 season. A stay-at-home defenseman, Siemens plays with a mean streak which was evident when he was in the lineup last year as he often delivered punishing body checks to opponents on the boards and in the corners.

Joey Hishon is another player looking to bounce back from several injuries so far in his pro career. Hishon appeared in 50 games last season, but looks to rebound and stay healthy in 2014-15 after re-signing a one year contract with the Avalanche over the summer.

Another player looking for a bounce back season is Michael Sgarbossa, who tallied 20 points in an injury-shortened 49-game season, his second as a pro. Sgarbossa impressed while healthy, earning a short stint in the NHL last season. He looks to be a leader on offense with the Monsters this season in hopes of getting back to the NHL when injuries arise.

The Monsters lost their captain from last season in Bryan Lerg, as well as veterans Matt Hunwick, Mark Olver and David Van Der Gulik. They’ve brought in defenseman Bruno Gervais and forward Ben Street to address the leadership issues created by several key departures this off-season, but it will be interesting to see how the Monsters fair facing a different set of divisional opponents in 2014-15.

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey