Through the first five weeks of the 2014-15 season, there have been plenty of surprises in the AHL‘s Eastern Conference, including fast starts by rookies David Pastrnak and Chase Balisy and by teams who struggled last season such as the Worcester Sharks and Hartford Wolf Pack.
Tri-State Rivalry Sits Atop The East Division
With the Philadelphia Flyers re-locating their AHL club back into Pennsylvania, it renews the East Division’s Tri-State rivalry between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Hershey Bears. Each team will play the other two teams in the state a total of 12 times each.
The Penguins lead the division after five weeks and despite being an organization that has placed emphasis on drafting high-end defensemen, it’s the plethora of rookie forwards stealing the spotlight and leading the way.
It all starts with former Notre Dame standout Bryan Rust, who leads all AHL rookies with seven goals. Rust looks more experienced than other rookies in the league, having 160 collegiate games under his belt as well as three games with the AHL Penguins at the tail end of last season. Getting a taste of the pro game and being acquainted with the systems run by the Penguins has shortened the learning curve.
Another pleasant surprise has been Jean-Sebastien Dea, who is second in scoring on the Penguins with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 15 games. Dea has always been a goal scorer, as his 94 goals in his final two years in the QMJHL would attest, but he’s stepped up his game away from the puck as well. Dea has come into each of the last two summer camps with more muscle than the previous year and it’s showing on the ice. Dea is tied for the league lead with Peter Regin of the Rockford IceHogs with two overtime goals. The Penguins will need Dea’s clutch goal-scoring to continue if Dea wants to separate himself from the several rookies in the lineup up front for the Penguins this year.
The Hershey Bears don’t have a great deal of young talent on the roster, but have had veterans leading the way to their good start. Kris Newbury is second in the AHL in scoring with 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) while Casey Wellman’s five power play tallies ties him for first in that category with two other players.
On defense, second-year pro Connor Carrick is the Washington Capitals‘ top prospect playing in the AHL. Carrick appeared in 34 NHL games with the Capitals as a 19-year-old last season and looks to round out his game with top four minutes in the AHL this fall. The puck-moving defenseman is a two-way defender who has seen plenty of special teams minutes in Hershey so far this season and should continue to improve as he plays in more pro games.
The Bears have two talented young goaltenders off to good starts as well. Rookie Pheonix Copley has been impressive in his first five starts with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage, including two shutouts. Third-year pro Philipp Grubauer is 5-4-1 in his first 10 starts, but is looking to work on being more consistent as he’s allowed three or more goals in half of his starts this season.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Penguins and Bears – annual contenders – are sitting first and second, respectively, in the East Division after the first month-and-a-half of the season, but the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ influx of young talented prospects and a veteran goalie with a championship resume has the team much more competitive than they were the past few seasons in Glens Falls as the Adirondack Phantoms. It’s still early in the season and injuries are starting to mount on defense, but the Phantoms have a solid group of veterans to stabilize the roster and mentor the younger guys.
One Phantoms forward making some noise is rookie center Scott Laughton, whose back-to-back two-goal performances in October garnered him an AHL Player of the Week award. Laughton’s 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 13 games are tied for the team scoring lead with second-year pro Nick Cousins (four goals, seven assists), but Laughton has been the team’s top-line center and first unit power play specialist throughout the first five weeks. His abilities to skate with the puck into high traffic areas and create scoring chances are way beyond his years – 22 pro games (17 AHL, 5 NHL).
On defense, the Phantoms have been shorthanded due to injuries at both levels. Promising rookie Shayne Gostisbehere tore his ACL last weekend and is out indefinitely, likely for the season. It’s an unfortunate injury for the former Union College defenseman, but it opens the door for a pair of rookie Swedish defenders in Robert Hagg and Jesper Pettersson.
The Flyers’ second round pick (41st overall) in 2013, Hagg is playing in his first full season in North America, having spent the last two years in Sweden playing for MODO. The 19-year-old plays a solid two-way game and is a well-rounded prospect who should continue to improve his overall game as he gets more used to the North American pro game and competing on smaller rinks than those used in Sweden.
Pettersson was the Flyers seventh round pick in 2014. The 20-year-old rookie has carved out a role on the Phantoms’ blue line and is benefiting from the decimated defense in the organization. A bit undersized at 5’8”, Pettersson is a small but quick-skating defenseman who is trying to mold himself into a solid two-way defender capable of joining the rush and being steady in his own end.
Worcester and Hartford Early Surprises in the East
Two teams that missed the playoffs last season are currently very competitive in their respective divisions as the Worcester Sharks (Atlantic Division) and Hartford Wolf Pack (Northeast Division) look to bounce back from disappointing seasons last year.
For the Sharks, it all starts in net with second-year pro, Troy Grosenick. Grosenick enjoyed moderate success in his rookie season with Worcester, splitting time with then-starter Harri Sateri and winning 18 games. This season, it’s Grosenick’s net and the Sharks are off to an 8-5-1 start due in large part to his play in net (7-2-1, 2.73 GAA, .908 SV%). The former Union College goaltender is looking to have a breakout sophomore season.
Chris Tierney made his AHL debut with a bang last weekend, tallying a goal and two assists. He followed that up with two more assists in his next outing to give him five points (one goal, four assists) in two games. Tierney, the San Jose Sharks’ second round pick in 2012, saw some NHL time in San Jose to start the season but will look to benefit from more ice time at the AHL level to work on being the dominant player at both ends of the ice that he was in the OHL the last two years.
A pair of rookie wingers has added a secondary scoring touch to a team that lacked exactly that last season. The Sharks signed former Bowling Green State University forward Ryan Carpenter over the summer and the move has paid off so far. Carpenter is a skilled, two-way forward with NHL-caliber size and strength who has used those attributes to his advantage, having tallied eight points (four goals, four assists) in his first 14 games.
Jeremy Langlois is another college player turned pro, though he split last season between the AHL and mainly the ECHL, which is why he’s still considered a rookie this season. The former Union College forward has enjoyed a bit of success with his new team, tallying seven points (three goals, four assists) in 12 games. The Sharks will need to continue to get timely secondary scoring production if they want to contend for the Atlantic Division title this season.
Hartford was another team that fell short of making the playoffs last season, and with the way they have started, the Wolf Pack look determined not to repeat that misfortune in 2014-15.
Cedric Desjardins is the team’s starter in net, but talented rookie goaltender MacKenzie Skapski is 3-1-1 on the season with a solid 2.30 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, including one shutout. The former Kootenay Ice goaltender has gotten off to a hot start much like his new team in Hartford has so far this fall.
The Wolf Pack have a young group of defensemen, but they have played well and are a big part of the team’s early season success. Mat Bodie was a point-per-game player at Union College, leading all NCAA defensemen in scoring last season, and he captained the team to a national championship before turning pro this fall. With 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in his first 15 pro games, it looks like Bodie has picked up right where he left off last spring.
Conor Allen has gotten a taste of NHL action both in his rookie year and earlier this month. Entering his second pro season, Allen looks to continue to round out his game at the AHL level until another injury/suspension in New York requires a call up on defense.
Several forwards have contributed to the Wolf Pack’s offensive attack, with second-year pro Oscar Lindberg leading the way with eight goals in 15 games. Lindberg was a bit inconsistent in his rookie campaign in 2013-14, but appears to be adjusting much better to the pro game early on in his second season.
Rookie Ryan Haggerty, formerly of RPI, was a goal-scoring machine in college with 28 goals in 35 ECAC games last season. The gritty winger with offensive upside has tallied seven points (three goals, five assists) through his first 15 pro games and hasn’t looked out of place in the AHL.
As is the case with Worcester, it’s still early in the season for Hartford to be too content with their performance so far this season.
Eastern Conference Hot List, November, 2014
1. David Pastrnak, RW – Providence Bruins
2014-15 Season Stats: 15GP, 4G-12A, +10, 8 PIM
Pastrnak took the AHL by storm in October as the youngest player in the league at just 18 years old. His 16 points is tops among AHL rookies. Pastrnak was named the league’s Rookie of the Month for October, with an impressive +10 rating to go along with his point-per-game pace through his first 15 games of North American pro hockey.
2. Chris Wideman, D – Binghamton Senators
2014-15 Season Stats: 15GP, 8G-9A, +2, 16 PIM
The CCM/AHL Player of the Month for October and Player of the Week for the week ending 11/2 has been a consistent offensive defenseman who takes chances and makes plays. A third-year pro in Ottawa’s system, Wideman’s four power play goals and 17 points both rank first among all AHL defensemen.
3. Chase Balisy, LW – St. John’s IceCaps
2014-15 Season Stats: 14GP, 5G-8A, Even, 2 PIM
Despite playing on an AHL-only deal, the former Western Michigan standout is third in rookie scoring, behind Patsrnak and the Hamilton Bulldogs’ Charles Hudon. Balisy is a former 2011 sixth round draft pick of the Nashville Predators who is leading the way for the St. John’s IceCaps through the first five weeks of the season.
4. Oscar Lindberg, C – Hartford Wolf Pack
2014-15 Season Stats: 15GP, 8G-4A, -3, 16 PIM
Lindberg recently tallied five goals in five games, including at least a goal in three consecutive games from Nov. 5th thru the 9th. The second-year pro in the New York Rangers‘ system tallied 18 goals and 26 assists for Hartford last season as a rookie, but looks much more steady so far this season and is a big part of his team’s solid start.
5. Bryan Rust, RW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2014-15 Season Stats: 17GP, 7G-3A, -2, 6 PIM
The rookie forward from Notre Dame University has been a pleasant surprise for the Penguins in the first month-and-a-half of the season. The smallish, speedy winger has a knack for driving to and putting pucks on net – a recipe for success the first-year pro has employed with success so far in 2014-15.
Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey