While the Eastern Conference has seen some teams off to hot starts early this season, the best three records in the American Hockey League (AHL) currently belong to the Western Conference – and that doesn’t even include last year’s Calder Cup champion Texas Stars, who are currently just eighth best in the conference. The Midwest Division alone is home to three of the league’s top five teams through the first seven weeks of the season, providing some entertaining hockey to fans out West.
Utica’s Hot Start, Flames Heating Up
What a difference a year makes for the Utica Comets, who in their inaugural season as an AHL franchise last year were winless until their 11th game of the season. At this time last year, the Comets only had two wins. This year, the Comets have only two regulation losses and own the league’s second-best record at 12-4-2-0.
A big reason for the turnaround is goaltender Jacob Markstrom, acquired by the Vancouver Canucks in a trade with the Florida Panthers at the trading deadline last season. Markstrom has lost just once in regulation this season, and at one point was minutes shy of breaking the AHL’s shutout streak record after he recorded a shutout in three straight games for the Comets in mid-October. The lanky, 6’6” goaltender has formed a nice duo with fellow countryman Joacim Eriksson, who is also off to a solid start with a 5-3-1 record.
Rookie forward Hunter Shinkaruk, Vancouver’s first round pick (23rd overall) in 2013, is happy just to be playing hockey again after having season-ending hip surgery in January. His speed and skating ability are on full display and he should only continue to improve as he gets fully adjusted to the pro game. Shinkaruk is shooting the puck with regularity in Utica, averaging three shots a game in November, and is looking more comfortable in the second month of the season. He recently posted the first two-goal game of his pro career on November 14th against a good Chicago team.
Another first-year pro enjoying moderate success through the first two months of the season is Brendan Gaunce, another former first round pick (26th overall in 2012) who, although listed as a center, has played primarily on the wing in the AHL this season. Gaunce has NHL size and it seems it’s only a matter of adjusting to the pro-style game and better using his solid frame before he earns a call up to Vancouver.
The other team in the North Division making strides in the last month is the Adirondack Flames, who despite several call-ups at the forward position have won eight straight games after a 3-6-1-0 start to the season. With five forwards who started the season in the AHL currently up with Calgary in the NHL, it has paved the way for several first- and second-year players to gain increased roles and ice time. So far, the players who have moved up in the lineup are playing very well.
Rookie winger Emile Porier has stood out with his ability to create offense with his quickness and skating ability. A point-per-game player in the AHL so far, head coach Ryan Huska said after a recent game in Rochester that Porier is continuing to work on his play away from the puck and has a bright future ahead of him.
Some forwards who might have been pegged for the ECHL were it not for all the call-ups up front, such as rookies Kenny Agostino and Bryce Van Brabant, have excelled with the ice time they have received in the first two months of the season. Agostino is fourth in scoring on a well-rounded offense with eight points (3G, 5A) while Van Brabant – the first Quinnipiac alumna to play in the NHL – has seven points (4G, 3A) through the team’s first 17 games.
On the back end, the Flames are balanced with veteran Nolan Yonkman mentoring several young defensemen. Rookie Ryan Culkin is playing at a near point-per-game rate in his first 10 pro games, while shutdown defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon continues to develop into that stay-at-home role and is playing more consistent in the last few weeks.
Joni Ortio brings it all together for the Flames with solid effort in net. Coming off a 27-win rookie season, Ortio looks to avoid the sophomore slump; but, while his numbers haven’t been as good as last year’s in his first 13 games of 2014-15, he is 8-3-1 and giving his team a chance to win whenever he is in net.
Wild Wild Midwest
The Milwaukee Admirals began the season as the league’s hottest team, winning their first six games of the 2014-15 season. They’re off to a strong start at 11-4-0-1 but oddly enough find themselves in third place in a fiercely competitive Midwest Division two months into the season.
Led by strong play in net from goaltending duo Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg, the Admirals sit six points out of first place with three games in hand. Mazanec handled the workload in October and is 5-4-0 on the season. And, when the Admirals turned to Hellberg at the end of the month, he went on to win his next five starts forming one of the top goaltending duos in the league right now.
The goaltending has eased what is a very young Admirals team into what is the first or second year of pro hockey for most of the skaters on the roster. There are currently 10 rookies listed on the Admirals’ roster.
Offensively, rookies Brendan Leipsic (1G, 13A) and Viktor Arvidsson (6G, 6A) have led the way. Leipsic put up great offensive numbers in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks the last few seasons, and though a bit-undersized, he battles hard and it has shown in the AHL this season as he leads the team in scoring.
Nashville’s fourth round pick in 2014, Arvidsson was a big part of his SHL team’s success – the team’s third leading scorer – as Skelleftea won the SHL championship last season. A bit of a late bloomer at 21 years old, Arvidsson has been highly entertaining to watch, with Arvidsson continuing to show his offensive ability on the smaller ice in North America. Look for Arvidsson to continue to improve across the board as he adjusts to the North American game this season.
The Rockford IceHogs, AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, lead both the Midwest Division and AHL and have had contributions across the board from their veterans all the way down to their first-year pros, including up front from Mark McNeill and Teuvo Teravainen and on the blue line from rookies Ville Pokka and Stephen Johns.
McNeill is continuing to build off of his 18-goal rookie season and already has nine this season, teaming up with long-time NHL forward Peter Regin to lead the IceHogs in scoring. Teravainen is another promising prospect in the Blackhawks’ system off to a good start as the playmaking winger has 10 points in his first 17 games this season.
Adam Clendening has been a solid offensive defenseman the last two seasons for the IceHogs and is currently on his first NHL stint with Chicago, but Stephen Johns is stepping up his game and filling the void on the back end. Johns was drafted more for his size and defensive zone play, but has tallied five assists in addition to being a +9 through 19 games. It looks as though he is adjusting to the speed of the pro game just fine, transitioning from the four years of college hockey at Notre Dame.
The Chicago Wolves are the third team making the Midwest Division very competitive right out of the gates, sitting four points back of Rockford with a 11-5-3-0 record.
With Jake Allen moving up to the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, goaltender Jordan Binnington is getting his chance in the AHL this season and has not disappointed so far. Binnington has ridden the success train from the OHL to the ECHL and it doesn’t look like things are going any differently in the AHL. He should continue to develop with regular starts and looks to mold into a future NHL goaltender with continued solid effort this season.
Offensively, second-year pros Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin are expected to lead the team with help from some veterans such as Rob Bordson and Pat Cannone. Rattie put up 31 goals last season as a rookie and is looking to avoid the sophomore slump with 11 goals already in 2014-15. With a larger role this season, Rattie needs to round out his game away from the puck to make himself better suited for NHL action. Jaskin has seen six games with St. Louis already this season and has been at a near point-per-game pace at the AHL level with seven points (2G, 5A) in 10 AHL games. The Blues second round pick from 2011 put up 46 goals in his only year in the QMJHL, switching to the North American game after two years with Slavia Praha HC in the Czech Republic.
On defense, rookies Petteri Lindbohm and Jake Chelios are turning heads in the early going of the 2014-15 season. Lindbohm has seven points, including four goals in 17 games from the blue line. Chelios, the younger son of former Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios, signed an AHL deal with the Wolves this summer after spending the last six weeks of last season with the team. In seven games this season, Chelios has seven assists which is good for third in scoring among the Wolves’ active defensemen. The former Michigan State University defenseman enjoyed a breakout year in his senior season before appearing in seven ECHL games with Toledo and four AHL games with the Wolves last spring.
Western Conference Hot List, November 2014
1. John Klingberg ,D – Texas Stars
2014-15 Season Stats: 10GP, 4G-8A, + 5, 6 PIM
The 22-year-old Swedish-born defenseman is adjusting to the North American game so quickly, he forced Dallas to trade aging defenseman Sergei Gonchar to Montreal to make room for him on the NHL roster. Klingberg had 11 of his 12 points (3G-8A) in his last seven AHL games before being recalled by Dallas, who has since placed Kevin Connauton on waivers to further solidify Klingberg’s spot in the lineup.
2. Mark McNeill, C – Rockford IceHogs
2014-15 Season Stats: 15GP, 9G-7A, +7, 7 PIM
A key contributor to his team’s early season success, McNeill has tallied 14 points (8G-6A) in his last 10 games garnering him the AHL Player of the Week award for the week ending November 9th. A second-year pro, McNeill is already halfway to his respectable 18-goal rookie year in which he appeared in all 76 of Rockford’s games.
3. Jordan Binnington, G – Chicago Wolves
2014-15 Season Stats: 9GP, 6-2-1, 1.89 GAA, .925 SV%, 1 SO
Binnington started the season with two losses in October, but won his first five starts in November. The rookie goaltender was relegated to ECHL duty last season with the depth in net in the St. Louis organization, but Binnington has proved himself worthy of more AHL ice time with his recent play.
4. Ty Rattie, RW – Chicago Wolves
2014-15 Season Stats: 19GP, 11G-2A, +7, 2 PIM
Rattie is really starting to build a resume as one of the purest goal-scorers in the league right now. Coming off a 31-goal rookie season last season which was tied for first among rookies and third most league-wide, Rattie already has 11 goals this year including five between 11/12 and 11/15. The St. Louis Blues’ second round pick in 2011 tallied 144 goals in his final two years in the WHL, and if his goal-scoring prowess continues to translate at the pro level, he’s got a bright future in the NHL ahead of him.
5. Charles Hudon, C – Hamilton Bulldogs
2014-15 Season Stats: 18GP, 6G-12A, +11, 18 PIM
The former fifth round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 NHL Draft has been a bit of a surprise in the first six weeks of the season, as he is tied with Providence’s David Pastrnak (currently up with the Boston Bruins) for the most points among first-year pros. The play-making forward should only see his numbers continue to pile up with long-time NHL forward Rene Bourque re-assigned to the AHL and on his line.
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