AHL Western Conference Notebook, December, 2014

By Tony Androckitis
Teemu Pulkkinen - Grand Rapids Griffins

Photo: Grand Rapids Griffins forward and Detroit Red Wings prospect Teemu Pulkkinen is currently third overall in scoring in the AHL (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

It’s been a total upheaval in the standings in the AHL‘s Western Conference from last spring through the first third of the 2014-15 season. Two of the top four teams in the conference last season aren’t even in the top nine currently – Grand Rapids (9th) and Toronto (12th) – leaving the Western Conference wide open as teams head into the middle third of the schedule amidst the height of injuries and call-ups.

 

All stats November 22nd – December 29th unless otherwise stated.

 

Comets Still Soaring Atop North Division

 

In their second season as an AHL franchise, the Utica Comets – the top minor league affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks – are the league’s top team.

 

The Comets are unbeaten in regulation in their last 10 games and are still getting solid goaltending, with Joacim Eriksson (7-0-3 in his last 10 starts) getting more time in net in December. The veterans have led the way in Utica, which is allowing talented young players like Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Gaunce to enjoy a smoother transition to the pro game.

 

Comets’ head coach Travis Green will be the Head Coach of the Western Conference All-Stars at the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic taking place January 25th-26th in Utica. Green has earned that honor as a result of his team being guaranteed to have the best record in the Western Conference at the end of 2014.

 

The Adirondack Flames are another team getting some great goaltending, with Joni Ortio going 14-4-0 in his last 18 starts. The Calgary Flames’ top minor league affiliate is filled with rookies along with second- and third-year players, with several of them contributing right away this season. The balanced scoring in the lineup is making the Flames a tough team to match up against.

 

Five of the Flames’ top six leading scorers are first-year pros, and it seems a different player is getting the team on the board game in and game out. Much as you would expect from a younger team, the Flames have been quite a streaky team, with a nine-game win streak in November and a five-game win streak in December separated by a stretch of four losses in five games.

 

Rookie Emile Porier continues to be a near point-per-game player in the AHL, needing only to work on rounding out his game away from the puck at this level before being considered NHL-ready. Second-year pro Ben Hanowski leads the Flames with 11 goals in 30 games, while rookie defenseman Ryan Culkin’s 14 helpers in 25 games played are tops on the team for assists.

 

After going pointless in his first seven games, Max Reinhart has again gone missing from the score sheet in the team’s last eight games. The third-year pro is having a hard time standing out amidst all the incoming rookies, with just nine points (4G-5A) in 28 games this season.

 

The Hamilton Bulldogs are hanging around in the North Division, thanks to some stellar play from rookie forward Charles Hudon and second-year pro Sven Andrighetto. Hudon leads all first-year players in scoring with 31 points (9G-22A) in 32 games, while Andrighetto had 18 points (9G-9A) in 21 AHL games before earning his first NHL recall to Montreal earlier this month. Currently with the Canadiens, Andrighetto has three points (2G-1A) in six games with Montreal this season.

 

The Toronto Marlies headed into the holiday break nine points out of the playoffs and sitting in fourth place in the North Division. While the Marlies haven’t been the same dominant AHL team they have been in years past, they do have some promising rookies starting to make an impact and helping to turn things around for the club.

 

Connor Brown has 24 points (8G-16A) in his first 32 AHL games, with 14 of those coming in his last 15 games. Antoine Bibeau had a great start to December, going 4-0-0 with a 0.99 goals-against average, a .967 save percentage and two shutouts before dropping his last two games. Along with Connor Brown, Bibeau has been another bright spot for a Marlies team that is currently in fourth place in the North Division.

 

The Rochester Americans are in trouble heading into the break, winning just three of their last 13 games. It’s not going to get any easier, as it seems that the parent Buffalo Sabres are calling up a forward from their AHL affiliate every day due to illness or injury. The Amerks are currently last in the North Division and 14th out of 15 Western Conference teams.

 

Rockford Making Games Count Early in Midwest

 

Despite having the most games played in the Western Conference heading into 2015, the Rockford IceHogs have made them count and leads the Midwest Division. The IceHogs also sport the third-best record in the conference without forwards Joakim Nordstrom (called up to Chicago) and Jeremy Morin (traded to Columbus) in the lineup.

 

Still, several young forwards are contributing and picking up the slack in the void left by the departure of those two solid contributors to the team’s offense last season. Veteran offensive defenseman T.J. Brennan leads the team in scoring, but the rest of the top-five is first- and second-year forwards.

 

Garret Ross leads the IceHogs with 11 goals in 29 games, with all 11 coming at even strength. Teuvo Teravainen has 13 points in his last 14 games, while Mark McNeill is still at a point-per-game pace after recently returning from a month-long absence with a knee injury.

 

Sitting five points behind Rockford with one game in hand on the IceHogs is the Chicago Wolves. The Wolves have been getting solid goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington, which they needed after seeing Jake Allen graduate to the NHL over the summer. Binnington’s 10 wins are the most among rookies in the conference, but he also has impressive numbers to go along with those wins, including a 2.28 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.

 

Dmitri Jaskin tallied 15 points (4G-11A) in 18 AHL games before earning a call up to St. Louis, where he has appeared in 10 games with the Blues and recorded four points (2G-2A). Another second-year pro, Ty Rattie, has picked up the slack and continues to lead the team in scoring, much like he did last season. Rattie’s 15 goals are second in the AHL, one behind Grand Rapids Griffins’ Teemu Pulkkinen and the Manchester Monarchs’ Nick Shore. After leading the team with 31 goals in his rookie season, it’s not unexpected that Rattie will reach the 30-goal plateau again in 2014-15, with 15 goals in 32 games already this season.

 

The Milwaukee Admirals have cooled off after a hot start, going just 3-6-0-1 in their last 10 games, but they are the youngest team in the AHL with half of their lineup consisting of first-year North American pros.

 

Rookies Brendan Leipsic and Pontus Aberg lead the way offensively, as the former tends to set up the latter. Leipsic leads Milwaukee in assists and total scoring with 22 points (4G-18A) in 29 games, while Aberg’s 11 goals in 26 games are second only to Austin Watson (12) for the team’s goal-scoring lead.

 

The Admirals also have a pair of talented goaltenders in Magnus Hellberg and Marek Mazanec. Hellberg started off the season 5-0-1 but is now 7-3-2 on the season, still with an impressive 1.81 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. Mazanec is 8-8-1 on the year, earning more starts than Hellberg through the team’s first 29 games.

 

The Lake Erie Monsters are rebounding from a slow start in their new home in the Midwest Division, going 5-4-0-1 in their last 10 games and really buying into their system of late, which is a hard-working, grinding style that has proven successful for them in December.

 

The Monsters don’t have one or two players who truly stand out above the rest, as evidenced by their balanced scoring attack. Colin Smith is tied with defenseman Stefan Elliott for the team goal-scoring lead with eight goals, while leading scorer, defenseman Maxim Noreau, has seven goals as does forward Paul Carey. Joey Hishon and Kenny Ryan have each tallied six goals on the year, as well.

 

With starting goaltender Calvin Pickard up in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche most of this month, Roman Will and Sami Aitokallio have picked up the load in net for the Monsters, who look to keep afloat in the division and contend for a playoff spot this spring.

 

It appears the roster turnover in Grand Rapids over the last few years has started to catch up to the Griffins in the first third of the 2014-15 season. Gone are most of the players who anchored the team in 2013-14 – Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco, Luke Glendening, Calle Jarnkrok. The Griffins sit in fourth place in the Midwest Division right now, and the numerous NHL graduations to the parent Detroit Red Wings from their roster is starting to show at the AHL level.

 

Teemu Pulkkinen is still on the team and in his second season at the pro level is one of the league’s elite offensive talents. With 16 goals in 29 games, he is halfway to surpassing his 31-goal rookie season in 71 games played in 2013-14. His stats aren’t overly padded by power play success, either, as 11 of his 16 goals have come at even strength. Rookie Anthony Mantha is starting to look more comfortable after coming back from an off-season injury that delayed his pro debut. Mantha has 10 points (5G-5A) in 18 games played with the Griffins so far this season.

 

With goaltender Petr Mrazek also in the NHL since mid-November, the Griffins have relied upon Jared Coreau in net. After a miserable season of pro hockey in the ECHL last season, Coreau has come into this season and played well with Grand Rapids in the AHL, with a 6-1-0 record since joining the team late in November. Coreau went 1-12-6 with Toledo (ECHL) last season, but has been much improved so far in 2014-15.

 

Western Conference Hot List, December 2014

 

1. Charles Hudon, C – Hamilton Bulldogs

2014-15 Season Stats: 32GP, 9G-22A, +7, 40 PIM

 

Hudon has caught fire with Montreal’s AHL affiliate, with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in his last 14 games. He not only leads first-year players in scoring, but his 31 points are also third in the AHL – seven points behind league leader Brian O’Neill of the Manchester Monarchs.

 

2. Teemu Pulkkinen, RW – Grand Rapids Griffins

2014-15 Season Stats: 29GP, 16G-18A, -2, 20 PIM

 

After eight points in his first 10 games, Pulkkinen stepped his game up with 26 points in his last 19 appearances – including a recent eight-game scoring streak. He’s doing his best to avoid a sophomore slump and continues to lead the slumping Red Wings’ AHL affiliate after posting a 31-goal rookie season in 2013-14.

 

3. Connor Brown, RW – Toronto Marlies

2014-15 Season Stats: 32GP, 8G-16A, +4, 4 PIM

 

Brown is starting to produce offense with even more consistency, with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in his last 15 games. His 24 points on the season are third most among first-year skaters, behind just Hudon and Providence’s David Pastrnak.

 

4. Anton Lander, RW – Oklahoma City Barons

2014-15 Season Stats: 26GP, 8G-18A, +5, 16 PIM

 

With 16 points (4G-12A) in his last 12 games, Lander has paced the Barons’ offense alongside veteran Jason Williams (29 points in 28 games). The Barons lead the West Division and have scored more goals than any other team in the conference to date.

 

5. Jared Coreau, G – Grand Rapids Griffins

2014-15 Season Stats: 7GP, 6-1-0, 1.81 GAA, .935 SV%, 1 SO

 

After a disappointing 2013-14 season in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye, Correau has come up to Grand Rapids in the absence of Petr Mrazek and played very well in net. All seven of his games on the season have come in the last four weeks, as he tries to right the ship for the Red Wings’ affiliate.

 

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