The American Hockey League’s Western Conference will undergo some major re-structuring over the summer as five AHL teams will be playing in California beginning in the 2015-16 season. But before the westward expansion takes place, there are several elite prospects playing in the Western Conference this season looking to make the full-time jump to the NHL.
Griffins Grab Top Spot in Congested Midwest
The Grand Rapids Griffins have been the hottest team in the conference since the conclusion of the All-Star break, going 10-1-2 and jumping from fourth to first in the Midwest Division in less than a month. Despite the recent success, their lead in the division is only two points with the offensively-loaded Milwaukee Admirals right on their heels.
Obviously, Teemu Pulkkinen is a driving force behind the Griffins’ attack – with 31 points (19 goals, 12 assists) in his last 19 AHL games before being recalled by the Detroit Red Wings on February 15th. Pulkkinen has fallen in love with the North American game, and it’s evident on the ice that the transition has been smooth sailing so far. What’s even more impressive is the fact the he is recognizing that, in addition to having to improve his play away from the puck, he can improve an already talented offensive game and really take that proverbial next step.
Even without Pulkkinen, the Griffins have continued to be dominant in the month of February and are getting contributions throughout the lineup. Rookie forward Mark Zengerle is having an outstanding February, currently in the midst of an eight-game points streak. A former University of Wisconsin standout, Zengerle has 10 of his 24 points in his last 10 games this month.
Fellow rookie forward Andreas Athanasiou is also putting up points in his first full year of pro hockey, with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 34 games with the Griffins this season – including a five-game points streak (three goals, four assists) to start the month.
Anthony Mantha is developing nicely in the Red Wings system after missing the first month of his rookie season at the pro level. While there have been ups and downs throughout the season as expected with any incoming rookie, Mantha is still a +8 on the season in the plus/minus department, meaning he isn’t hurting his team when he’s on the ice. The offensive numbers from junior hockey haven’t translated yet for Mantha, who has 22 points in 43 games in the AHL this season, but he is still highly regarded and getting into the routine of daily life in pro hockey.
The Griffins are also getting stellar goaltending from rookie Jared Coreau and Petr Mrazek. Coreau backstopped consecutive shutouts in the team’s first two games after the All-Star break and has won his last seven starts in net. Mrazek saw his first AHL action this month since mid-November, winning all three of his starts with a 1.30 goals-against average, a .957 save percentage and one shutout.
The Milwaukee Admirals are another team in the Midwest Division loaded with talented first- and second-year players and primed for success down the stretch.
The Admirals have a pair of young goaltenders splitting time in net with Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg between the pipes for Milwaukee this season. Both have been streaky at times but it seems the Admirals have ridden the hot hand, with Mazanec going a perfect 5-0-0 in January and Hellberg 7-1-2 in his last 11 appearances – including 2-0-2 in February.
One of the youngest teams in the AHL in terms of average age, the Admirals had as many as 11 rookies on the roster this season before a recent trade between the parent Nashville Predators and Toronto sent then Admirals leading scorer Brendan Leipsic to the Maple Leafs organization.
Perhaps the arrival of Nashville’s 2014 first round pick, Kevin Fiala, and subsequent success at the AHL level with Milwaukee, combined with the Predators’ need for help on the blue line, prompted the trade talks and the inclusion of Leipsic to seal the deal.
Fiala arrived in late January and took five games to adjust to the smaller rink offensively, only registering one assist in that time frame, but he’s starting to show his dynamic offensive abilities in the AHL in February with 11 points (six goals, five assists) in his last nine games. Time will tell how long it will take Fiala to truly transition on the smaller ice, but so far so good with the 18-year-old’s first real taste of pro hockey in North America.
Viktor Arvidsson has taken over the team’s scoring lead and is another dangerous weapon up front for Milwaukee with 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) in his last 22 games. The 21-year-old rookie is another Predators prospect learning the North American pro game in Milwuakee following a breakout season (16 goals, 24 assists) in the SHL with his hometown Skelleftea last year.
Fiala and Arvidsson, along with second-year center Colton Sissions, have formed a dynamic top line of speed, skill and offensive firepower. Sissons tallied 25 goals with the Admirals as a rookie last season and already has a team-leading 19 tallies this season in 53 games, including four goals and four assists in his last six games as the trio continues to mesh together and chemistry is formed.
Injuries and call-ups are testing the depth of the Chicago Blackhawks organization and their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, in particular. The IceHogs, who led the division going into the All-Star break and now see themselves sitting in third, are tied with Milwaukee and also two points behind Grand Rapids.
Gone are forwards Jeremy Morin (traded to Columbus), Joakim Nordstrom (called up to Chicago 2/22) and Teuvo Teravainen (called up 2/25); top defensemen T.J. Brennan (traded to Toronto) and Adam Clendening (traded to Vancouver); and goaltender Scott Darling (called up 2/22).
The Blackhawks’ trade with the Maple Leafs was essentially an AHL trade sending Brennan back to his former team – the Toronto Marlies – and Rockford adding a forward in Spencer Abbott who can fill in at the AHL level nicely in what is currently a much different IceHogs team than they were at the start of the season.
Ryan Hartman has returned from Chicago after spending the month of February in the NHL, going pointless in five NHL games with the Blackhawks. In the AHL, Hartman has 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 47 games in his first full season of pro hockey following two years with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.
On defense, rookie Ville Pokka will be relied upon heavily with Brennan and Clendening traded off the roster. Acquired by Chicago from the New York Islanders in a trade over the summer, Pokka has transitioned well to North America from Finland after parts of four seasons with Karpat in Liiga. He has tallied 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 48 games this season, including a four-game point streak in the middle of the month (one goal, five assists).
North Division Still Chasing Utica
The Utica Comets have used their hot start to the 2014-15 season to maintain their North Division lead right along through the AHL All-Star break. With the Comets holding an 11-point lead heading down the stretch, the rest of the division is battling just to make the playoffs.
The Hamilton Bulldogs currently sit just one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference with 22 games left on their schedule.
Bulldogs’ rookie Charles Hudon continues to lead all first-year players in scoring with 45 points (12 goals, 33 assists) in 54 games. Teammate Sven Andrighetto, in his second season at the pro level, is back from an NHL stint with Montreal and looks to put up numbers the rest of the season at the AHL level. Andrighetto has posted 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in 38 games. Much of the team’s success down the stretch will hinge on the play of these two forwards.
The Adirondack Flames are also in contention for the postseason, currently sitting 10th in the conference and three points out of a playoff spot. With Emile Poirer called up to the Calgary Flames, the AHL Flames will need the rest of the forward core to raise their game.
David Wolf has emerged as a big, strong skating forward who is starting to find his way in the North American pro game, earning his first NHL call-up earlier this month after a strong finish in January. Wolf, a rookie from Dusseldorf, Germany, is currently in the midst of a seven-game points streak (8G-3A) dating back to the end of January before his call up to Calgary.
Former Boston College product Bill Arnold is enjoying moderate success in his first pro season, going through the ups and downs most rookies go through, but is rounding into form heading down the stretch with six points (three goals, three assists) in his last seven games.
On defense, Corey Potter has remained with Calgary while Tyler Wotherspoon is bouncing between the NHL and AHL rosters – currently with Calgary in the NHL after a recent recall earlier this week. The call-ups give rookie defenders like Patrick Sieloff and Brett Kulak opportunities for more ice time and looks in the offensive zone.
The Toronto Marlies are a team that is much improved after a few trades and overseas additions in recent weeks, so they are looking to make a push into the postseason.
All-Star defenseman T.J. Brennan is back, in a trade that sent forward Spencer Abbott to presumably the Chicago Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in Rockford. All-Star rookie Brendan Leipsic, former leading scorer of the Milwaukee Admirals, was acquired in a trade with Nashville. Like Nashville, the Toronto Maple Leafs also brought one of their top European prospects from overseas to their AHL affiliate – re-assigning 2014 first round draft pick William Nylander (3G-6A in 9 AHL games to date) to the Marlies to add to an already prospect-heavy team.
Those three additions will make rookie Connor Brown an even better player, making the Marlies more offensively dynamic rather than a one-line attack. Brown is another 2015 AHL All-Star on the roster, with Brown adjusting well and seeing results on the ice after the team’s slow start to the season.
Western Conference Hot List, February 2015
1. Kevin Fiala, LW – Milwaukee Admirals
2014-15 Season Stats: 14GP, 6G-6A, Even, 6 PIM
Fiala will be an interesting prospect to watch down the stretch as the 18-year-old begins his transformation to the North American pro game. He has 11 points (6G-5A) in his last nine games after just one assist through his first five AHL games.
2. Connor Brown, RW – Toronto Marlies
2014-15 Season Stats: 53GP, 16G-28A, +13, 6 PIM
Brown continues to improve in his first full season, now putting up offense at a point-per-game rate in his last 12 games (five goals, eight assists).
3. Andrew Miller, LW – Oklahoma City Barons
2014-15 Season Stats: 49GP, 20G-24A, +13, 10 PIM
Miller, a second-year pro and former standout at Yale University, has taken a step forward in his sophomore season, hitting the 20-goal plateau in just 44 games played – including five goals in his last seven games.
4. Jussi Rynnas, G – Texas Stars
2014-15 Season Stats: 32GP, 18-5-7, 2.47 GAA, .921 SV%, 4 SO
Rynnas went 5-2-1 with a 1.87 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and one shutout in the month of February, earning CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors for the week ending February 15th.
5. Mark Zengerle, C – Grand Rapids Griffins
2014-15 Season Stats: 50GP, 10G-14A, +10, 6 PIM
With Pulkkinen currently in the NHL with Detroit, the Griffins will need players like Zengerle to continue to carry the load offensively. Zengerle isn’t appearing on the score sheet consistently of late by accident, however, as he is showing steady improvement in his rookie campaign.
Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @