2015-16 AHL Preview: A new beginning for several teams in the Pacific Division

By Sean Shapiro
Manchester Monarchs Calder Cup Celebration - 2015

Photo: The Los Angeles Kings’ top farm club in 2014-15, the Manchester Monarchs, raised a championship banner last season, but many of the players from that team have moved cross-country to compete for the Kings’ new AHL team, the Ontario Reign, in 2015-16 (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The American Hockey League vastly changed the hockey universe’s landscape when it moved five teams to California for the start of the 2015-16 season. And the Pacific Division will be ground zero for the experiment, where the California five will share a division with the two Texas-based franchises.

It’s also home to a schedule imbalance.

The California teams will play 68 games this season, while the Texas teams will play 76 like the rest of the league.

In the end, playoff positions in the Pacific Division will be based on points percentage — not traditional points.

Here is a team-by-team look at the Pacific Division.

Bakersfield Condors

As an ECHL franchise, the Bakersfield Condors marketing staff have lived up to their self-prescribed slogan, “Nobody has more fun,” with wacky promotions and creative off-ice tactics to stay in the public eye.

Now, as an AHL franchise, the Condors don’t need their off-ice shenanigans to grab attention after the Edmonton Oilers finalized their NHL roster this week.

Ben Scrivens, Nikita Nikitin, and Leon Draisaitl will all start this season in the AHL, and all three arguably could have been on the NHL roster on opening night.

Scrivens played 57 games for Edmonton last season, but struggled mightily with a .890 save percentage and 3.16 goals-against average. He did not have much defensive help, but didn’t do enough to avoid AHL demotion earlier this week.

Nikitin is a veteran of 248 NHL games and has not played in the AHL since a 22-game stint with the Peoria Rivermen during the 2011-12 season. He will be one of Bakersfield’s top defensemen to open the season and should share top defensive responsibilities with Darnell Nurse, a first-round pick in 2013, and Brad Hunt — a 27-year-old defensemen who was a first-team AHL All-Star last season.

Draisaitl will make his AHL debut this season, even though he was performing well in Edmonton’s training camp. The 19-year-old German will be one of the younger players in the league, but should be an offensive catalyst after appearing in 37 NHL games last season.

AHL veteran Matthew Ford and Andrew Miller should also be offensive leaders for the Condors in their first year as an AHL franchise.

Ontario Reign

The title defense for the defending Calder Cup champions — who hoisted the cup as the Manchester Monarchs — took a hit Tuesday when J.F. Berube and Brian O’Neill ended up in the Eastern Conference.

Berube started 52 games for Manchester last season and carried the team to the Calder Cup Finals before an injury. He was expected to be the starter in Ontario, but he was claimed by the New York Islanders on waivers.

Patrik Batrosak, a fifth-round pick in 2013, will likely take over the starter’s role once he recovers from a hand injury. But, for the time being, Peter Budaj will be the No. 1 goalie for Ontario.

O’Neill was the AHL’s MVP last season after registering 80 points (22 goals, 58 assists) in 71 games, and was traded to the New Jersey Devils for a conditional seventh-round pick.

O’Neill’s linemate, Jordan Weal, had 69 points in 73 games and is expected to spend most of this season with the Los Angles Kings — adding to the question marks around Ontario’s offense.

Earlier this summer, Ontario lost top defenseman Colin Miller, who was shipped to the Boston Bruins in a trade for Milan Lucic.

There are several role players returning for the Calder Cup champions, but it’s going to be difficult to emulate the success from the final season in Manchester.

San Antonio Rampage

San Antonio received a new affiliation over the summer and aligned with the Colorado Avalanche — replacing the Florida Panthers — and should rely heavily on the NHL parent club’s prized goaltending prospect.

Calvin Pickard appeared in 16 games last season with Colorado and posted an NHL-best .932 save percentage, but the NHL club elected to carry Reto Berra as Semyon Varlamov’s back-up during training camp.

In addition to stashing Pickard in the AHL, the Avalanche are also housing almost $3 million in guaranteed veteran contracts in the Alamo City with the assignments of Patrick Bordelau, Marc-Andre-Cliche, Zach Redmond, and Maxim Noreau.

On paper, that should be a solid core for an AHL team, but Rampage coach Dean Chynoweth will have to do his best work as a motivator with the highly-paid group.

And while San Antonio’s black and white jerseys more closely resemble the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs — who own the AHL franchise — the style of play directly mirrors the Avalanche.

In two preseason games the Rampage have played a quick, aggressive style that leads to scoring chances for both teams. It is an exciting strategy that could lead to high-scoring games, and put even more of a spotlight on Pickard.

Roman Will is going to be Pickard’s backup to start the season, but keep an eye out for 2013 third-round pick Spencer Martin. Martin is starting the season with the ECHL affiliate Fort Wayne Komets, but could become the go-to goalie in San Antonio if Pickard makes another push for an NHL job.

San Jose Barracuda

For members of the San Jose Barracuda, it is roughly a 20- to 30-step walk to the San Jose Sharks‘ locker room.

It is one of the benefits San Jose has by housing its AHL affiliate in the same building as the NHL club. It is also a benefit to have your top prospects close by, where they can be monitored by NHL coaches and management.

And San Jose will see that plan in action this season when first-round picks Micro Mueller and Nikolay Goldobin start the season with the AHL club.

Mueller, a defenseman, played in 39 games last season with the Sharks and averaged 16 minutes, 57 seconds of ice time. Goldobin, who was picked 27th overall in 2014, will be playing his first full season in North America after starting last season in Finland.

Melker Karlsson is another intriguing prospect for San Jose and was amongst the final cuts on Monday.

Karlsson played in 53 NHL games last season, his first stint in North America, and had 24 points (12 goals, 11 assists). The center should be one of the Barracudas’ top forwards this season, and is likely the first call-up in case of injury.

Oh, and if that injury happens — or more likely, when — San Jose won’t have to worry about a cross-country flight from Worcester, Mass. to get a prospect NHL ready.

Stockton Heat

Calgary’s top prospects have gotten used to changing locales in the past three seasons.

The Flames housed their prospects in Abbotsford from 2009 to 2014 before Calgary moved their farm team to upstate New York for a one-year experiment as the Adirondack Flames. Now in Stockton, the Flames prospects and coaching staff finally have the assurance that they won’t be moving at the end of the season.

And there should be a talented team built on that stable geographic base.

In Adirondack, the Flames prospects started slow last season but made a playoff push and should build on that momentum in California.

Stockton will also have one of the AHL’s youngest players in 18-year-old defenseman Oliver Kylington.

Kylington could have played for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL this season, but Calgary decided to assign him to Stockton since he was drafted out of Sweden and wanted him engulfed in a professional environment.

It was a similar move to what the Dallas Stars did last season when they assigned then 18-year-old Julius Honka to the Texas Stars — a move that greatly benefited Honka.

Kenny Agostino and Bill Arnold are expected to make an impact up front for Stockton this season after combining for 81 points last season.

Jon Gillies, who won an NCAA title last season, will likely get the opening-night start in goal for Stockton.

San Diego Gulls

Just like his limited time with the Norfolk Admirals, John Gibson will be the center of attention for the Anaheim Ducks‘ AHL affiliate.

Gibson, who recently received a contract extension from Anaheim, is expected to carry a heavy load for San Diego this season and should be one of the better goalies in the league after posting a 13-8 record with the Ducks last season.

But, how much goal support will Gibson receive in San Diego?

Last season, the Norfolk Admirals scored a league-low 168 goals as they tied with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Nick Ritchie, a first-round pick in 2014, should help that goal total in his rookie season. So should AHL veteran Chris Mueller, who could be the Ducks first call-up in case of an injury.

On defense, the Ducks are excited about seeing Shea Theodore’s growth in his first full AHL season, while Brandon Montour is also making the transition to professional hockey.

San Diego did sign a couple veteran defenseman in Shane O’Brien and Joe Piskula to surround the Gulls young talent.

Texas Stars

The Texas Stars went through a bit of a Calder Cup championship hangover last season and were swept out of the playoff by the Rockford IceHogs as several members of the championship-winning team played their last game for Dallas’ AHL affiliate.

That set the table for a younger, likely faster, team this season.

Highly-drafted forwards Devin Shore, Jason Dickinson, and Remi Elie are all going to play their first full-season of professional hockey after making cameos late last season.

The Stars are also looking for a big year out of Radek Faksa, who is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery that cost him most of the 2014-15 season. Faksa has not played a full season as a professional, but Stars management is convinced he can turn into a shutdown defensive center.

On defense the Stars will have an intriguing core of prospects.

Finns Esa Lindell and Julius Honka are expected to be the top pairing in Texas, while Stephen Johns, Ludwig Bystrom, and Mattias Backman create an offensive-minded defensive core that can push the play.

In goal, Jack Campbell is expected to get the majority of the starts once he returns from a hand injury suffered during the Dallas Stars’ training camp. Until then, it appears that AHL-contracted John Muse and Maxime Lagace will share the net for Texas.

Atlantic | North | Central | Pacific

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro