The American Hockey League has switched its conference format for the 2015-16 season as there are now two divisions in each conference. In the Eastern Conference, it’s now the Atlantic and North Divisions – with the Manchester Monarchs, Worcester Sharks and Norfolk Admirals no longer AHL franchises. All three have re-located west as the league has added five teams in California as part of the AHL’s western expansion.
This 2015-16 AHL preview will take a look at the league’s newly-formed Atlantic Division.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers are looking for a bounce-back season after finishing tied for last in the Eastern Conference in 2014-15. Despite losing two of their top prospects from a year ago – Ryan Pulock has made the parent New York Islanders roster and Griffin Reinhart was traded to Edmonton at the 2015 NHL Draft – the Sound Tigers appear, on paper, to have more depth and some intriguing prospects in the fold for the 2015-16 season.
The Islanders decision to trade Michael Grabner to the Toronto Maple Leafs directly benefited the Sound Tigers as the five players the Leafs sent to the Islanders – forwards Taylor Beck and Carter Verhaege, defensemen Matthew Finn and Tom Nilsson, and goaltender Christopher Gibson – are all set to begin the season in the AHL.
Beck, 24, will be entering his fifth season of pro hockey this fall, having spent the entirety of last season in the NHL with Nashville (eight goals, eight assists in 62 games). Alongside other AHL veteran players such as Joe Whitney, Bracken Kearns and Justin Florek, Bridgeport will have a solid group of veteran forwards to lean on while they develop their younger prospects.
Verhaege, 20, is turning pro this fall following a four-year career in the OHL with Niagara. Toronto’s third round pick in the 2013 draft is coming off of back-to-back 82 point seasons in junior hockey and a two-game stint with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies last spring.
While the Sound Tigers won’t have Pulock or Reinhart on the back end, they’ll have several prospects entering their second year of pro hockey. Kevin Czuczman and Adam Pelech return from last season and look to play a larger role with the Sound Tigers this season.
Nilsson and Finn, acquired from Toronto, are also looking to establish themselves at the AHL level. Nilsson had an injury slow him down last season, but while he played was a reliable defensive defenseman without much offensive upside. Finn is two years removed from captaining the Guelph Storm squad that won an OHL championship, and learned quickly that pro hockey is no joke. Injuries also slowed his rookie season and saw him spending some time in the ECHL for conditioning, so perhaps a fresh start in a new organization will help move his game forward.
The Sound Tigers have a pair of prospects in net in the aforementioned Gibson and incoming rookie Stephon Williams. Gibson played well for the Marlies last season, taking over the number one spot by season’s end. His level of play dipped in the postseason, but he is still an intriguing prospect. Williams is also an interesting prospect, coming off an impressive season with Minnesota State-Mankato (25-6-3, 5 shutouts).
Hartford Wolf Pack
After a trip to the Eastern Conference finals last spring, the Wolf Pack are aiming to contend for another run in 2015-16 with only eight returning players from last season’s playoff squad.
With six of their top seven scorers from last season no longer in the organization and Oscar Lindberg with the parent New York Rangers, newly-acquired AHL veteran forwards Luke Adam, Brian Gibbons and Jayson Megna will have to shoulder the load offensively. Marek Hrivik is the Wolf Pack’s returning leading scorer from last season, and entering his fourth season of pro hockey he too will be heavily relied upon in 2015-16.
One incoming rookie forward with upside is center Adam Tambellini, a goal scorer who had no trouble finding the back of the net with the Calgary Hitmen (WHL) – 86 points (47 goals, 39 assists) in 71 regular season games, and another 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 16 postseason contests last spring. His ability to also play the wing and his willingness to go to the net will be something to keep an eye on this fall.
The real excitement on the Wolf Pack roster comes with their prospects on defense with incoming rookies Brady Skjei and Ryan Graves. Both are bigger bodies on the back end, and Skjei is ahead of the curve having made his pro hockey debut last spring with the Wolf Pack and getting 23 games under his belt, including 15 Calder Cup playoff games. The former first round pick in 2012 is the Rangers’ most recent first round selection and is hoping to live up to expectations this fall.
While both project to be defensive defensemen, Graves had a breakout season offensively last year in the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts – a season in which he tallied 15 goals, tripling his goal total from the previous year. Graves also had a good showing in the postseason with 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 21 playoff games, and another five points (two goals, three assists) in the Memorial Cup.
Dylan McIlrath’s graduation to the NHL this season leaves a bit of a hole, but returning second-year defenseman Mat Bodie looks to play a larger role for the Wolf Pack this season. Another defender to watch will be Petr Zamorsky, who looked good in preseason action against Lehigh Valley last week. Zamorsky has pro hockey experience overseas, but is making the transition to North America this season.
The Wolf Pack appear to be steady in net with Magnus Hellberg and Jeff Malcolm as a tandem to start the season. Hellberg was brought in to challenge for the backup role in the NHL, but the 2014-15 AHL All-Star goaltender should have no problems being a top-tier goalie at the AHL level this fall.
A second round exit after finishing the regular season as the second seed in the Eastern Conference might sit well with some AHL franchises, but not the Hershey Bears. Chocolate Town will be looking to contend for a championship in 2015-16 with some dynamic, young talent mixed with experienced veteran scorers.
Chris Bourque is back with the Bears after a career-high 29 goals with the Hartford Wolf Pack last season. The AHL scorer spent six seasons as a member of the Bears from 2005-12. Carter Camper is another veteran addition to the team, but the Bears have several highly-regarded prospects looking to make a name for themselves in 2015-16.
Vrana turned heads last spring with Hershey after a respectable 24-point season with Linkoping in Sweden as a 19-year-old. His skating and ability with the puck in the offensive zone will certainly be fun to watch this season as he prepares for his first full season of North American pro, already knowing what to expect after making a splash in the AHL with Hershey last spring. Barber was a dynamic two-way player in college at Miami University and his ability to produce offense and play smart in his own end, combined with his leadership skills and hard-working demeanor has the Washington Capitals management intrigued as he enters his rookie season. Boyd was a good player at the University of Minnesota last season as a senior, more than doubling his goal total from his junior year with 19 goals in 32 games last season. While he is not expected to be an offensive juggernaut at the pro level, it’s a skill-set necessary for even the bottom-six role he is likely to fill in the AHL this season.
Bowey has all the accolades you can imagine and will have the spotlight on him as he turns pro this fall. He was a point-per-game player as a defenseman for WHL champion Kelowna last season, and also a top-pairing defenseman for Team Canada’s gold medal-winning junior team. He is undoubtedly the Capitals’ top prospect. Djoos also turns pro in North America this fall as the seventh round pick in 2012 has spent the last three seasons playing in Sweden for Brynas IF Galve. While he is undersized, Djoos has shown the ability to join the rush and produce offensively, tallying 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 50 games last season overseas. A seventh round pick in 2013, Lewington leaves the Medicine Hat Tigers after serving as the team’s captain last season and looks to be a stalwart defensive-minded defender who will look to learn the pro-style game in the AHL this fall.
Vitek Vanecek will begin the season in the ECHL with South Carolina, with two older veterans in net ahead of him in Hershey, but Vanecek will certainly get a chance to play some serious minutes until an opening arises with the Bears.
Lehigh Valley Phantoms
The Phantoms are ready for their second season as an AHL franchise in downtown Allentown and are optimistic heading into the season, and for good reason. The mix of youth and experience at all three positions has the Phantoms, under the direction of new head coach Scott Gordon, thinking about ending the six-year postseason drought in 2015-16.
They have several talented and highly-regarded defensemen in the system, including incoming 6-foot-7 rookie Samuel Morin, in addition to returning second-year players Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere, who missed almost all of last season after an ACL injury last November ended his rookie campaign.
Davis Drewiske and Mark Alt add both depth and experience to a young core of talented defenseman, and the recent arrival of Andrew MacDonald only adds to it. There are plenty of solid veterans with Lehigh Valley up front, too, including Tim Brent, Chris Conner, Colin McDonald and Aaron Palushaj.
Scott Laughton has made the Philadelphia Flyers roster, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any notable forward prospects with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate. Taylor Leier is coming off an up-and-down rookie season and Nick Cousins enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign – leading the Phantoms in scoring and earning a late-season NHL recall. Incoming rookie Danick Martel turned heads last spring with his blazing speed and looks to be an exciting player to watch in the AHL this fall.
Lehigh Valley also has youth and experience between the pipes this season with returning second-year netminder Anthony Stolarz and recently acquired veteran goaltender Jason LaBarbera. Both goalies are big, with Stolarz listed at 6-6 and LaBarbera at 6-3. While Stolarz is searching for consistency this season, Flyers management is hoping LaBarbera can mentor the young goaltender and build more good habits into Stolarz’s game much like veteran Rob Zepp did a season ago.