2015-16 AHL Preview: IceHogs should boast one of the stronger offensive attacks in the Central Division

By Sean Shapiro
Markus Hannikainen - Lake Erie Monsters

Photo: Lake Erie Monsters forward and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Markus Hannikainen will start the 2015-16 season with the Blue Jackets’ new AHL affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Central Division isn’t home to as many radical changes as the Pacific Division, but it is part of the American Hockey League’s new landscape.

The Manitoba Moose have returned, while the Lake Erie Monsters have a new affiliate — switching from Colorado to the Columbus Blue Jackets — and the rest of the division is ripe with talent.

The Central Division also has an opportunity to send five teams to the AHL playoffs, thanks to a crossover concept in the standings.

If the fifth-place team in the Central Division has a higher points percentage than the fourth-place team in the Pacific Division, the Central Division team will take the fourth playoff spot in the Pacific.

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

Chicago Wolves

The St. Louis Blues’ AHL affiliate should have one of the top goaltending tandems in the league with Jordan Binnington and Pheonix Copley, who was acquired in the trade that sent T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals.

Binnington appeared in 45 games for the Chicago Wolves as he posted a .916 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average. Copley put up just as impressive numbers in 26 games with the Hershey Bears, posting a .925 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average.

The foundation in net is going to be solidified by Chicago’s defense, which is going to be led by Chris Butler and Petteri Lindbohm.

At the start of training camp it appeared both Butler and Lindbohm would be starting the season in the NHL, but the growth of Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko was too much for Blues officials to ignore.

It’s a good thing defense is a strength, because goals might be hard to come by for Chicago.

Three of the top scorers from last season have moved on while Ty Rattie’s potential up-and-down again status with St. Louis will handcuff the Wolves offense.

Iowa Wild

It was a rough season in Des Moines as the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate finished last in the league with 50 points and struggled to put the puck in the net with just 172 goals, good for second-to-last in the 30-team league.

Making matters worse, the Iowa Wild was the only team in the AHL to statistically finish in the AHL’s bottom five for both goals scored and goals against.

Jeremy Smith, a Boston Bruins property, should help in the goal defense category. Smith was expected to be the back-up goalie behind Tuukka Rask this season, but he was beat out by Jonas Gustavson. With Zane McIntyre and Malcolm Subban already in Providence, Boston elected to send Smith to Iowa — a team looking for a quality starting goalie.

The Wild defense should be bolstered by the return from injury of Gustav Olofsson. The 20-year-old missed all of last season with a left shoulder injury, and is expected to push for an NHL roster spot next season.

Iowa will also benefit from the addition of Mike Reilly. A highly-sought after NCAA free agent, the rookie has an offensive touch that could give Iowa some spark from the blue line.

Milwaukee Admirals

The Milwaukee Admirals won’t have the services of Viktor Arvidsson and Austin Watson after both made the Nashville Predators roster, but they will have one of the exciting young talents in 19-year-old Kevin Fiala.

The 11th overall pick in 2014, Fiala appeared in 33 AHL games last season and registered 20 points after starting the season with HV71 Jonkoping in Sweden. Now, with North American experience under his belt, Fiala should be the spearhead of Milwaukee’s offense.

He will be joined up front by Colton Sissons and Max Reinhart, who are both expected to help lead the Admirals offense.

Defensively, Taylor Aronson should get top-pairing minutes, while Anthony Bitetto could be assigned to Milwaukee if he continues to watch NHL games from the press box in Nashville.

In goal, Marek Mazanec will be the starter after Magnus Hellberg was traded to the New York Rangers during the off-season.

Mazanec appeared in 48 games last season, posting a .900 save percentage and 2.76 goals-against average.

Charlotte Checkers

The Charlotte Checkers struggled offensively last season, but should get a boost from Sergey Tolchinsky in his rookie season.

The young Russian was an undrafted find for the Carolina Hurricanes and has impressed with his individual skills in training camp and the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in early September. In his final year of junior hockey with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds he scored 95 points in 61 games.

Tolchinsky will be joined in Charlotte’s forward ranks by Phil Di Giuseppe, Brendan Woods and Brody Sutter — all players that performed well in NHL training camp.

On defense, Trevor Carrick will lead a defense looking to rebound after allowing 231 goals last season.

Drew MacIntyre will be the Checkers starting goalie this season. The AHL veteran posted a .914 save percentage in 51 games last season.

Grand Rapids Griffins

The Grand Rapids Griffins have been one of the AHL’s most successful teams in the past decade and won the Calder Cup in 2013, which propelled former coach Jeff Blashill to the same role with the Detroit Red Wings.

Now Todd Nelson, the former Edmonton Oilers interim coach and Oklahoma City Barons head coach, takes over a talented group of Detroit prospects.

And that starts with a dangerous trio of Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, and Tyler Bertuzzi.

All three were impressive in preseason games with Detroit, while Mantha and Athanasiou have started building chemistry after playing together last season — even though both dealt with frustrating injuries during their rookie year.

Ryan Sproul will lead the defense, which only conceded 185 goals last season and should be equally stout this season.

Depending on how soon veteran defenders return from injury in Detroit, Grand Rapids could also receive contributions this season from defenseman Xavier Ouellet.

Lake Erie Monsters

After housing their prospects in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Columbus Blue Jackets moved their top prospects closer to home this summer and affiliated with the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland, Ohio.

Now a short three-hour drive from Columbus, the Monsters should receive added attention this season with highly-touted forwards Markus Hannikainen and Kerby Rychel employing their craft in Quicken Loans Arena.

Michael Chaput will also be a Monster this season and should make an impact in the AHL, while the likes of Sonny Milano, T.J. Tynan, and Oliver Bjorkstrand give Lake Erie a glut of raw talent at forward.

There are some questions on defense, but Lake Erie should rely heavily on Michael Paliotta — acquired in the same trade as Brandon Saad — and Oleg Yevenko, a 6-foot-7 defenseman who turned a tryout invite into a one-year, two-way contract with Columbus.

In goal, Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo give Lake Erie a reliable tandem.

Manitoba Moose

After spending five seasons half a continent away as the St. John’s IceCaps, the Winnipeg Jets prospects are much closer to home.

In fact, they’ll share a building with their NHL parent club in the MTS Centre.

And the Manitoba Moose will be looking for goals in their new home after averaging 2.41 per game last season.

Joel Armia, a first-round pick for Buffalo in 2011, could provide some offensive spark after joining the Jets organization in the Evander Kane trade. A pair of AHL-contracted players, John Albert and Ben Walker, could contribute offensively while Matt Fraser — a 30-goal scorer in the AHL — is a power play threat.

On defense, Brendan Kichton is one of the top puck movers and is looking for a bounce back after a bit of a sophomore slump last season.

In goal Connor Hellebuyck will be tested during his sophomore campaign. As a rookie he led the AHL in minutes played, saves, and finished second in wins. He should be the go-to goalie for Manitoba, but could push for an NHL roster spot if one of the Winnipeg goalies falter.

Rockford IceHogs

The Rockford IceHogs had an explosive offense last season, and the team has re-loaded heading into the 2015-16 season.

Marko Dano and Ryan Hartman, two players that pushed for spots with the Chicago Blackhawks, will work with the likes of Jeremy Morin, Tanner Kero, Mark McNeil, and Vince Hinostroza.

Kero, in particular, could be an intriguing player to watch. He scored five goals in his first six games with Rockford last season, while Hinostroza — a prospect with Chicago ties — has Blackhawks’ management watching him closely.

Rockford will have to re-build defensively, especially after losing Stephen Johns in a trade with the Dallas Stars.

But, the IceHogs will have a solid goaltender in Michael Leighton. The veteran appeared in 42 games last season and posted a .920 save percentage with a 2.26 goals-against average.

Atlantic | North | Central | Pacific

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro