The North Division name comes over from the American Hockey League’s Western Conference along with three teams from last year’s division – Rochester, Utica and Toronto – in addition to the other three teams from New York state – Albany, Binghamton and Syracuse. The St. John’s IceCaps, who have switched their affiliation from Winnipeg to Montreal, also make up this seven-team division that has several pre-existing rivalries due to the close proximity of most of the teams.
This 2015-16 AHL preview will take a look at the North Division clubs.
After the New Jersey Devils organization missed the postseason in both the NHL and AHL, there was a complete roster overhaul. Veterans Mike Sislo, Paul Thompson and Dan Kelly and free agent acquisitions Jim O’Brien and Marc-Andre Gragnani look to lead the way, with a handful of talented prospects looking to learn the pro game.
Veteran Yann Danis was brought in for goaltending depth as Keith Kinkaid moves on to the NHL to be the NHL Devils’ backup, and Scott Wedgewood completes the AHL tandem with undrafted rookie Ken Appleby earning an NHL deal with an impressive preseason.
Defensively, Reece Scarlett and Raman Hrabarenka enter the final year of their entry-level deals and are looking to build upon their sophomore campaigns to leave a lasting impression. Scarlett is the team’s power play quarterback and in a new Devils system this fall, he is one of the many players who will benefit with the change in style of play. Hrabarenka is a much bigger and more physical defender, which is lacking among the defensive prospects in the organization, but he is no slouch with the puck on his stick, either. Both look to fill larger roles on what was primarily an underperforming team last season.
Injuries limited Graham Black to just 46 games in his rookie season, but he is expected to be 100 percent healthy heading into 2015-16. The speedy forward was starting to pick up the pro game in the second half of last season before the injury, so he is someone to watch as the puck drops this fall.
Blake Pietila is an incoming rookie from the college ranks who projects to be a role player in the bottom six. His ability in the face-off dot, as well as his hard-nosed relentless play, should allow him to carve out a role with Albany this season.
Another Blake – Blake Coleman – looks to replicate his point-per-game offensive output from Miami University when he turns pro this fall. While undersized at 5’11”, Coleman plays bigger than his frame suggests. He’s another guy who is strong on face-offs, and that combined with excellent puck skills and shooting has the Devils management very intrigued.
The Binghamton Senators look to rebound from a disappointing 2014-15 campaign with a plethora of talented youngsters in the mix for 2015-16.
With Andrew Hammond on injured reserve, rookie Matt O’Connor will begin the season with the parent Ottawa Senators. The big, 6’6” goaltender had a breakout season with Boston University in 2014-15, going 25-4-4. Chris Driedger will be Binghamton’s starting goaltender to start the season, where he hopes to get more help defensively with free agent additions Michael Kotska and Mark Fraser in the mix along with returning defender Fredrik Claesson.
Another big body turning pro is defenseman Ben Harpur, who spent last season in the OHL split between the Guelph Storm and Barrie Colts. Harpur is a giant but, in addition to making smart plays in his own end and using his reach to his advantage, can also join the rush and put up numbers offensively. While adjusting to pro hockey, look for him to steady his play in the defensive zone before adding the offensive element back into his game.
Lindberg left Sweden to play in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals last season to begin his adjustment to the rink size and style of North American hockey, and it seemed the transition went well as Lindberg tallied 32 goals and 46 assists in 67 games. He will look to continue to put up offense with Binghamton this fall with a high-powered, offensively-minded team.
Paul is another player coming from the OHL who has goal-scoring prowess as he put up 37 goals last season with the North Bay Battalion. After scoring at a point-per-game pace in the OHL postseason last spring, Paul will be another weapon at the Senators’ disposal this fall.
Dunn is smaller in stature and not as offensively inclined as Lindberg and Paul, but he brings an edge to his game that should fit in well in a bottom-six capacity. His back-to-back 150+ penalty minute seasons in the QMJHL speak to the abrasiveness of his game.
Rochester moves to the Eastern Conference this season after a disappointing 2014-15 campaign. Several of the organization’s top prospects – Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jake McCabe – are playing in the NHL, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fair share of talented youth in the system this season.The Amerks also brought in some top-notch AHL veterans in defensemen Bobby Sanguinetti and Colby Robak in addition to scoring forwards Jason Akeson and Cal O’Reilly.
It all starts in net with Andrey Makarov and Nathan Lieuwen, with the latter earning the start in net on opening night. Makarov, however, has the potential to be an NHL goaltender in the future, but the Buffalo Sabres’ move to trade for Robin Lehner has to be a little disheartening. Add in Swede Linus Ullmark, and it will be interesting to see how the Amerk’s goaltending situation plays out.
Chad Ruhwedel and Jerome Leduc both look to round out their games, with Ruhwedel hoping for another shot at the NHL. While displaying his talents offensively in the AHL, Ruhwedel’s size is a question mark in terms of being able to handle the rigors of the NHL. Leduc enters his fourth pro season after enjoying a breakout 2014-15 season with Rochester – six goals and 19 assists while appearing in all 76 of the team’s games.
The real excitement will be with incoming rookie forwards Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste, undoubtedly the top two prospects playing in Rochester this season. Bailey put up 34 goals last season in the OHL, while Baptiste had a career season playing alongside Connor McDavid, tallying 26 goals in 41 games with the Erie Otters. Both forward prospects are hoping to learn the pro game and translate their offensive abilities to the pro ranks, with hopes of playing with high-end talent in Buffalo in the near future.
St. John’s IceCaps
The St. John’s IceCaps have switched their affiliation this season and will house some talented Montreal Canadiens prospects in Newfoundland. The IceCaps will field a young team in 2015-16, but one loaded with highly-regarded young guns.
In net, Zachary Fucale turns pro and has all the tools to be an elite goaltender but will likely be in the ECHL to start as the IceCaps have veterans Dustin Tokarski and Eddie Pasquale under contract. Fucale should get in a lot of games with Brampton and be ready for a call-up when injuries arise.
On defense, Brett Lernout readies for his first full season of pro hockey after getting a taste of the AHL last spring. His final season in the WHL was a breakout year – more than doubling his offensive output with 14 goals and 28 assists in 72 games. The 6’4” defender remained steady in his own end and plays a physical breed of hockey that separates himself from his peers and is something he will need to continue in the pro ranks.
The IceCaps will have some of the best young forwards in the Eastern Conference with incoming rookies Nikita Scherbak and Michael McCarron and returning second-year forwards Jacob De La Rose, Charles Hudon and Daniel Carr.
Scherbak turns pro after a career-high 82-point season with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL last year. He’s the top prospect in the system and for good reason. The Russian-born forward was surprisingly left off Russia’s World Junior Championship team last year, but it won’t come as a surprise when he is on the roster this year. McCarron is another one of Montreal’s first round picks making their pro debut this fall. The big, 6’6” forward was a force to be reckoned with in the OHL playoffs with Oshawa last spring, with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 21 playoff games. The combination of size and skill makes McCarron an intriguing prospect for IceCaps fans to watch.
The IceCaps have plenty of secondary scoring up front this season. Charles Hudon was an AHL All-Star last season, and Daniel Carr turned in an impressive 24-goal rookie campaign in 2014-15. Jacob De La Rose is on the cusp of being a full-time NHL player, having split time between the NHL and AHL last season.