2015-16 AHL Preview: Marlies could be the class of the North Division

By Tony Androckitis

Connor Brown - Toronto Marlies

Photo: Toronto Marlies forward and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Connor Brown led the Marlies in scoring as a rookie in 2014-15, scoring 21 goals and 61 points in 76 games (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

Syracuse Crunch

Despite seeing several prospects graduate to the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning is still drafting top notch prospects and developing them in Syracuse. It will continue this season as some talented hockey players will get their first taste of pro hockey with the Crunch.

With Andrei Vasilevskiy on injured reserve, Kristers Gudlevskis will have to step up and carry the workload in net to start the season. With how well Vasilevskiy has played to date, Gudlevskis is nearly a forgotten commodity that would like to gain back some of the spotlight.

Anthony DeAngelo is an elite offensive talent, having posted 89 points in 54 games in the OHL last season prior to turning pro. While there is no questioning his offensive abilities with the puck on his stick – and he’ll likely quarterback the Crunch’s power play – it’s his defensive play that needs work as he adjusts to life as a pro hockey player. How well he handles his own end will determine how long he stays in the minors. His skating and offensive abilities are NHL-quality.

Slater Koekkoek nearly made the Lightning out of training camp, and is another talented defenseman knocking on the proverbial door when it comes to making the jump to the NHL full-time. It was a bit of a slow start for Koekkoek to his pro career with Syracuse last fall, but he came on strong and seemed to get more comfortable down the stretch last spring.

After a 41-goal regular season in his final QMJHL year with the Quebec Remparts, winger Adam Erne went off in the postseason, tallying 21 goals in 22 games and leading his team to the Memorial Cup. He uses his body well and uses his power skating to get to the net, a trait that should help ease his transition to the pros against more physical opponents than he faced in the QMJHL.

Toronto Marlies

Moved to the Eastern Conference this season, the Toronto Marlies are loaded with young talent to begin the season. The only things that could keep this team from a serious run at the Calder Cup this spring are injuries and mid-season call-ups by the parent Toronto Maple Leafs.

The prospects up front may give the Marlies the best top-six forward core in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire AHL. William Nylander and recently-acquired Kasperi Kapanen lead the way, with Brendan Leipsic and Connor Brown entering their second season of pro hockey this fall.

Nylander is making the switch to center this season after playing the wing with the Marlies last spring, when he moved to North America from MODO of the SHL. He seemed to adjust to North American pro hockey quickly, and once he learns his new position well enough, it won’t be long before he is in the NHL.

Kapanen was acquired in the Phil Kessel trade and is another player with obvious offensive instincts that is learning to adjust to North American pro hockey. He will get top-six minutes with the Marlies and have plenty of time to develop into an NHL player this season.

Brown and Leipsic were both AHL All-Stars as rookies last season, though Leipsic was a member of the Milwaukee Admirals until he was acquired in a trade by the Maple Leafs organization mid-season. Both are skilled wingers and both will complement the other scorers in the Marlies’ lineup.

Defensively, the Marlies have near NHL-ready prospects in Viktor Loov and Stuart Percy looking to round out their game and await mid-season injuries for their chance at a call-up. Loov was a bit of a surprise for a seventh round pick, but excelled in all three zones last season and played in the Marlies’ top-four. Percy is still the top defensive prospect the organization has in the AHL, but injuries limited him to just 52 games last season (43 in the AHL, nine with Toronto).

Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau make for a solid 1-2 punch in net, with Bibeau surprising some by splitting time as a 20-year-old rookie last season. Bibeau will need to work on consistency this season while battling for time again with Sparks, but he has the athleticism and mobility to be a solid goaltender for years to come.

Utica Comets

The Utica Comets’ move to the Eastern Conference comes one season after representing the Western Conference in the Calder Cup Finals. While they lost some key veterans from last season’s playoff run, they have re-stocked with veterans Richard Bachman in net, Taylor Fedun on defense and Blair Jones up front to mentor the prospects.

The Comets will have a few incoming rookies on defense looking to get acclimated to pro hockey this fall in Ashton Sautner, Anton Cederholm, and Jordan Subban.

Cederholm joins the Comets after finishing his junior hockey career with the Portland Winterhawks as a steady defensive defenseman. He isn’t flashy with the puck, but his ability to kill penalties and play against opposing teams’ top offensive players is a trait that could make him stick in the AHL this season.

Though undrafted, Sautner turns pro after an impressive 51-point season with the Edmonton Oil Kings last season in the WHL. The offensively-minded defenseman was an astounding +59 two years ago with less offensive output, so it will be interesting to see if those dynamic numbers will carry over in the pro ranks.

Subban is the younger brother of P.K. and Malcolm and has a great shot like his brother on the Montreal Canadiens – tallying 25 goals as a defenseman for the OHL’s Belleville Bulls last season. What raises concern about Jordan’s NHL aspirations is his size. How his 5’9”, 175-pound frame responds to the physicality of pro hockey may determine what Subban’s career path will be.

Up front, Cole Cassels is entering his rookie season following a 81-point, 54-game regular season with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. He was equally impressive in their postseason run as he totaled 31 points in 21 OHL playoff games en route to the Memorial Cup.

The Comets have a plethora of younger forwards with some pro experience looking to build off last season’s playoff experience. Players like Ronalds Kenins and Nicklas Jensen are hoping a strong start to the season will get them back into the NHL with the parent Vancouver Canucks, while Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Gaunce look for a larger AHL role in their second season of pro hockey.

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Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey

 

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