AHL Western Conference Notebook, January, 2016: Checkers chasing IceHogs, Rantanen brings gold to San Antonio

By Sean Shapiro
Esa Lindell - Texas Stars

Photo: Texas Stars defenseman Esa Lindell received his first NHL call-up to the parent Dallas Stars and played in his first NHL game against the Los Angeles Kings (courtesy of John Rivera/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Back in October, the Charlotte Checkers were homeless.

With renovations ongoing at Bojangles Coliseum, the Checkers didn’t play a home game until mid-November.

“I think we really bonded during that time,” Checkers defenseman Trevor Carrick said. “When you spend that much time playing away from home, it really builds a team.”

And that team is now threatening to take over the Central Division of the AHL.

The Checkers have gone 8-1-0-1 in their past 10 games and are within two games of overtaking the Rockford IceHogs for first in the division.

It’s been a well-balanced effort for Charlotte during their surge. Nine players have at least 15 points, while 14 have already registered double-digit point totals.

Captain Derek Ryan has a team-high 33 points, but Carrick (23 points) and Jake Chelios (21 points) have provided a spark for Charlotte from the blue line.

National hero

Before the season even started Colorado Avalanche prospect Mikko Rantanen had a deal in place with general manager Joe Sackic to play at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland.

Turns out, it was a great deal.

The teenager captained Finland to a championship on its home soil and was a dominant player against players his own age. That shouldn’t be a surprise with how he has attacked the AHL this season and earned an All-Star nod.

In 22 games, Rantanen has 26 points for the San Antonio Rampage. He is currently nursing an upper-body injury, but when Rantanen is healthy he has been the Rampage’s best player.

And he can’t get healthy fast enough. San Antonio has been decimated by injuries this season as they have fallen from the top of the Pacific Division back in November to sixth in a span of two months.

Dropped into the AHL to see what their condition was in

AHL conditioning stints are the gray area in the NHL-AHL shuttle. It is a move that typically benefits a player – he has to consent to it – while the NHL club can find more playing time in the AHL while avoiding losing a player on waivers.

The conditioning stint can last up to 14 days, but it can be a useful jolt to a player or an AHL team.

In San Jose, the Sharks sent back-up goalie Alex Stalock to the San Jose Barracuda after he had only started four games this season. Stalock played well with the AHL club and won both games, then used that momentum to pick up a win with the Sharks in his return to the NHL.

The Dallas Stars made a similar move with defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. The former first round pick has only played 11 games with Dallas this season and has been watching most of the season from the press box.

He was assigned to the Texas Stars last week and is expected to spend the full two weeks in the AHL. It is the second time Dallas has used a conditioning stint on a defenseman. Earlier this season, Patrik Nemeth spent two weeks with Texas and appeared in eight games.

Changes

In the midst of the closely contested Central Division, the Milwaukee Admirals have gone through some major roster changes on the blue line recently.

Milwaukee lost Victor Bartley when he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, while Stefan Elliot joined the Admirals in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes. Elliot is a puck-moving defenseman who has spent time with three organizations (Colorado, Arizona, Nashville) in the past year.

The Admirals also made an AHL-level trade to acquire Patrick Mullen from the Binghamton Senators in exchange for Conor Allen.

History

A couple notable AHL records could fall in the not-too-distant future.

As of Jan. 19th, San Jose Barracuda coach Roy Sommer sat at 635 career AHL wins, one short of Bun Cook’s record 636. Sommer has been coaching the Sharks top minor league affiliate since the 1998-99 season.

Rockford IceHogs goalie Michael Leighton now has 43 career AHL shutouts after a 3-0 win against the Stockton Heat last week. He is two short of Johnny Bower’s AHL career record of 45.

Western Conference Hot List – January 2016

1. Max Gortz, RW, Milwaukee Admirals
36 GP, 9 G, 17 A, +2, 10 PIM

Max Gortz was named the AHL Rookie of the Month for December after he notched five goals and 10 assists in 13 games. The Swede has cooled down slightly, but still has five points in seven January games. He likely would have been an All-Star if not for the inclusion of teammates Vladislav Kamenev and Federick Gaudreau.

2. Pat Cannone, C, Chicago Wolves
36 GP, 13 G, 17 A, +13, 20 PIM

Pat Cannone was named the AHL Player of the Week for Jan. 11th through the 17th. During that time, the Wolves captain registered a point on seven of the Wolves 11 goals. He was selected to the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic and leads his team with 30 points.

3. Esa Lindell, D, Texas Stars
42 GP, 7 G, 18 A, +9, 38 PIM

Esa Lindell has been an offensive catalyst from the blue line for the Texas Stars. The big Finnish defenseman also took on a larger role in the month of January after fellow shutdown defenseman Stephen Johns was lost to an injury. Lindell earned his first NHL call-up on Jan. 18th.

4. Jake Chelios, D, Charlotte Checkers
35 GP, 5 G, 16 A, +1, 21 PIM

Jake Chelios carried a late December hot streak into 2016. Since Dec. 19th, he has registered a point in nine of his last 12 games, which came after a nine-game drought without a point for the son of Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios.

5. Thomas Nosek, C, Grand Rapids Griffins
31 GP, 4 G, 7 A, +4, 18 PIM

After a horrendous start to the season, Tomas Nosek has turned it around. In his first 17 games he had just two points – a pair of assists. Since December started, however, the Czech center has nine points in 15 games which led to his first NHL call-up to Detroit on Dec. 26th.

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro