AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, March, 2016: Playoff picture sharpens as newcomers get first pro action

By Tony Androckitis
Carter Rowney - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

Photo: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Carter Rowney starred at the University of North Dakota for four seasons before turning pro in the 2012-13 season (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

With less than a month to go in the regular season, the only true rookies in the AHL’s Eastern Conference are those joining AHL teams on amateur tryout contracts from Canadian junior leagues and the NCAA ranks. Most first-year players have 50-65 games under their belt now and are either gearing up for a postseason run, or looking to leave a final impression before heading into the offseason.

Eastern Conference playoff picture

With four weeks left in the American Hockey League’s 2015-16 season, the playoff picture is starting to become a little more clear as to who is in and who is out in the Eastern Conference.

Teams getting hot at the right time, like the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Providence Bruins, have made the Atlantic Division’s seeding a lot more interesting. The top four teams in the division are separated by just three points.

Other teams have struggled mightily and either pushed themselves out of postseason contention, like the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (0-5-2 in their last seven), or have squandered a solid playoff position with a losing skid i.e. the Portland Pirates (1-4-3-1 in their last nine).

It is looking more and more likely that the Atlantic Division will have five teams in the postseason, as the fifth place team (currently Portland – .563) has a higher points percentage than the current fourth place team in the North Division (Rochester – .516).

Only time will tell who is in and who is out for the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs, but one thing is certain – the Toronto Marlies will be one of the Eastern Conference’s eight qualifiers for the postseason, having already clinched a playoff berth this past weekend.

Penguins captain Kotsopoulos makes hockey history

Back on March 6th as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins took to the ice for the start of their game against Hershey, their captain – forward Tom Kotsopoulos – made hockey history. He became just the fourth player ever to appear in 600 games at both the AHL and NHL levels. He joins current Florida Panthers enforcer Shawn Thornton, as well as Dave Creighton and AHL Hall of Famer Jim Morrison in the 600/600 club.

The 37-year-old forward has shown no signs of his age catching up to him the last three seasons with the AHL Penguins. In fact, with 42 points (17 goals, 25 assists) in 63 games this season, Kotsopoulos is just two points shy of his offensive production from 72 games last season. Furthermore, Kotsopoulos finished with 47 points (22 goals, 25 assists) in 71 games back in 2013-14. It is simply impressive that the AHL Penguins’ captain has continued to play a pivotal role both on and off the ice for the organization.

The 17-year pro can be thought of as the Jaromir Jagr of the AHL – Kostopoulos just keeps going.

Newcomers

It is getting to that time of the year where the Canadian junior league playoffs are getting underway and the collegiate season is entering postseason play. For those teams done for the season, it is a chance for some younger prospects of NHL teams to get a taste of pro hockey in the AHL before heading home for the summer.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have added forward Jake Guentzel to an amateur tryout contract (ATO). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ third round pick in 2013 recently completed a dominant season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, tallying 46 points (17 goals, 29 assists) in 35 games in his junior season. Guentzel’s creativity and offensive flare will be something to keep an eye on as he gets ready for his first taste of pro hockey.

But the parent Penguins weren’t done adding to the AHL Penguins depth as they dipped into their NCAA prospect pool to sign Minnesota State University Mankato forward Teddy Blueger to a two-year, entry-level deal that will kick in next Fall. Blueger, who could have become an unrestricted free agent if he had remained unsigned on June 1st, will join Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the remainder of the 2015-16 campaign on an ATO.

But the drafted prospects aren’t the only younger players getting their first taste of pro hockey as some undrafted players are also getting the chance to come in and make an impression.

The New Jersey Devils signed forward Nick Lappin to a two-year, entry-level contract following his senior season at Brown University and assigned him to the Albany Devils on an ATO. Lappin, a former teammate at Brown with current AHL Devils rookie Matt Lorito, has come in and produced almost immediately with five points (two goals, three assists) in his first six AHL games with Albany. Lappin was a point producer in his collegiate career, finishing with 106 points (51 goals, 55 assists) in 123 games in the ECAC at Brown University, and he is in a good situation with Albany as he marches towards the postseason alongside a familiar face to help ease the transition.

Ottawa native Mark Borkowski signed an ATO with the Binghamton Senators after finishing his senior season at Colgate University (ECAC) and has enjoyed some early success on a struggling Binghamton team that is in last place in the North Division. Borkowski scored in his pro debut and has three points (two goals, one assist) in addition to a +4 rating in four games with the AHL Senators so far this spring.

Eastern Conference Hot List – March 2016

1. Carter Rowney, RW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 63GP, 20G-29A, +28, 31 PIM

Carter Rowney has continued to improve every season, and in his second full season in the AHL he has been one of the AHL Penguins most consistent players. Having recently signed his first NHL contract with Pittsburgh, Rowney has 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in seven games in March.

2. Frank Vatrano, C – Providence Bruins
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 33GP, 33G-16A, +17, 20 PIM

Frank Vatrano continues to be a goal-per-game player at the AHL level. He is still pouring it on offensively in March with 13 points (eight goals, five assists) in eight games this month.

3. Alexander Khokhlachev, C – Providence Bruins
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 48GP, 19G-35A, +3, 8 PIM

Despite missing nearly two weeks due to injury, Alexander Khokhlachev still managed to tally 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in his last seven games.

4. Alan Quine, C – Bridgeport Sound Tigers
2015-16 Season Stats: 50GP, 15G-26A, +3, 20 PIM

The Sound Tigers have won five straight games entering this week’s slate with Alan Quine having been a big part of his team’s recent success, posting 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his last nine games.

5. Anthony DeAngelo, D – Syracuse Crunch
2015-16 Season Stats: 58GP, 6G-35A, -14, 58 PIM

There is no doubting that Anthony DeAngelo is a top offensive defenseman for the Crunch. In his last 12 games, he has recorded points in 10 of them and has a goal and 12 assists during that span.

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