The AHL's Western Conference was home to the Calder Cup champions in 2012-13, but that league's Eastern Conference should offer up at least a couple of legitimate contenders in the 2013-14 campaign. And, with the Western Conference already previewed, Hockey's Future will now take a look some of the teams and prospects to take note of in the AHL's Eastern Conference for this season that is now underway. The NHL team affiliated with the AHL club is indicated in parentheses next to the AHL team name.
Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Last Season: 43-22-6-5 (97 points, 1st place in the North Division)
The Crunch, who inherited the 2011 Calder Cup-winning team from the Norfolk Admirals when affiliations changed, made it to the Calder Cup final, where they lost to the Grand Rapids Griffins, 4 games to 2. As part of one of the deepest farm systems in the league, the Crunch expect great things to continue. However, failure at the NHL level has led the Lightning front office to name now-former Crunch head coach Jon Cooper as the parent club's head coach. In his first NHL training camp, Cooper has brought in several 2012-13 Crunch players to the Lightning's active roster, including Crunch standouts Alex Killorn, Radko Gudas and Tyler Johnson.
Although majorly depleted with the exodus of prospects to the NHL, the Crunch still boast a strong core of forwards. Led by Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov and Tanner Richard, the Crunch still have the firepower to contend. Look for J.T. Brown to take on an increased role after playing in the shadow of Johnson and Cory Conacher in his first NHL season.
Defensively, look for Dmitry Korobov to get more and more comfortable with the North American game on a team that needs to replace the prowess of Gudas, Andrej Sustr and the leadership of Mark Barberio, all of whom are now with Tampa Bay.
Binghamton Senators (Ottawa Senators)
Last Season: 44-24-1-7 (96 points, 2nd in the East Division)
After an impressive season for both Binghamton and their parent Ottawa, Binghamton fell flat in the Calder Cup Playoffs, getting swept by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the first round. With another positive outlook for the Senators organization with little change in the roster, expect a similar regular season record in 2013-14.
Up front, look for the continued development of Mika Zibanejad, who played with Ottawa in 2013. The Senators decided he needed some more seasoning, so he'll see some more time in Binghamton. Zibanejad is joined by finishing specialist Matt Puempel and grinder Mark Stone. Also, look out for Shane Prince, Mike Hoffman and Derek Grant.
The forward-heavy Senators' defensive corps are highlighted by the arrival of Cody Ceci, the 19-year-old 2012 first round draft pick who played in six games for Binghamton last season. Ceci has the size (6'3'', 203 lbs.) to compete at the NHL level, but needs some time to learn to use that size. He has offensive upside and should see time on the power-play and penalty kill. Ceci is joined by Mark Borowiecki, a stay-at-home defenseman with a penchant for pugilism, and Frederik Claesson, a defender in the mode of Dennis Seidenberg; he'll get the job done, but you won't notice him for it.
Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals)
Last Season: 36-31-3-6 (81 points, 4th in the East Division)
The Bears, like the Capitals, are always just one or two pieces away from being one of the top teams in the league. This is epitomized by their well-rounded group of prospects that includes goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who has the size and glove-hand to make it in the NHL, although he needs more time adjusting to the pace of the North American game.
The Bears' forward corps is led by power forward Michael Latta, who came over in a trade with the Predators. Latta has yet to find the scoring touch he had in the OHL, but his fighting skills may be enough to earn him a low-line spot on an NHL team at some point in the next season or two.
College products Patrick Wey and Nate Schmidt lead a corp of defensemen who should bolster the Bears defense, but not necessarily the Capitals. The main player to watch here is Tomas Kundratek, who should be in Washington by the end of the season, due mostly to his two-way play.
Norfolk Admirals (Anaheim Ducks)
Last Season: 37-34-4-1 (79 points, 5th in the East Division)
Fans in Norfolk aren't exactly loving their new affiliation, as they went from a record-setting Lightning farm team in 2012 to a team that struggled to remain over .500 with the Anaheim Ducks as their parent club in 2013. Their top prospect is goalie John Gibson, who will play in his first AHL season. He is mature beyond his years and has the talent to make it, it's just a matter of transitioning from the OHL.
Soft-touched big man Peter Holland and Stefan Noesen, who came over in the Bobby Ryan trade, lead the Admirals offensively. Holland and Noesen both have the ability to score, pass, and grind it out in the dirty areas. Also, lookout for rookie Rickard Rakell, who showed the ability to produce offesne in the OHL.
The Admirals boast several defensemen who have the skills to make the NHL, but haven't put it together professionally as of yet. Look for potential breakouts by Mat Clark, Kevin Gagne and Stefan Warg, but don't be surprised if they don't. Hampus Lindholm probably has the best chance of making it to the Ducks this season.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Last Season: 42-30-2-2 (88 points, 4th in the East Division)
Like their parent club in Pittsburgh, the Penguins had a pretty good showing in the 2013 playoffs, making it all the way to the conference finals before falling to Syracuse. Pittsburgh has drafted well over the past few years, a fact Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans have noticed.
Up front, it is Tom Kuhnhackl's transition to the AHL that will be watched closely as the lefty looks to play in his first full season since 2011. Dominik Uher will look to finish off his development into a good combo forward in his second AHL season.
In a somewhat surprising move, defensemen Simon Despres has been assigned to the AHL Penguins after spending most of 2012-13 with Pittsburgh. The big, stay-at-home defenseman will use his size to make it back to Pittsburgh this year. Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin round out the Pens good core of big defenders.
Springfield Falcons (Columbus Blue Jackets)
Last season: 45-22-5-4 (99 points, 1st in the Northeast Division)
The Springfield Falcons success last season has created a new atmosphere for the Columbus organization, who finally look like they're on the brink of challenging for a playoff spot. While the Blue Jackets have grabbed several of the Falcons 2013 core players, Springfield has retained forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who has scored 60 points in each of the last two seasons; defenseman Cody Goloubef, whose all-around skills should keep him in the league for a while; and center Michael Chaput, whose two-way play should be valuable for the Falcons.
Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers)
Last Season: 35-32-6-3 (79 points, 2nd in the Northeast Division)
The Wolf Pack, who return to their original name after two seasons as the Connecticut Whale, are a team with too many players on the brink. They have talent good enough for the NHL, which will lead to a bit more movement between levels than a prospect might benefit from, but the Wolf Pack will be happy to have these players while they do.
The Rangers prospect situation is perhaps best identified by Chris Kreider, who was really hurt by the lockout. He'll look to reestablish himself in an organization that has had a coaching overhaul. Kreider takes a little time to get used to differing systems, but expect him to have a huge impact on the Wolf Pack. Kreider is joined by rookie Danny Kristo and Andrew Yogan, the latter of whom may be the biggest surprise in the AHL.
Defensively, watch for enforcer Dylan McIlrath to fight anyone in an effort to get called up for Rangers games against tougher NHL teams. UMass product Conor Allen will round out a decent group of defensemen.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers (New York Islanders)
Last season: 32-32-7-5 (76 points, 3rd in the Northeast Division)
Now a playoff team, the Islanders should start to see an influx of developed talent knocking on the door that is Long Island Sound. The Isles haven't always drafted well, but things appear to be turning around for the organization.
Ryan Strome, the Islanders 2011 first round pick, shocked almost everyone in hockey when he was cut and sent to Bridgeport. The power forward should make the jump to the NHL this year, it's just a matter of proving himself to be the big dog that he was in the OHL. Offensively, Strome is joined by Notre Dame product Anders Lee, who is still probably a couple of years away from being NHL-ready, and speedy rookie Kirill Kabanov.
The Islanders have many talented defensemen. Scott Mayfield, Calvin de Haan and Andrey Pedan all bring size and the Islanders-preferred fighting ability that their affiliates always seem to have. Look for the three to fully accept Islanders hockey.
Albany Devils (New Jersey Devils)
Last season: 31-32-12 (75 points, 4th in the Northeast Division)
The New Jersey Devils look completely different from last season, with AHL farm club Albany boasting a bit more developed team than last year. Goaltending and defense are the main strengths here, but the Albany Devils won't be winning the Calder Cup anytime soon.
Reid Boucher leads the way offensively for Albany. Boucher scored 62 goals and 33 assists for 95 points for the OHL's Sarnia Sting last year, and racked up five more points over 11 games with Albany for an even 100. While you shouldn't expect another 100-point season in Boucher's first full AHL season, 30 goals and 60 points is not out of the question.
Jon Merrill leads a defensive corps that also includes Eric Gelinas and Reece Scarlett. Merrill projects the best out of the trio, but it is Scarlett who has the flash, with an offensive aspect to his game already developed.
Scott Wedgewood enters his first full AHL season and will look to further his development as the future backup to Cory Schneider. With 12 shootout loses last season, perhaps the new goalie will equal some better success for Albany. Lucky for Wedgewood and the Devils, with Martin Brodeur still literally kicking it, he has more time to develop.
Adirondack Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers)
Last season: 31-38-3-4 (69 points, 5th in the Northeast Division)
The Flyers organization being in a transitional stage is putting it mildly. Outside of Nick Cousins, there isn't really much to say about this team. The Phantoms boast a good core of players like Brandon Manning and Tye McGinn who are the type of grinders the Flyers love, but there isn't much upside here. Cousins could be a huge bright spot for the Phantoms. He scored 103 points in the OHL last season and has great passing ability, especially in the dirty areas.
Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins)
Last season: 50-21-0-5 (105 points, 1st in the Atlantic Conference)
What can be said about the Bruins organization? Aside from being one of the three most successful NHL franchises in the last five years (the other two being Chicago and Detroit), the Bruins have perhaps the strongest farm system in the league. They may have come up short in the playoffs last year, but they're fully re-loaded with talent that could equal their second straight 100-point season.
Offensively, Ryan Spooner and Alex Khokhlachev are perhaps the scariest players in the AHL. Both could easily make many NHL teams, but are in Providence simply due to the forward depth in Boston. Spooner is a bit more polished, having spent time in the AHL already, but he will get the first call should any Boston center go down. Even without Spooner or Khokhlachev, Providence boasts Jared Knight, Anthony Camara and Seth Griffith.
Defensively, Joe Morrow leads the way for Providence. Another part of the Tyler Seguin trade (as well as the Brendan Morrow trade), Morrow looks to stick with the Bruins. Matt Bartkowski made the Bruins out of training camp, but don't be surprised to see him log some minutes in Providence.
The Bruins also have the luxury of the best goalie prospect tandem in the game. Malcolm Subban and Niklas Svedberg will split time between the pipes for Providence. Both project as starting goaltenders down the line, so don't be surprised if one gets traded come trade deadline time.
St. John's IceCaps (Winnipeg Jets)
Last season: 32-36-3-5 (72 points, 5th in the Atlantic Division)
The Winnipeg Jets have a plethora of offensive talent in St. John's, as trades and low finishes have allowed them to draft very well over the last decade. Last year, it did not translate well, but a non-lockout season should be good for them as they could make the playoffs.
Goaltender Ed Pasquale has proven to be a decent draft pick. Like most AHL goaltenders, he's still a year or two away from helping his parent club, but he does have a bright future backing up Ondrej Pavelec.
Offensively, watch out for power forward Adam Lowry, who recorded 88 points in the WHL last year. Lowry should just need one year of development. Additionally, Carl Klingberg will look to improve upon a disappointing 2012-13 season where he had only 23 points. Ivan Telegin is worth noting due to his raw skill, but it remains to be seen what will happen to him after he was suspended by the Jets for failing to report to St. John's when he did not make the Jets.
Defensively, Julian Melchiori will look to improve upon a mediocre rookie season in the AHL. The stay-at-home defenseman isn't the biggest defender at 6'1'' and 190 pounds, but he gets the job done and can be used in all situations.
Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles Kings)
Last season: 37-32-3-4 (81 points, 3rd in the Atlantic Conference)
The Monarchs are like the parent Los Angeles Kings in that they are very talented, but succeed quietly. The Monarchs have some NHL-ready talent just waiting for their chance, so the Monarchs' success is largely contingent on how soon the Kings call them up.
The Kings may have learned a thing or two from the Rangers and Chris Kreider with Tyler Toffoli, a preseason favorite for the NHL's Calder Trophy following an strong playoff run that included six points. Toffoli, who had 100-point seasons in each of his final two campaigns in the OHL, is almost ready. Toffoli is not alone in his knocking on the door, as he's joined by Tanner Pearson (47 points in 2012-13) and Linden Vey (67 points) as part of the Kings' top three forward prospects.
On defense, the main prospect to watch is big defender Derek Forbort (6'4'', 218 lbs.), who is playing in his first AHL season. The hulking defender is defense first, so you probably won't see him in the box score, but his presence should be felt by opposing forwards.
Worcester Sharks (San Jose Sharks)
Last season: 31-34-4-7 (73 points, 4th in the Atlantic Division)
The Worcester Sharks are obviously modeled after the San Jose team, as they're a middle of the road team with the potential to make a run in the playoffs. They have a strong core of centers and defensemen, and even a goalie prospect to boot, but the team as a whole will struggle in a tough Atlantic Division.
Freddie Hamilton, brother of Dougie, leads the Sharks forward corps. An 80-point man in the OHL, Freddie managed just 26 in his first season with Worcester. A natural leader, Hamilton figures to be a Jonathan Toews-type of defensive-minded center. The scoring in Worcester will likely come through Daniil Tarasov, as the slick-handed Tarasov regularly lit up the USHL. He will look to improve as he split time between the AHL and ECHL last season.
Defensively, watch Konrad Abeltshauser and Sena Acolatse. Acolatse is a very solid rearguard who could have made the NHL if he weren't blocked by the prowess of San Jose's top six. Abeltshauser is an offensive-minded puck-mover who will have to work out the defensive kinks in his game over the next couple of seasons.
In goal, following the much deserved promotion of Alex Stalock, Harri Sateri is the man in Worcester. He needs to work on his glove-hand, but he is athletic and quick between the pipes. He'll make the NHL within three years.
Portland Pirates (Phoenix Coyotes)
Last season: 41-30-3-2 (87 points, 2nd in the Atlantic Division)
Phoenix isn't exactly the hockey capital of the world, and neither is Portland, as the team moves to Lewiston for the 2013-14 season. The Pirates feature a plethora of first round picks who are in make-or-break seasons for the Pirates.
Tobias Rieder is the man to watch up front, as his hard-nosed play and scoring ability make him a big part of the future for the Pirates. He may not always make the stat sheet, but you'll always know this rookie is in the game. Center Brendan Shinnimin brings some fancy footwork and scoring ability, as he's just a season removed from a 134-point season in the WHL. He's not very developed defensively, but his offense should flourish in Year Two with the Pirates.
Defensively, it's all Brandon Gormley. Gormley is an all-around defenseman with a hard shot, distribution skills, and some good leadership capabilities. He will make a nice defenseman for the Coyotes a year or two from now.
Follow Mark Volain on Twitter via @markcvolain