Changes in the AHL‘s West Division this season include the removal of the Abbotsford Heat, who relocated to Adirondack, and the addition of the Iowa Wild. The division is still full of highly touted prospects, and of course, the defending Calder Cup champion Texas Stars.
Last Season: 48-18-3-7, 106 points – First Place, West Division
2014 Calder Cup Champions
Graduated to the NHL: Colton Sceviour, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak
Key Losses: Christopher Nilstorp, Chris Mueller, Mike Hedden and Dustin Jeffrey
Key Additions: Jussi Rynnas and Greg Rallo
Incoming Rookies: Julius Honka, John Klingberg, Radek Faska, Branden Troock, Derek Hulak and Gemel Smith
The defending AHL champs certainly have a target on their chests heading into this season, but they don’t seem to be too worried.
The Stars have lost some scoring depth, veteran leadership, and their starting goaltender from last season but have a talented young goaltender in Jack Campbell ready to take the reigns as well as big Finnish goaltender Jussi Rynnas to push the youngster in net.
Younger players playing a more prominent role this season seems to be the motto in Cedar Park, TX. Returning second-year forwards Curtis McKenzie and Brett Ritchie are borderline NHL players who will start the season in the AHL but look to be the first recalled when injuries arise.
Both were impressive in their rookie season with McKenzie being named the AHL Rookie of the Year in 2014 after posting 65 points (27 goals, 38 assists) in 75 regular season games. McKenzie’s point total was the most of any rookie last season and good for ninth overall.
Still, the Stars have more incoming rookies to keep a close eye on, particularly on the back end.
Finnish-born defenseman Julius Honka will be the league’s youngest player at just 18 years of age after a bit of controversy, as the IIHF and NHL ruled that Honka wasn’t drafted out of the CHL. Instead, he was loaned to the WHL club by his Finnish team, JYP, which thus allows Honka to play in the AHL this season as an 18-year-old.
Honka was one of the leading rookie scorers in the WHL last season with 56 points (16 goals, 40 assists) in 62 games. While he has drawn comparisons to Tobias Enstrom, Honka is believed to have a higher offensive ceiling than Enstrom. The Dallas Stars‘ first round pick in last summer’s NHL Draft still has some developing to do on the defensive side, but the fact he’s playing in the AHL already is a good sign for his future with the organization.
Oklahoma City Barons
Last Season: 36-29-2-9, 83 points – Third Place, West Division
Eliminated by Texas – First Round
Graduated to the NHL: Brad Hunt and Will Acton
Key Losses: Roman Horak, Taylor Fedun and Austin Fyten
Key Additions: Jason Williams and Iiro Pakarinen
Incoming Rookies: Jujhar Khaira, Bogdan Yakimov, Dillion Simpson, Mitch Moroz, Jordan Oesterle and C.J. Ludwig.
The Oklahoma City Barons had an early exit in the 2014 playoffs to the eventual Calder Cup champion Texas Stars but look to build off of last year and become a more serious contender this season.
The Barons lost three of their top five scorers from last year’s roster but have added veteran scorer Jason Williams and Finnish forward Iiro Pakarinen, who tallied a goal and an assist in the team’s season opener last weekend.
After getting his first taste of pro hockey in Oklahoma City last spring, Jujhar Khaira enters his first full season as a pro this fall. While a solid two-way player last season in the WHL, Khaira brings his big frame to an organization lacking size, which might help him stand out. Khaira still has a lot to learn at the pro level, but could turn out to be an NHL bottom-six forward for the Oilers in the near future.
Mitch Moroz didn’t join the Barons last spring because he was on his way to his second straight WHL championship with the Edmonton Oil Kings and later, a Memorial Cup championship. The physical winger adds a component missing from the AHL lineup last season.
The Barons also have a pair of young defensemen to keep an eye on this season in Oscar Klefbom and Dillion Simpson. Klefbom got into some NHL games last season, but will need to continue to improve starting this season in the AHL in order to not get lost in the shuffle of the defensive prospects already ahead of him. Simpson is coming off of a successful senior season at the University of North Dakota, where he was the captain and leader of the team and is turning pro this season.
Goaltender Laurent Brossoit spent most of last season in the ECHL, but the ice time he got was not wasted as he went 24-9-2 with a .923 save percentage for the Bakersfield Condors. He won a WHL championship with the Edmonton Oil Kings a few years back and will be part of the AHL club’s goaltending duo this season behind Richard Bachman (Bachman has been recalled to the Oilers, however, after starting the Barons’ only game).
Last Season: 37-36-1-2, 77 points – Fourth Place, West Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason
Graduated to the NHL: Chris Terry, Victor Rask and Ryan Murphy
Key Losses: Brett Sutter
Key Additions: Drew MacIntyre, Chad LaRose, Ben Holmstrom, Greg Nemisz and Kevin Hagel.
Incoming Rookies: Trevor Carrick, Dennis Robertson, Carter Sandlak, Phil Di Giuseppe, Brock McGinn and Patrick Brown
The Checkers missed the postseason in 2013-14, but the addition of an elite AHL goaltender in Drew MacIntyre, some solid veterans and interesting young players has the Carolina Hurricanes‘ affiliate hoping that the right mix of age and skill sets will provide success in 2014-15.
One area the Checkers were lacking in last season was offensive support from the back end, but incoming rookie Trevor Carrick hopes to change that.
Carrick scored a combined 22 goals in 70 regular season games between Sudbury and Mississauga last season in the OHL and has the pedigree of a high-scoring offensive defensemen. The Checkers certainly hope the trend continues at the professional level this season.
For a team that was in the middle of the pack in terms of scoring last season, losing the top five scorers from the roster is certainly a big blow.
Chris Terry has graduated to the NHL with Carolina and has been on the Checkers roster every year since their inaugural campaign as an AHL franchise in the 2010-11 season. His veteran presence will surely be missed in Charlotte, but the Checkers added a long-time member and former Stanley Cup champion with the Hurricanes in forward Chad La Rose to help in that department.
Keep an eye on Brock McGinn – the third of the McGinn brothers to play hockey at the pro level – but not just because of his family lineage. The small but gritty winger scored 71 goals in his last two seasons in the OHL with the Guelph Storm. That kind of scoring touch is hard to find and it will be interesting to see if McGinn can bring it all together at the AHL level this fall.
San Antonio Rampage
Last Season: 30-37-3-6, 69 points – Fifth Place, West Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason
Graduated to the NHL: Colby Robak
Key Losses: Jacob Markstrom, Matt Gilroy, Jon Matsumoto, Jared Gomes, Michael Caruso, Jed Ortmeyer and Joey Crabb
Key Additions: Dan Ellis, Steven Kampfer, Shane O’Brien, Blake Parlett and Brett Olson
Incoming Rookies: Rocco Grimaldi, Mackenzie Weegar, Steven Hodges, Connor Brickley and Shayne Taker
The Rampage hope a revamped defense and a talented but young forward core can push for a playoff spot in 2014-15.
The Rampage have new faces on defense including Blake Parlett, Shane O’Brien and Steven Kampfer to help bolster a young team, but they’ll look for solid play out of their younger defensemen, too, like Alex Petrovic and rookie Mackenzie Weegar.
Weegar is coming off a productive season in the QMJHL where he tallied 59 points (12G-47A) in 61 games with Halifax, but what was most impressive was his +56 rating last season. He was also a standout in the playoffs, tallying 22 points (5G-17A) in 16 games. Weegar’s future is certainly bright and upper management has been raving about him since development camp in July. As a 20-year-old, he will look to turn pro in the fall having signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers over the summer.
They still have perennial scorer Bobby Butler up front, and with Vincent Trocheck on the cusp of turning into a full-time NHL forward and speedy rookie Rocco Grimaldi turning pro this fall the forward core is dangerous and will cause opposing defenses trouble.
With Jacob Markstrom gone, second-year pro Michael Houser looks to take over in net with veteran Dan Ellis pushing for starts behind him at the AHL level this season.
The real questions heading into the season include whether the defenders added by the Rampage will be enough to make them a competitive team in this division, and whether the younger players throughout the lineup can produce offensively.
Last Season: 27-36-7-6, 67 points – Fifth Place, Midwest Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason
Graduated to the NHL: Darcy Kuemper and Erik Haula
Key Losses: Brad Winchester, Brian Connelly, Carson McMillan, Kris Foucault and Warren Peters
Key Additions: Justin Faulk, Brett Sutter, Jordan Schroeder, Curt Gogol, Cody Almond and Joel Rechlicz
Incoming Rookies: Gustav Olofsson, Alex Gudbranson, Guillaume Gelinas, Jake Parenteau, Michael Keranen, Brady Brassart, Ryan Walters, Kurtis Gabriel and Zack Mitchell
It was a tough first season as an AHL franchise for the Iowa Wild, who finished last in the Western Conference in 2013-14 due mainly to struggles on offense. Their leading scorer last season tallied only 38 points.
With a number of young players on defense, the offense will need to pick up if they want to keep pace in what is shaping up to be an even better West Division this season.
One young defenseman turning pro this fall with upside is Swedish defenseman Gustav Olofsson. Olofsson could be a top-four NHL defenseman in the future as he possesses a good variety of attributes including the ability to join the rush and play with an aggressive edge. The fact that he left Colorado College after his freshman season to turn pro says what Minnesota thinks of his game and timetable for becoming an NHL defender.
Up front, Jordan Schroeder and Michael Keranen should provide a spark on offense for a team that lacked just that last year.
Schroeder was let go by the Vancouver Canucks in the summer and the Wild grabbed the Prior Lake, MN native for their AHL affiliate. Schroeder is a quick, intelligent forward with offensive upside and will look to carve out a role with the club this season.
Keranen was a leading scorer in Finland‘s Liiga last year and at 24 is older for a rookie, but nevertheless is making his North American pro debut this fall. His scoring prowess should translate to AHL success, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the pro game.
The Wild have John Curry and Johan Gustafsson manning the nets this season and splitting time to start the year. Gustafsson looks to rebound from a disappointing rookie season in 2013-14, but how much you can attribute the below average numbers to his demise versus the poor play of the team in general is a tricky proposition.
At this point, the Wild’s ability to impact the standings in this division this season with four rookie defensemen and the lack of established goal scorers is still up in the air.
Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey