AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, November, 2015: Marlies, Penguins off to strong starts

By Tony Androckitis
William Nylander - Toronto Marlies

Photo: Toronto Marlies forward and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect William Nylander is tied for the scoring lead in the AHL with 20 points in 15 games (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)



Through the first six weeks of the 2015-16 American Hockey League (AHL) season, four teams in the Eastern Conference have separated themselves from the rest of the group. The top two teams in the East – the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Toronto Marlies – have done so with extraordinary play in opposite regards, with one team (Toronto) lighting the lamp at an alarming rate and the other (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) playing stalwart defense.

All stats run from opening night through the November 19th games.

Penguins Powering Through Eastern Conference

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have won a franchise record 11 straight games to start the season, currently standing at an impressive 12-1-0-0. This fall, despite having an entirely new coaching staff at the AHL level, it has been the same old Penguins hockey in northeastern Pennsylvania – structured attack and strong defensive play with fantastic goaltending.

The strength of the team has been its depth across all three positions. Players like forwards Tom Kuhnhackl and Jean-Sebastien Dea on the fourth line have been some of their best offensive players of late, with Kuhnhackl averaging a point-per-game and Dea with four of his five goals on the season coming in his last six games.

Several other second year-forwards – most notably Scott Wilson and Conor Sheary – are on the wings of the top line. Wilson leads with team with nine goals in 12 games, while Sheary recorded two separate four-point nights, one on Friday in a 7-0 victory over rival Hershey (1G-3A), and the other on Sunday in a 7-6 overtime win over Hartford (0G-4A).

Dominik Simon has seemingly transitioned well right away, coming to North America this summer from the Czech Republic. The Pittsburgh Penguins fifth round pick this past summer signed an entry-level deal shortly after being drafted and is one of the team’s leaders in scoring with 13 points (5G-8A) through 13 games. He possesses a skill-set that head coach Mike Sullivan simply said cannot be taught.

What has been most impressive for the Penguins, however, is their attention to detail on defense. Through 12 games, the AHL Penguins have allowed a league’s fewest 20 goals (1.67 per game) and have seen continued strong play from returning rookie and 2015 AHL Goaltender of the Year, Matt Murray.

Rookie forward Oskar Sundqvist has been placed into a defensive shutdown role and is embracing that role while also playing well against the opposing team’s top lines. He is looking more comfortable with each passing game and has three goals – including one shorthanded tally – in his last five games. He is also currently on a three-game point-scoring streak.

On the back end, the Penguins are as deep as any team in the conference, boasting highly-regarded prospect Derrick Pouliot as well as rookie Niclas Andersen and some veterans with NHL experience in Tim Erixon and the rugged physical defender Steve Oleksy.

Oleksy has been paired with Pouliot almost exclusively through the first six weeks of the season, and the offensively-minded Pouliot has been working on his defensive game , also getting ample time on the team’s penalty-killing unit. With 10 points (3G-7A) in 12 games, the offensive prowess is still there for Pouliot, but it is his improvement away from the puck that will get Pouliot back to the NHL.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic Division, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have a revamped roster poised to continue to build off of their strong start to the season. Currently tied for first in points in the Atlantic Division, the New York Islanders affiliate has several veterans leading the way offensively.

Joe Whitney is tied for the scoring lead in the AHL in scoring with 20 points (5G-15A). His teammates Bracken Kearns (10G-6A) and Alan Quine (7G-9A) are both in the top eight on the league’s leading scorers list, as well.

Second year defenseman Ryan Pulock is continuing to be an offensive threat in the AHL, with 11 points (4G-7A) in 14 games played for Bridgeport.

Also in his second full season at the AHL level, goaltender Christopher Gibson has been strong in net for Bridgeport (7-2-0, 2.05 GAA, .922 SV%, 2 SO). After a strong start for rookie Stephon Williams in which he won his first three starts of the season, he surrendered five goals in back-to-back starts, opening the door for Gibson to get a majority of the starts. Williams recorded a 26-save shutout on November 7th, his first as a pro, but is still searching for a little more consistency in net.

The Providence Bruins have had a pleasant surprise of their own in rookie forward Frank Vatrano, an undrafted forward out of the University of Massachusetts. After tallying his first pro goal on opening night, Vatrano went off in his second game, tallying four goals. The goal-scoring streak reached four games and he ended up with 10 goals in his first eight games and has since been called up to Boston.

The AHL Bruins also have talented scorers in Alexander Khokhlachev and Seth Griffith at the AHL level. Khokhlachev was off to a good start with 13 points (4G-9A), but was injured after three point-less games and will be out at least another month after having surgery on a finger.

Seth Griffith was re-assigned to Providence following a knee injury during the NHL preseason and made an immediate impact in his first game of the season at home against Lehigh Valley, tallying three assists. Unfortunately for Griffith and the Bruins, he suffered a concussion during last Wednesday’s game against Bridgeport and hasn’t returned since, just recently practicing with the team in a limited capacity.

The injuries and call-ups have put a little more pressure on the young tandem of Malcolm Subban and rookie Zane McIntyre. McIntyre has earned a few more starts than Subban in the early part of the season, but neither goalie has been very effective as both have goals-against averages over three and save percentages under 90 percent.

Toronto Marlies Living Up To Preseason Expectations

No team in the AHL has scored as many goals as the 62 the Toronto Marlies have scored in 15 games, an average of over four goals per game. Their high-powered attack was on full display in last Saturday’s win over the St. John’s IceCaps.

The offensive prowess was on full display Saturday night against the St. John’s IceCaps, a game the Marlies won in overtime by a final score of 9-8. Toronto’s leading scorer has been none other than William Nylander, who tallied the game-winning overtime goal in that game as well as adding three assists. The four-point game also extended Nylander’s points scoring streak to seven games. It is only a matter of time before Nylander makes the jump to the NHL.

After a drop in production in his second pro season, Josh Leivo has gotten off to a strong start playing alongside Nylander, notching 14 points (5G-9A) in 14 games. Rookie Nikita Soshnikov has tallied five goals in his first 16 games after enjoying a breakout campaign in the KHL last season.

The IceCaps have no shortage of prospects on the roster, either, having switched affiliations in the off-season and now housing the Montreal Canadiens prospects.

Rookie forward Michael McCarron is imposing his will at the AHL level in his first 16 games, tallying 17 points (8G-9A) and displaying a rare combination of size and skill. One shift he looks like a bulldozing, physical power forward and the next he is deking his way through defenses on his way to a finesse play at the net.

The IceCaps have a pair of second-year forwards continuing their offensive upside from their rookie year in Charles Hudon and Daniel Carr. Hudon was an AHL All-Star as a rookie last season with 57 points, and is still an offensive weapon in the AHL so far this fall with 14 points (7G-7A) in 16 games. Carr came on late last spring, finishing the season with 24 goals, but is still scoring this fall with 12 points (5G-7A) in his first 16 games.

Rookie goaltender Zachary Fucale has a 6-2 record on the season, but has been helped out by the offensive support he has received from his teammates in front of him. He has shown flashes of brilliant saves, but is still adjusting to the pro game with a 3.56 goals-against average and .894 save percentage.

The Albany Devils, meanwhile, are using strong defensive play and an attention to team defense to get off to an 8-3-3-0 start in the North Division. They’ve scored 23 less goals than the Marlies, yet they trail the division leader by just six points with two games in hand.

Two rookie forwards out of the college ranks are helping the Devils up front.

Matt Lorito joined the team last spring after four years at Brown University, with the undersized 5’9”, 170-pound forward tallying 12 points in 11 games. Again this season, Lorito has recorded 12 points in his first 13 games of the season.

Blake Coleman plays a more physical and technical game, despite tallying 39 goals in his final two seasons at Miami University. His teammates have said Coleman is the perfect example of what Albany Devils hockey is all about, bringing energy and getting in on the forecheck while also being responsible in the defensive zone.

Another rookie, Joseph Blandisi out of the OHL’s Barrie Colts, is more of a pure goal-scorer coming off a 52-goal season in 2014-15. Despite being an offensively-minded player, he too has been held accountable for his play in the defensive zone and is learning quickly that he needs to play a 200-foot game if he wants to make it in the pro ranks.

Eastern Conference Hot List – November 2015

1. William Nylander, C – Toronto Marlies
2015-16 Season Stats: 15GP, 8G-12A, +6, 4 PIM

It is only a matter of time before William Nylander sticks in the NHL full-time. He is off to a torrid start and is a game-changer at the AHL level.

2. Michael McCarron, C – St. John’s IceCaps
2015-16 Season Stats: 16GP, 8G-9A, +1, 27 PIM

Michael McCarron leads all AHL rookies in scoring to date, and has used his 6’6” frame to impose his will right away in the first month-and-a-half of the season.

3. Hunter Shinkaruk, LW – Utica Comets
2015-16 Season Stats: 12GP, 10G-3A, +2, 4 PIM

After getting his feet wet at the AHL level as a rookie last season, Hunter Shinkaruk is off to a great start this season, having recorded two hat tricks in 12 games before earning his first call-up to Vancouver.

4. Dominik Simon, C – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2015-16 Season Stats: 13GP, 5G-8A, +4, 6 PIM

Dominik Simon seems to be transitioning well from a breakout year in the Czech Republic last season, leading a dominant Penguins team in scoring so far this season.

5. Frank Vatrano, C – Providence Bruins
2015-16 Season Stats: 10GP, 10G-2A, -1, 4 PIM

Signed out of UMass-Amherst, Frank Vatrano tallied seven goals in his first four games of the season – including a four-goal game on opening weekend – before earning a call up to the Boston Bruins where he tallied his first NHL goal.

Western Conference Notebook, November 2015

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