The Pacific Division was always going to be the American Hockey League’s most polarizing division.
With five teams playing 68 games and the other two playing 76, points percentage was handmade for this grouping. And with the California teams avoiding all of the dreaded three-in-threes? The Pacific Division is ripe with storylines created by the AHL’s western migration.
No matter how many games its teams will play, the Pacific Division may have one of the strongest top-four groupings in the AHL.
The San Antonio Rampage – new home to the prospects of the Colorado Avalanche – lead the division with a .786 win percentage and seemingly lack the ability to lose in regulation.
Calvin Pickard was the early catalyst for the Rampage charge and was named the AHL Goaltender of the Month for October. But even after losing Pickard to an NHL call-up the Rampage have won two of their last three with ECHL call-up Spencer Martin in net.
The Ontario Reign, the defending Calder Cup Champions as the Manchester Monarchs, have been led by Peter Budaj’s career resurgence. The former NHL starter couldn’t even win a game in the AHL last season with the St. John’s IceCaps.
Now, through 10 games with the Reign, he has a league-leading .947 save percentage and 1.28 goals-against average.
The San Diego Gulls have also been a turnaround story, even if their current fans can’t remember the past. As the Norfolk Admirals, the Anaheim Ducks prospects finished in last place in the AHL last season.
This season, the Ducks’ AHL affiliate has found new life thanks to off-season additions.
Nick Ritchie, the Ducks first-round pick in 2014, has a team-high nine goals and recently grabbed his first NHL call-up. Rookie defenseman Brandon Montour has a team-high 15 points (3G, 12A), while AHL veteran Chris Mueller has chipped in 11 points.
The Texas Stars round out the Pacific’s top four and may boast the most explosive offense in the AHL. Through 15 games the Stars have a Western Conference-leading 57 goals, and that’s with the power play struggling.
The Pacific Division’s top four has also done its damage against the Central Division. San Antonio, Ontario, San Diego, and Texas are a combined 9-1-2-1 against the Central, while the Pacific Division as a whole is 11-2-2-1 against the Central.
Goalie split working
The Chicago Wolves two-headed goaltending monster has been working as the St. Louis Blues prospects are off to a Central Division-leading 8-2-1-1 start.
Phoenix Copley, acquired this past summer from the Washington Capitals, has started five games and has a 3-1-1 record with a .908 save percentage. Jordan Binnington, Chicago’s starter in the 2015 AHL playoffs, has a 5-1-1 record and a .898 save percentage.
“They work well together,” Wolves head coach John Anderson said. “We have two goalies, we don’t have a starter and back-up. Our guys feel confident no matter who starts in net.”
Perhaps the most disappointing team a month into the season has been the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Grand Rapids, home to the Detroit Red Wings prospects, had been a trendy pick to compete for the Calder Cup in coach Todd Nelson’s first season. But through 12 games the Griffins have the worst record in the AHL and scored a measly 22 goals – that is a paltry 1.83 goals per game.
One of the biggest problems has been the Griffins’ starts. Grand Rapids is getting outscored 15-4 in the first period, and the four goals are by far the worst first-period offensive output in the league.
Historically, fighting has been an Eastern Conference phenomenon in the AHL, and Eastern teams have consistently been amongst the leaders in fisticuffs.
Last season, of the AHL’s top 15 teams in fighting majors, 10 were housed in the Eastern Conference while the AHL’s least-violent teams resided in the Western Conference.
This season, nine of the teams in the top 15 are in the Western Conference, including six of the top seven.
So why the switch?
The obvious factor is re-location. Ontario, San Diego, and Manitoba are all amongst the league leaders after moving from the Eastern Conference to the West this season.
There is also a bit of the old cliché that familiarity breeds contempt.
With California teams playing each other 12 times this season, rivalries have been taken up a notch, and there is more intra-divisional play this season, creating a trickle down impact in the Central Division.
Western Conference Hot List – November 2015
1. Andrew Agozzino, LW, San Antonio Rampage
Season Stats: 9 GP, 7G-9A, +5, 10 PIM
Opponents have had a hard time controlling Andrew Agozzino this season, and the left winger has been on the scoresheet in eight of his nine games this season. Agozzino isn’t afraid to fire the puck and is averaging 3.66 shots per contest.
2. Brandon Montour, D, San Diego Gulls
Season Stats: 14 GP, 3G-12A, +4, 6 PIM
Rookie defenseman Brandon Montour has settled in nicely on the Gulls top power play unit and has already dished out a league-leading eight assists while on the man advantage. The 21-year-old pushes the play and has made a quick transition to the AHL after a successful USHL career with the Waterloo Blackhawks and a brief but productive run with the University of Massachusetts.
3. Nick Ritchie, LW, San Diego Gulls
Season Stats: 12 GP, 9G-3A, +3, 10 PIM
While Montour has been dishing out assists, Nick Ritchie has been lighting the lamp on San Diego’s power play. The big power forward leads the league with five power play tallies and he recently earned his first NHL call-up.
4. Esa Lindell, D, Texas Stars
Season Stats: 15 GP, 1G-8A, +10, 14 PIM
Esa Lindell quietly has become one of the Dallas Stars‘ top defensive prospects this season and is tied for the AHL lead in plus/minus at +10 through 15 games. The soft-spoken Finn has built off of a strong performance at the IIHF World Championship this past spring.
5. Laurent Brossoit, G, Bakersfield Condors
Season Stats: 9 GP, 5-2-1, 2.09 GAA, .937 SV%
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