AHL Western Conference Notebook, February, 2016: Playoff races heat up, potential All-Rookie candidates

By Sean Shapiro
Colin Smith - Toronto Marlies

Photo: The NHL trade deadline will have an effect on AHL clubs, as well, with the Colorado Avalanche sending prospect Colin Smith to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Smith, the third-leading scorer for the Rampage before the trade, will join the powerhouse Toronto Marlies (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)



The Iowa Wild may be at the bottom of the AHL standings, but the team has been at the epicenter of several NHL headlines in February.

On Feb. 13th, the Minnesota Wild announced that Iowa Wild head coach John Torchetti would replace Mike Yeo as the head coach of the NHL franchise.

At first glance, hiring a coach from a last-place AHL club would be a bit of a head-scratcher for Minnesota. However, Torchetti’s résumé goes beyond his won-lost record in Des Moines.

The 51-year-old coach gets the most out of his players, and Iowa has been a more competitive team in the past two months. He is a players’ coach who holds players accountable in his system.

If you want any proof of his success, look at his first two weeks in the NHL. The Minnesota Wild have won the first four games with Torchetti at the helm, including an impressive 6-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stadium Series game on Hockey Day in America.

Torchetti was replaced by David Cunniff in Iowa, who was named the interim head coach and third coach in team history.

While the Iowa Wild lost their coach, they also lost starting goalie Jeremy Smith in February. Smith, a Boston Bruins prospect, was on loan to Iowa before Malcolm Subban suffered a fractured larynx in early February.

After Subban’s injury – which is expected to keep him out at least eight weeks – Boston re-assigned Smith to the Providence Bruins.

Smith had a .911 save percentage and 2.94 goals-against average in 23 games with Iowa before the re-assignment.

Even with these changes, Iowa has played well through the turmoil. The Wild have a 6-3-0-1 record in their past 10 games.

Trade impacts

The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ wheeling and dealing is going to make an impact on the AHL’s Western Conference.

When Toronto traded Shawn Matthias to the Colorado Avalanche, the San Antonio Rampage lost forward Colin Smith in the deal. Smith, a 22-year-old winger, had 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) in 54 games with San Antonio before the trade.

Losing Smith takes some pop out of an offense that has been struggling in San Antonio. The Rampage have dropped to a tie for last in the Pacific Division, and the team has also been dealing with injuries for most of the season.

On Monday, Toronto made another trade, this time sending Roman Polak and Nick Spaling to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for draft picks and Raffi Torres.

With Polak and Spaling joining the Sharks, the San Jose Barracuda will likely get reinforcements for their playoff push. The Barracuda also didn’t lose a player in the deal, since the Maple Leafs announced that they would be loaning Torres to the Barracuda.

Charlotte falling

The Charlotte Checkers have been in free-fall during the month of February after they had climbed up the Central Division standings.

The Checkers have just one win in their past 10 games and have dropped to fifth in the Central Division, while the Checkers points percentage has dropped to .547, opening the door for the Pacific Division.

In the AHL’s new playoff format, a team from the Central Division can crossover and take a playoff spot from the Pacific Division if the fifth-place team has a better points percentage than the fourth-place Pacific team.

If the AHL playoffs started today, San Jose’s .552 points percentage would best Charlotte’s .547 mark.

With roughly two months remaining in the season, there are couple playoff races to watch in the Western Conference.

In the Pacific Division, the Ontario Reign and Texas Stars seem locked into a playoff spot, barring a collapse. In the Central Division, the Rockford IceHogs and Milwaukee Admirals are leading the way.

That creates a three-team race between San Jose, the San Diego Gulls, and Bakersfield Condors for one or two playoff spots in the Pacific Division. In the Central Division, the Checkers need to turn things around to keep pace with the Lake Erie Monsters and Grand Rapids Griffins for a potential traditional playoff spot out of the Central.

Charlotte will also be watching the standings closely in San Jose and Bakersfield for the rest of the season.

All-Rookie watch

With the AHL season two-thirds completed, the pool of candidates for AHL year-end awards is starting to narrow.

In the Western Conference, the following players have established themselves as candidates for the Garrett Memorial Award and the AHL All-Rookie Team:

Mikko Rantanen, San Antonio Rampage – Rantanen leads the AHL in rookie scoring with 44 points in 35 games, and has a +24 for a team that has struggled in the standings.

Jason Dickinson, Texas Stars – Former first-round pick is second in rookie scoring behind Rantanen and has been one of the AHL’s best defensive forwards. Dickinson is tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals and sports a +13 rating.

Robbie Russo, Grand Rapids Griffins – Stay-at-home defenseman has 20 points (2 goals, 18 assists) in 46 games, while he leads all Western Conference players with a +29 rating.

Brandon Montour, San Diego Gulls – Defenseman still has work to do in his defensive end, but he is ready in the offensive zone. Montour leads all rookies with 30 assists.

Esa Lindell, Texas Stars – Stars defenseman has made his NHL debut this season and been named an AHL All-Star in his first season in North America. Lindell has 31 points and is a +8 in 54 AHL games.

Juuse Saros, Milwaukee Admirals – Admirals rookie goalie has been a catalyst for one of the top teams in the Central Division. He leads all rookies with a 2.33 goals-against average and is tied for the rookie lead in save percentage with a .919.

Western Conference Hot List – February 2016

1. Jason Dickinson, C, Texas Stars
2015-16 Season Stats: 54 GP, 17 G, 24 A, +13, 17 PIM

Rookie forward has 13 points in nine February games, bouncing back from a rough January on the scoresheet.

2. Mikko Rantanen, F, San Antonio Rampage
2015-16 Season Stats: 35 GP, 18 G, 26 A, +24, 34 PIM

Rookie has 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in eight February games, all of which have come on the road during San Antonio’s annual rodeo road trip.

3. Aaron Dell, G, San Jose Barracuda
2015-16 Season Stats: 26 GP, 10-10-5, .925 SV%, 2.37 GAA

San Jose goalie has been stellar in February. In five starts, Dell has a .960 save percentage and 1.41 goals-against average this month.

4. Michael Chaput, C, Lake Erie Monsters
2015-16 Season Stats: 50 GP, 12 G, 20 A, +6, 26 PIM

The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect has helped Lake Erie solidify their position in the playoff hunt. In February, the forward has nine points (three goals, six assists) in eight games.

5. Maxime Lagace, G, Texas Stars
2015-16 Season Stats: 21 GP, 15-5-0, .919 SV%, 2.62 GAA

Rookie goalie had his personal win streak snapped last week after winning 10 straight starts. Lagace has a 2.93 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in February and has been the key to the Stars’ push up the Pacific Division standings.

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro