AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, April 2016: Rookies could make a difference in Eastern playoffs

By Tony Androckitis
Frank Vatrano - Providence Bruins

Photo: Providence Bruins forward and Boston Bruins prospect Frank Vatrano led the AHL in goals in 2015-16 with 36 in 36 games (courtesy of Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire)



The field is set for the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs, and eight teams in the Eastern Conference are ready to battle it out for the AHL’s ultimate prize – the beloved Calder Cup.

While teams like Toronto, Albany, Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton cruised into the postseason in the final months, the other half of the conference’s playoff teams had some work to do to get where they are now as the AHL’s ‘second’ season gets underway.

First Round Matchups

1. Hershey Bears vs. 4. Portland Pirates

The Hershey Bears are led by AHL MVP Chris Bourque, a veteran forward who has been a dominant offensive player at the AHL level for several years, but they have several up-and-coming prospects both up front and on defense worth keeping an eye on.

Rookie forward Riley Barber was second on the Bears in scoring during the regular season behind Bourque, playing particularly well in the second half of the season as he continued to learn the pro game. Barber caught fire in February with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 11 games on his way to being named the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month.

Another first-year forward who has impressed is Jakub Vrana, who transitioned to North American pro hockey from Sweden late last spring before committing full-time to the AHL this season. A lengthy injury absence limited him to just half a season in 2015-16, but he has returned and been a difference-maker with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in his final 19 regular season games.

Highly-regarded defensive prospect Madison Bowey joined the Bears after an accolade-filled junior career and hit some road bumps in the opening half of the season, but is on top of his game entering the postseason. After just four points (one goal, three assists) and a -2 rating in his first 22 games, Bowey went on to tally 25 points (three goals, 22 assists) in his final 48 games to go along with an impressive +24 rating.

The Portland Pirates are led by veterans at every position and will rely heavily upon veteran netminder Mike McKenna in this series. Forwards Rob Schremp and Shane Harper pace the Pirates offensively up front, while defenseman Cameron Gaunce leads all defenders with 37 points (two goals, 35 assists).

Still, Portland has several young and talented prospects that will need to step up on the big stage. Rookie Kyle Rau is undersized but plays a hard-working, two-way game and is a pure competitor, finishing his first pro season with 17 goals and 14 assists. Second-year pros Rocco Grimaldi and Connor Brickley also add speed and skill to the Pirates forward core, with the 5-foot-6 Grimaldi being hard to keep track of on the ice.

Portland also added some highly-regarded prospects from the Canadian junior league playoffs in Juho Lammikko and Lawson Crouse, teammates on the Kingston Frontenacs.

Lammikko, the Panthers’ third round pick in 2014, was a point-per-game player in the OHL in the regular season, totaling 55 points (22 goals, 33 assists) in 59 games. In the postseason, he tallied seven points (three goals, four assists) in nine games before being eliminated in the second round. Crouse, the Panthers’ first round pick (11th overall) in 2015, put together an impressive 62-point season in 49 games before tallying seven goals in nine postseason contests and truly being a difference-maker on the ice.

2. Providence Bruins vs. 3. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

The Providence Bruins are loaded with talented prospects and look to take advantage of a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team decimated by call-ups to Pittsburgh.

The AHL Bruins have the ‘Big Four’ up front in Seth Griffith, Alexander Khokhlachev, Austin Czarnik and Frank Vatrano that will provide mismatches for the Penguins.

Griffith finished the season with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in his last 11 games while Khokhlachev tallied 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in his final eight games of the regular season. Both are in their third year at the pro level and know exactly what to expect in the postseason.

Rookie forwards Austin Czarnik and Frank Vatrano had fine seasons with Providence, especially Vatrano who finished the year with 55 points in 36 AHL games, a point total that included 36 goals. Czarnik came in undrafted , undersized and under the radar after four point-per-game seasons at Miami University in the NCHC but has had a breakout season in the AHL with nearly another point-per-game season of 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists) in 68 games.

If that wasn’t enough talent up front to have to worry about, Providence also added Danton Heinen from the University of Denver and are expecting to have their 2015 first round pick Zachary Senyshyn join the team for the AHL playoff run.

This Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins team simply is not the same team that got off to a torrid start to the regular season back in October and November. Gone are Scott Wilson, Connor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Oskar Sundqvist, Derrick Pouliot and David Warsofsky. Recently, goaltenders Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry also joined the NHL club, leaving a giant hole to fill at a crucial time.

The Penguins brought in veteran Dustin Jeffrey, a former member of the organization, at the trade deadline and still have forwards Carter Rowney, Dominik Simon and Kael Mouillierat, but offense has been hard to come by down the stretch. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is hoping that highly-regarded forward prospect Daniel Sprong joins the team sooner rather than later to help provide an offensive spark.

Newcomers Jake Guentzel and Teddy Blueger have seen more than 10 games each at the AHL level and also have a chance to make a difference for the Penguins.

1. Toronto Marlies vs. 4. Bridgeport Sound Tigers

The Toronto Marlies finished the 2015-16 season with the third-best season in AHL history, and are stockpiled with depth and talent across the lineup as they look to finish it off with a championship.

The depth the Marlies have up front is unmatched in the league as they not only have top prospects like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov, but also top veteran scorers like Mark Arcobello, Colin Smith and Matt Frattin. They can’t be stopped, but perhaps contained if the Bridgeport Sound Tigers are fortunate.

Defensively, the Marlies have the AHL’s top defenseman as voted on by media and coaches in T.J. Brennan, who led the team in scoring during the regular season. Prospects Connor Carrick and Scott Harrington are also on the back-end, which has quite a bit of depth in its own right.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers snuck into the postseason by playing well down the stretch despite missing some of their top players due to some NHL recalls to the parent club, the New York Islanders. They did not face the Toronto Marlies this season, so both teams will be unfamiliar to one another when the series begins later this week.

The Islanders have gutted the Sound Tigers in recent weeks, calling up arguably their best player at each position in goaltender Christopher Gibson, defenseman Ryan Pulock and forwards Taylor Beck and Alan Quine.

The remaining players on the AHL roster have pulled together to get them into the postseason, but they appear to be overmatched against the Marlies in this opening round series. They will need near perfection from rookie goaltender Stephon Williams, while also getting plenty of scoring support from newcomer Michael Dal Colle and veteran forwards Bracken Kearns and Mike Halmo just to remain competitive.

Dal Colle, the fifth pick overall in 2014, went pointless with a -6 rating in his first three AHL games after putting up 80 points (35 goals, 45 assists) in 60 games split between Oshawa and Kingston in the OHL. He can be the difference-maker for Bridgeport in this series.

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