AHL Western Conference Notebook, May, 2016: Reign, Monsters battle for Western supremacy

By Sean Shapiro
Zach Werenski - Lake Erie Monsters

Photo: Lake Erie Monsters defenseman and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Zach Werenski has been impressive in AHL action since turning pro at the end of the 2015-16 NCAA season (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)



Lake Erie Monsters coach Jared Bednar understands the challenge in front of his team as it prepares for the Calder Cup Western Conference Finals against the Ontario Reign.

The Reign are the defending champions, having won the title last season as the Manchester Monarchs, and return 15 players with championship rings. In addition, Ontario is big, physical and plays “Los Angeles Kings-style hockey” that wins in the playoffs.

“They play the right way,” Bednar said. “They’re one of the top teams in the conference for a reason. If you have to draw up the way a team should play in the playoffs, you’d look at what they do.”

And if you wanted to draw up a dream scenario for prospects in this series, look no further than Lake Erie and Ontario.

Many of the Kings’ top prospects currently reside in Ontario, including top-rated pivot man Adrian Kempe, while the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ top prospects have made a comfortable home in Cleveland.

“I think it’s a good crop of players for both systems,” Bednar said. “You’ll really see the future of both franchises here. This is what the AHL is about.”

Ontario has seen net gains from its top-rated prospects during the playoffs.

Nic Dowd, a late bloomer from the 2009 draft, leads the team with eight points in nine postseason games. Kempe, the 29th overall pick in 2014, has five points, as do highly-touted wingers Michael Mersch and Justin Auger.

The Kings top-ranked defensive prospects – Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel – have had quiet, yet effective postseasons in front of Ontario veteran goalie Peter Budaj.

Lake Erie has its own highly-ranked defensive prospect who has led the way in the postseason.

Blue Jackets’ top-ranked prospect Zach Werenski turned pro after finishing up his collegiate career at the University of Michigan this spring. Werenski had a team-high 10 points through the first two rounds, including the series clinching overtime goal in Game 6 against the Grand Rapids Griffins.

In addition to his point totals, Werenski has played big minutes in all situations and has been a reliable penalty killer for Lake Erie.

He has joined fellow highly-ranked prospects Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand in having strong AHL postseasons. Bjorkstrand has eight points in nine playoffs games, while Milano has put up one of the highlights of the playoffs with a spinning, no-look backhand goal against Grand Rapids.

Bednar said he’s seen growth from the younger players in the playoffs, especially after Lake Erie started with five straight wins and faced adversity when Grand Rapids almost forced a Game 7.

More western movement

While only four teams remain in the playoffs, this week once again proved there is never a boring week in the American Hockey League.

The Tucson city council voted unanimously this week to approve the Arizona Coyotes lease for their new AHL team in the Tucson Civic Center. Arizona’s prospects had been housed across the country in Springfield, Massachusetts this past season.

It’s the next step in a wave of AHL movement that started last season with five teams moving to California. Like the California teams, which are all owned by their NHL parent club, the new Tucson AHL team will play 68 games and will likely be in the Pacific Division.

Of the seven teams in the NHL’s Pacific Division, all but the Vancouver Canucks now have their AHL affiliate in the Pacific time zone.

Western Conference Hot List – May 2016

1. Anthony Mantha, Grand Rapids Griffins, 9 GP, 4 G, 7 A, +6

Anthony Mantha made up for a lackluster 2015 playoffs with 11 points in nine postseason contests for Grand Rapids this spring. Mantha was at his best when the Griffins won back-to-back elimination games against Lake Erie and had five points in his final three games before Grand Rapids was eliminated.

2. Zach Werenski, Lake Erie Monsters, 9 GP, 4 G, 6 A, +6

The eighth pick overall in 2015 has impressed in his professional debut after finishing up his collegiate career at the University of Michigan. The 18-year-old has 10 points in nine playoff games, including the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 against Grand Rapids. Werenski has been playing both penalty kill and power play minutes for Lake Erie.

3. Nick Ritchie, San Diego Gulls, 8 GP, 5 G, 3 A, +4.

Nick Ritchie’s season has ended, but the big winger made the most of his time with five goals in eight playoff games. Ritchie established himself as a force in the AHL this season and had 30 points in 38 regular season games. He seems destined for an NHL roster spot next season.

4. Tyler Bertuzzi, Grand Rapids Griffins, 9 GP, 7 G, 1 A, +7

The Griffins rookie showed off soft hands and a scoring touch throughout the season, and that continued into the playoffs. Bertuzzi had seven goals in nine playoff games, including a hat trick in Game 5 against the Lake Erie Monsters.

5. Peter Budaj, Ontario Reign, 8 GP, 1.73 GAA, .918 SV%, 7-2

Not a prospect, but Peter Budaj has continued his reclamation project in the playoffs. The AHL’s top goaltender during the regular season, Budaj has been stellar in the postseason and made big stops when needed. After a difficult season in 2014-15, Budaj could be the Kings back-up next season.

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro