Topping the 2015-16 season will be a tall order for the American Hockey League, but the pieces are in place to do so.
The AHL wrapped up its 80th season this past June in front of nearly 20,000 fans in Cleveland as the Lake Erie Monsters won the Calder Cup. That Lake Erie team featured top prospects Zachary Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and head coach Jared Bednar. While Werenski and Bjorkstrand are in the NHL now with the parent Columbus Blue Jackets, Bednar took over for Patrick Roy with the Colorado Avalanche.
Lake Erie was one of many teams that featured a crush of prospects as NHL teams continue to rely on the AHL to churn out a continuous supply of NHL-ready players. Because of the salary cap and an emphasis on improved developmental methods, NHL teams are pouring more resources into player development than in the past in a bid to produce young, inexpensive talent. In all, 82.2 per cent of NHL players at the start of this season have trained in the AHL.
Last season featured the AHL’s first foray into California, and the league posted its highest-ever attendance. That westward movement has allowed Pacific Division NHL teams to have geographically convenient affiliations, something that teams elsewhere had utilized for years.
That “development, development, development” mantra will continue this season with a new group of young talent preparing for NHL duty.
• Six of the eight teams in the Pacific Conference play a 68-game schedule. The AHL’s other 24 teams play a 76-game schedule.
• Because of the unbalanced schedule, the AHL uses a points percentage-based format to determine playoff qualification.
• The top four teams (as ranked by points percentage) in each of the four divisions qualifies for post-season play.
• The AHL will again utilize the “development rule” for game-night rosters. Teams dress 18 skaters for a game. Thirteen of those players must have played 260 or fewer professional games (NHL, AHL and top European leagues). One skater is limited to 320 or fewer professional games. The remaining five skaters are allowed to have played 320 or more professional games.
• The Lehigh Valley Phantoms will host the AHL All-Star Classic in January.
CANADIAN AHL AFFILIATES
St. John’s IceCaps
Toronto Maple Leafs
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2016
• Two NHL teams have new affiliations. The Arizona Coyotes have placed their AHL affiliate in Tucson, Ariz., a two-hour drive away, as NHL teams continue to emphasize geographic proximity for their affiliations. The Tucson Roadrunners will be the AHL’s first-ever team in Arizona. The Portland Pirates, a Florida Panthers affiliate, have relocated to Springfield, Mass., and will skate as the Springfield Thunderbirds.
• The AHL implemented several rules regarding fighting this past summer. Players who fight before or immediately after a faceoff will receive an automatic game misconduct.
• Players who reach 10 fighting majors during the regular season will receive a one-game suspension. Fights 11 through 13 will each receive a one-game suspension. For the 14th and each subsequent fight, a two-game suspension will be imposed. Fights will not count against the season total if the opposing player received an instigator penalty.
• After icing the puck, a team is no longer allowed to use its timeout.
• After missing post-season play, the Chicago Wolves (St. Louis Blues) and Lehigh Valley loaded up on veteran talent in the off-season. Chicago added several proven AHL scorers while the Phantoms feature two-time Eddie Shore Award (top defenceman) winner T.J. Brennan and veteran Will O’Neill on their blue-line.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SO FAR
Marlies forward Kasperi Kapanen won the AHL/CCM Player of the Week award for a goal and four assists in his first two games. The Marlies are 2-0-0-0 after posting 54 regular-season wins last season… Detroit Red Wings prospect Anthony Mantha has five goals in his first three games for the Grand Rapids Griffins… Having allowed 13 goals in their first three games, the St. John’s IceCaps signed veteran netminder Yann Danis to supplement youngsters Zachary Fucale and Charlie Lindgren… The Thunderbirds will have a sell-out crowd Saturday, their largest crowd since 2002, when they host St. John’s on Saturday in their home opener… Rookie forward Jake Guentzel had a goal and three assists for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in their season-opening game.
FIVE PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Alexander Nylander (Rochester Americans) – The eighth pick overall in this past June’s NHL Draft, the younger brother of Leafs forward William Nylander is off to a strong pro start. The 18-year-old forward produced a goal and two assists this past weekend.
Jack Roslovic (Manitoba) – Part of a deep prospect pipeline in Winnipeg, the 19-year-old forward has posted two goals and two assists in his first four games. Winnipeg selected him 25th in the 2015 NHL Draft, and he is a candidate to see NHL time this season.
Thatcher Demko (Utica) – Vancouver’s potential number-one goaltender of the future, Demko finished an excellent college career last season with Boston College. He carried the Eagles to a spot in the Frozen Four behind a 27-8-4 record to go with his 1.88 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Those numbers earned him the 2016 Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s top goaltender.
J.T. Compher (San Antonio Rampage) – Compher captained the University of Michigan last season and skated on a line with top prospects Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte that tormented opposing defences. He went 16-47-63 for the Wolverines and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist before electing to bypass his senior season to sign with Colorado.
Joshua Ho-Sang (Bridgeport Sound Tigers) – Ho-Sang turns pro this season after a strong Ontario Hockey League career that helped to make him a New York Islanders first-round pick in 2014. Bridgeport has produced several NHL-ready players in recent seasons, and the forward will be in experienced hands with Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson.