The 2020-21 AHL campaign finally got underway earlier this month, several weeks after the puck dropped on the NHL season.
The seven Canadian NHL clubs are all currently playing in the same division. It’s a similar-yet-not-identical setup in the AHL with affiliate teams for Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg making up the Canadian Division, while Edmonton's and Vancouver's farm teams play in the Pacific Division and North Division, respectively.
With COVID-19 protocols, taxi squads and other variables facing hockey organizations this year we could see more roster movement than usual and that could mean additional opportunities for players on the verge of landing an NHL roster spot.
There’s also a bit more youth in the AHL – to start the year at least – since some CHL players have been allowed to play in the AHL where in previous years they’d be ineligible.
With that in mind, here’s one player from each of the Canadian AHL affiliate teams to keep an eye on early in the season…
Markus Niemelainen spent two years with the Saginaw Spirit in the OHL and was selected by the Oilers in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft, before heading home and playing in Finland for the past three-plus years. The 22-year-old defenceman retuned to North America this year and scored his first career AHL goal last week in a loss to the Henderson Silver Knights.
— Bakersfield Condors (@Condors) February 13, 2021
Niemelainen was named the team’s player of the week for his efforts. It’s an important development year for the six-foot-five Kuopio native.
Sticking with another Finnish blueliner, Ottawa’s 2019 first-round pick Lassi Thomson logged four shots and two assists in his first few games with Belleville. With the Sens off to a pretty terrible start to the 2021 season – Monday’s epic comeback against the Leafs notwithstanding – there’s no need to rush Thomson along. He can develop at a steady pace on a youthful AHL roster that only has six players older than 24.
Ottawa has a solid group of young, left-shot defencemen with Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom and Christian Wolanin currently with the big club and 2020 fifth-overall pick Jake Sanderson at the University of North Dakota. Ottawa isn’t quite as flush with right-shot defence prospects so this could give Thomson a slight edge in the future when battling for a roster spot.
Jesse Ylonen has received some early praise playing on a line with Joseph Blandisi and Joel Teasdale. The skilled right-shot winger was taken 35th overall in 2018, three spots ahead of Alexander Romanov, and projects to be an offensive-minded top-six forward if he can play to his potential. Some of that skill was on display when Ylonen set up a Blandisi goal with a nifty little pass last week to record his first career AHL point.
Rookie forward Cole Perfetti killed two birds with one stone on Monday by playing in his first AHL game and scoring his first professional goal. The 10th-overall pick from 2020 had 111 points through 61 games with the Saginaw Spirit before the OHL season shut down due to COVID-19. The OHL’s lack of concrete return to play plans meant standout teens like Perfetti were given a unique opportunity. The 19-year-old Whitby, Ont., native started the season on Winnipeg’s taxi squad and was able to practice with the NHLers. That seems to have given him added confidence to shine at the AHL level.
The Heat haven’t played a game yet this season and aren’t scheduled to until Feb. 21, but when they finally step on the ice you’ll want to keep an eye on 2020 first-rounder Connor Zary. The 24th-overall pick is up with the Heat for the time being while his Kamloops Blazers wait for the WHL season to get the green light.
“The WHL continues to work with government health authorities in British Columbia to establish a start date for the WHL’s B.C. Division,” a WHL statement from last week read.
Zary was lauded for his performance at Flames training camp and his natural skill far exceeds the vast majority of AHL players, so it’s possible he sees plenty of ice-time for as long as he’s at the AHL level. The 19-year-old Saskatoon native had 38 goals, 86 points in 57 games with the Blazers last season and represented Canada at the world juniors.
Nick Robertson is still eligible to play for the Peterborough Petes – where he posted a ridiculous 55 goals in 46 games during the shortened 2019-20 OHL season – but he’s with the Marlies at the moment. The 19-year-old sustained a knee injury on opening night and was placed on long-term injured reserve. Barring an unforeseen setback, Robertson is likely to get another shot with the big club at some point this season.
“My mentality was to get back strong, keep working hard and work on the things that I need to work on and carry it into when I was playing,” Robertson said via the Toronto Sun. “My mindset is where I am right now and I’m with the Marlies. I’m going to do everything I can to help the team win and produce individually. As far as getting another shot with the Leafs, that’s out of my control right now. I have to focus on getting back into game shape and getting my game back to where it needs to be.”
Robertson was recently activated and assigned to the Marlies where he has three points through two games, including a game-winning goal Tuesday.
Kole Lind is entering a pivotal year in his development. The 22-year-old former Kelowna Rockets standout was taken 33rd-overall by the Canucks in 2017 yet he hasn’t made his NHL debut. Lind is making the transition from winger to centre and that experiment is off to a tremendous start. In fact, Lind has an AHL-leading four goals through three games so far. Yes, he’s producing at an unsustainable rate right now, but it’s a promising sign he’s one step closer to NHL-ready. He’s slated to be a restricted free agent after this season so it’s a prove-it year for the Swift Current, Sask., native.
Another power play goal for Kole Lind!
That's his second of the game.
This one from Sven Baertschi. pic.twitter.com/VZMmXV5QWm
— Faber (@ChrisFaber39) February 13, 2021