📝 by Patrick Williams
The American Hockey League’s 87th season begins tonight with plenty of new twists.
To start, the league is now at a record 32 teams, a number that provides each National Hockey League organization with its sole affiliate. The league will also have a uniform 72-game schedule.
But some things never change. The league is again packed with prospects, including no fewer than five first-round picks from this past July’s NHL Draft. Veterans, the glue players who hold teams together while prospects learn the pro game, will again provide AHL fans with plenty of familiar names. And lastly, the AHL will continue to produce scores of NHL prospects as it has done for decades.
To wrap up this 10-part AHL Season Preview, let’s break down 10 top storylines going into play tonight.
CAN THE CHICAGO WOLVES REPEAT AS CALDER CUP CHAMPION?
The Wolves had a dream 2021-22 season, winning 50 games, posting 110 points, and then barreling through the Calder Cup Playoffs on a 14-4 run to take the team’s third-ever Calder Cup. It was the second title in four years for a Carolina Hurricanes affiliate, after the Charlotte Checkers won in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of postseason play in both 2020 and 2021.
No AHL team repeated since the Hershey Bears did so in 2009 and 2010.
However, the Wolves’ championship run meant that several top players earned opportunities elsewhere while head coach Ryan Warsofsky moved on to an assistant post with the San Jose Sharks. It will be new head coach Brock Sheahan’s task to bring together this different roster.
HOW WILL AN INFLUX OF NHL FIRST-ROUND PICKS ADJUST TO THE AHL?
Turning a prospect into an NHL-ready contributor is both an AHL head coach’s mandate as well as a task that can be incredibly challenging. There is no one formula or how-to guide for that, either.
Calder Cup-winning head coach Todd Nelson, now with the Hershey Bears, calls the job both “an art and a science.”
That task can become even more challenging with an 18-year-old NHL first-round pick. Not only is the player a crown jewel in an NHL organization’s cache of prospects and being counted on heavily for the future, but these are players barely out of high school. Now they are facing their highest level of competition so far as a pro. They are still developing physically. Off the ice, they are learning to make their way as well.
But the payoff can be quite worth it, just like it was for someone like Filip Chytil, who is now a regular contributor for the New York Rangers. Or Alexander Holtz, Cole Perfetti and Jack Quinn, who got their first taste of the AHL as teenagers during the 2020-21 season.
This next wave features five first-round members of the 2022 NHL Draft class on AHL opening-night rosters.
There is Utica Comets defenseman Simon Nemec, who went second overall to the New Jersey Devils. Blueliner David Jiricek, taken sixth by the Columbus Blue Jackets, is with the Cleveland Monsters. Montreal Canadiens forward prospect Filip Mesar went 26th and is now part of the Laval Rocket. The Rochester Americans sent the likes of Quinn and JJ Peterka on to the Buffalo Sabres; now they will be asked to do likewise with 28th overall pick Jiri Kulich, a forward. And rounding out the stellar group is forward Brad Lambert, who signed his entry-level deal this week with the Winnipeg Jets after they chose him in the 30th slot this summer; he is set to begin his pro career with the Manitoba Moose.
CAN ANDREW POTURALSKI REPEAT AS THE AHL’S LEADING SCORER?
Andrew Poturalski’s 101 points last season with Chicago won him the John B. Sollenberger Trophy as the leading scorer in the AHL. That was the same piece of hardware that he collected with the San Diego Gulls during the 2020-21 season.
Now Poturalski has a new home with the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the new AHL affiliate of the Seattle Kraken. Poturalski will not have Stefan Noesen riding alongside him like he did in Chicago, but the seventh-year pro is still pursuing his NHL ambitions and will be on a mission with the Firebirds. He will also have some considerable talent around him following Seattle’s aggressive offseason stocking a full AHL roster.
WHAT ABOUT T.J. TYNAN? CAN HE WIN HIS THIRD CONSECUTIVE MVP AWARD?
Part of an exceptional offense with the Ontario Reign, T.J. Tynan engaged with Poturalski in a season-long battle for the AHL scoring title. Poturalski ultimately took that honor, but Tynan secured his second consecutive Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player.
The only player to win AHL MVP honors in three consecutive seasons?
That would be the legendary Johnny Bower in 1955-56, 1956-57, and 1957-58 as part of an AHL Hall of Fame career with the Providence Reds and Cleveland Barons, before he went on to stardom with the Toronto Maple Leafs and enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
HOW WILL NINE NEW HEAD COACHES ADJUST?
And how will their players, for that matter?
As always, AHL coaching talent has come from a variety of directions.
Jack Adams winner Dan Bylsma will lead Coachella Valley. Jeremy Colliton takes on his second AHL coaching role, this time with the Abbotsford Canucks. John McCarthy takes over for the legendary Roy Sommer with the San Jose Barracuda, while Sommer, the AHL’s all-time leader among coaches in both wins and games, will now guide the rival San Diego Gulls.
Todd Nelson returns to the AHL with Hershey following four seasons as a Dallas Stars assistant coach; he won the Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins back in 2017. Steve Potvin is back leading the Tucson Roadrunners while Brock Sheahan comes over to Chicago from the United States Hockey League.
Ontario’s Marco Sturm is in the AHL for the first time following a long NHL playing career and international coaching experience with Germany. And Trent Vogelhuber, who took on an expanded role as an assistant last season, now has the head-coaching job officially with the Cleveland Monsters.
AHL head coaches often spend the opening weeks of the season establishing a club’s identity and addressing areas of concern in both team and individual play. The sooner that happens, the sooner a team can begin to push toward the Calder Cup Playoffs.
WHAT ABOUT THE PROVIDENCE BRUINS?
Thirty years after it began, the longest-running affiliation in the AHL is still going strong.
The Providence Bruins must be doing something right. They always seem to be there in the mix while continuously churning out contributors who have allowed the parent Bruins to be a perennial contender. The likes of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Pastrnak and Tuukka Rask are just a handful of the many P-Bruins alumni who went on to become stars in Boston.
John Beecher, a 2019 first-round pick by Boston, is back for his first full pro season following a spring audition. Top prospect
Fabian Lysell, another forward first-rounder, is in Providence. Oskar Steen is always primed for a breakout season after showing considerable promise through his first three campaigns in Providence. The forward talent continues with Marc McLaughlin, who joins the P-Bruins following a stellar senior season at Boston College. Boston plucked Georgii Merkulov from Ohio State following him earning a spot on the Big Ten First All-Star Team as a freshman. Kai Wissmann could be an important part of the Providence back end after making his way over from Germany.
Boston also went big this summer on veterans for the Providence roster. They signed top-end experience for the blue line in Connor Carrick and two-time Calder Cup winner Dan Renouf. Burly power forward A.J. Greer, who has begun the season in Boston, and proven scorer Vinni Lettieri offer more skill up front, and veteran Keith Kinkaid will join the returning Kyle Keyser in manning the Providence net.
HOW WILL COACHELLA VALLEY HANDLE A CHALLENGING SCHEDULE EARLY?
The good news for the Firebirds is that they will soon have the state-of-the-art Acrisure Arena to call home.
The catch is that they must wait until December for the building’s construction to be completed. That means the Firebirds will open with 22 games away from the Coachella Valley.
Fortunately, Seattle Kraken management provided some relief. The Firebirds will station themselves in the Pacific Northwest and play four “home” games in the area later this month. They can use that additional time to practice with Kraken staff nearby and utilize the organization’s top-notch facilities.
If the Firebirds can forge a solid start, the schedule could then become their friend. Their schedule has them at Acrisure Arena for 32 of their final 50 games.
CAN THE SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS MAKE THAT FINAL STEP?
In the first season of an affiliation with the St. Louis Blues, the Thunderbirds took Springfield hockey fans on a wild ride to the 2022 Calder Cup Finals.
Although they fell short against the Wolves in the Finals, the Thunderbirds are back for more.
AHL rosters can take time to settle out, but the Blues have brought in the likes of forwards Anthony Angello, Matthew Highmore, Dylan McLaughlin and elite sniper Martin Frk as offseason signings to bolster a returning Springfield core that includes Will Bitten, Nikita Alexandrov, Matthew Peca and Nathan Todd.
Now playoff-tested, Springfield fans might be in for another fun season.
BRETT SUTTER CAN REACH 1,000 AHL GAMES
Brett Sutter, signed this summer to lead the Calgary Wranglers, is positioned to reach one of the AHL’s most challenging milestones.
The Alberta native can become only the eighth player in AHL history to reach 1,000 regular-season games played in the league. At 974 games, he ranks ninth in that category. AHL Hall of Famers Bryan Helmer, Jody Gage and Rob Murray are the only players of the past 50 years to be in that exclusive club.
Fittingly, Sutter (currently at 974 games) could reach his 1,000th game on Dec. 21 at home against the Ontario Reign, his former club.
IS THIS SEASON’S CALDER CUP WINNER AN EXPECTED CONTENDER? OR A LATE-SPRING SURPRISE?
AHL teams will have 1,152 games to settle who moves on to the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Some years, a team like last season’s Wolves appears to be on a mission, jells early, and never looks back.
But this is the AHL, a league where nothing is ever easy to predict. The Laval Rocket had to endure a battle for a North Division spot last season. But once they secured that invitation, they went on a memorable run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Simply put, the AHL can make one’s preseason predictions look plenty silly come next spring.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.