the AHL announced its new western outposts, you knew right off the hop it was
going to be an exciting season.
the most exciting part about the new division is that in so many ways it’s
going to wind up breeding career-long team and personal rivalries in the NHL
with the Flames, Oilers, Kings, Ducks and Sharks all having footholds out west.
that in mind, here is a 2015/16 Pacific Division primer, with brief team
summaries, which players you should watch, notable new additions to each team
and who the first call-up is likely to be on each team.
CONDORS (EDMONTON OILERS)
Oklahoma City Barons, top affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, have moved just
north of Los Angeles to Bakersfield where the Condors have been the Oilers’
ECHL outlet for three years. With five consecutive years with a playoff
appearance, it’s now up to the young players to step up and uphold that trend.
Player To Watch: Darnell Nurse – Outside of Connor
McDavid, Darnell Nurse might be the biggest puzzle piece for the Oilers’ future
success. This will be Nurse’s first full professional season and if the Oilers
don’t rush his development, Nurse could have an impactful rookie season for the
new Bakersfield Condors.
Notable New Arrival: Griffin Reinhart – Peter Chiarelli paid
a hefty price to acquire Griffin Reinhart, so you sort of know what they think
of him. A star in the WHL, Reinhart had a decent rookie campaign in Bridgeport.
Unless he’s gifted a spot out of camp, expect him start in the AHL and build on
his solid rookie season.
First Call-Up: Anton Lander – The 24-year-old Swede
has gone from an expendable depth player to a legitimate top-9 centre. Lander
had a breakout season in both leagues posting 31 points in 29 games with the
Barons and 20 points in 38 games with the Oilers. If he doesn’t start the
season in Edmonton, look for him to be the first call-up out of the gate.
REIGN (LOS ANGELES KINGS)
Manchester Monarchs were pretty freaking awesome last year going an
unbelievable 50-17-0-9 to win the Calder Cup. It appears most of their winning
roster will be returning this season, plus they’ll be adding another dynamic
offensive player. The Monarchs are the team to beat this year – not just in the
Pacific, but in the entire league.
Watch: Michael Mersch & Jodan Weal – You don’t often expect a
fourth-rounder out of college to turn into anything truly impactful, but Mersch
is on a direct path to the NHL sooner rather than later. He’s built like a Los
Angeles King and plays like one as well. The only thing is he’s got the hands
to go with his fearless style. While the Kings line up is basically set heading
into camp, Mersch is the prospect to watch on the farm. Centre Jordan Weal, on
the other hand, is a victim of his own size (5’10”, 171 lbs). No prospect has
put up more points in Manchester and still hasn’t played an NHL game, so this
could be Weal’s chance to snatch a third- or fourth-line role in Los Angeles
Arrival: Valentin Zykov – The LA Kings might have hit a home run with this
big, highly skilled Russian in the second round of 2013. Zykov amassed 184 points
in 162 career QMJHL games and will provide the Monarchs with that top line RWer
they needed last year.
First Call-Up: Derek
– Forbort isn’t flashy by any means, but he plays an honest game on the blue
line. When Manchester’s stud 50-point defenseman, Colin Miller, went to Boston
in the Lucic deal, Forbort moved to the top of the list as one of the first
call-ups. Don’t be surprised if the former first-round pick makes LA’s bottom
pairing this fall.
ANTONIO RAMPAGE (COLORADO AVALANCHE)
several years of being affiliated with the Lake Erie Monsters, the Colorado
Avalanche will take over an established franchise in San Antonio. It’s not a
bad move by any means. The concern this season, however, will be on the ice.
They’re set in goal with Calvin Pickard who could challenge for a backup spot
in Denver and they’re solid on the blue line; it’s the forwards corps that
looks questionable at best. Putting numbers on the board could be difficult for
the new-look Rampage.
Watch: Duncan Siemens & Stefan Elliott – It’s make it or break it time
for these two rear-guards. Siemens and Elliott have toiled in the minors for two
and four years, respectively. Siemens is a big, nasty shutdown defender while
Elliott is a flashy, puck-moving offensive defenseman. They’ll have to prove
they’re better than Guenin, Holden or Redmond to get a spot with the Avs.
Arrival: Chris Bigras
– Some of you may remember him from Canada’s World Junior team in 2013/14.
Bigras was projected to be a shutdown defenseman in the NHL, but last season he
came out of nowhere and posted 71 points in 62 games with Owen Sound. His
previous best OHL season was 38 points. He’s a huge boost to an already
impressive blue line.
First Call-Up: Andrew
– One of the Rampage’s only saving grace at forward. Agozzino is an undersized,
but high-scoring left winger who will be knocking on the door throughout the
season. He isn’t really built for a fourth line job, so it’ll have to be top-9
or bust for him. His main competition: Mikhail Grigorenko. Good luck beating out
Patrick Roy’s former Quebec Rempart star for a job.
DIEGO GULLS (ANAHEIM DUCKS)
team is probably going to suck and Dallas Eakins is their new head coach. They
have little scoring, their defense is patchwork and they don’t even have a
goalie tandem set in stone at the moment. This team could be a disaster.
Player To Watch: Nicolas Kerdiles – The
Irvine, California native left the University of Wisconsin early because he was
pretty darn good and there was really no reason to stay. Unfortunately his
rookie season with Norfolk was pretty ‘meh’ (26 points in 51 games). It’ll be
interesting to see if he can become the scoring machine he was in college.
Arrival: Shea Theodore – It’s a shame Theodore plays in the Ducks system
because this kid is a stud and is going to have a hard time breaking onto that
Anaheim defense. The former 2013 first-rounder and Thunderbirds captain was
well over a point per game in his last two seasons in Seattle. When he joined
the AHL’s Admirals at the end of the season, he picked up 11 points in 9 games.
Yeah, he’s really good.
First Call-Up: Max
– Friberg is really the only thing the Gulls will have going for them. All of
their offense is going to have to flow through him. The 22 year old Swede
posted back to back 40-point seasons (in 74 and 58 games, respectively). He’ll
probably be the first call-up simply because there’s no better option.
JOSE BARRACUDA (SAN JOSE SHARKS)
common knowledge that the San Jose Sharks’ cupboards are dusty. There’s not a
lot there in terms of quality prospects and the new Barracuda franchise is probably
going to reflect that, but there are still some shiny glasses in that cupboard.
Watch: See below.
Arrivals: Nikolay Goldobin & Nikita Jevpalovs – This year,
the Barracuda will be adding a couple of exciting QMJHL prospects to the fold,
and boy do they need it. On a team saturated with 26+ year old AHL veterans,
this team could a couple of flashy 100-point junior players. Goldobin, a
highly-skilled LWer, played last season with HIFK of the Finnish league putting
up 21 points in 38 games (prior to that, he posted 94 points in Sarnia).
Jevpalovs, an unsigned junior Latvian, exploded for 100 points last season in
Blaineville-Boisbriand of the QMJHL, almost doubling his totals from the prior
HEAT (CALGARY FLAMES)
not convinced Stockton will be that
much better than Adirondack was last year. I could see them winning maybe a few
more games, but overall, it’s still going to be a young group with at least two
less 40-point players (Wolf and Reinhart). The offense is a bit of a question
mark, but it was trending upwards to end the season. The defense will be the strength
of this team next season, hands down. In net, you’ll either have Ortio and
Gillies or Gillies and someone else. They could do a lot worse than that.
Player To Watch:
– Outside of Sam Bennett, Poirier is the organization’s top prospect. If you watch
one game of his you’ll see why. He’s the player we should all be watching
because he’s the one guy that could be pushing for the spots owned by David
Jones, Mason Raymond or Brandon Bollig. In his 19-year-old season he had a 40-point
campaign, so it’ll be exciting to see what he might be able to do a year older
and a year wiser.
Arrivals: Morgan Klimchuk & Jon Gillies – It’s going to be tough to
replace Reinhart and Wolf’s production last season, and it’d be unfair to
expect a rookie to be able to, but Klimchuk could have it in him. Klimchuk is likely
going to fill the second line LW duties, just behind Agostino. Gillies is more
than likely going to end up being the Heat’s starter this season and what
better way to be thrown into the AHL than to play behind that Stockton defence?
First Call-Up: TBD – There are so
variables in play that it’s tough to name who the first call-up would likely
be. Does Granlund start in the AHL? If so, he probably is. Does Paul Byron
spend some time in Stockton to start the season? If so, he probably is. Tyler
Wotherspoon probably could be if one of the Flames’ defenseman go down. Poirier
could be as well. Too many options to name one.
STARS (DALLAS STARS)
Texas Stars were an unbelievable team for a few years in a row until last
season where they lost many of their top scorers to the NHL or elsewhere (like
Sceviour, Mueller and Hedden). As Texas replenishes their once potent offense,
they have some young gems who are getting adjusted to the professional game and
will be a matter of time when they’ll join the parent club.
Watch: Julius Honka & Jack Campbell – You need to focus on these two
players for two completely separate reasons. Honka came into the AHL as an
18-year-old after just one season in the WHL. It was a risky developmental move
for Dallas, but it paid off. The young Finnish defenseman posted 31 points in
68 games, which is unheard of a player his age. Goaltender Jack Campbell is a
different story. Once heralded as one of the NHL’s best goalie prospects, the
former 11th overall pick of the Stars has faced injury after injury and
is simply trying to get back on track. He didn’t have the best season last
year, but he was healthy. That’s the key. He needs to regain his foothold as
the organization’s top goaltending prospect.
– The newly acquired defenseman who came over in the Patrick Sharp trade should
have little trouble finding his way onto Dallas’ blue line at some point this
season. He’s a big, nasty, physical shutdown defender with no flash to his
game. He’ll have to beat Nemeth, Jokipakka or Jordie Benn for a spot. He’s got
a bright future.
First Call-Up: Brendan Ranford – This may sound like crazy talk, but Ranford (a
2010 seventh-round pick) could be the first Texas Star to see NHL playing time.
He’s not very big (5’10”, 182lbs), but he’s one of those high-scoring,
tenacious, fearless, pesky wingers who can fit on any line. He was a prolific
scorer with Kamloops for five seasons and was able to find that scoring touch
last season in Texas.