Though the National Hockey League is still going on, with the playoffs starting April 15th and most likely running until June, there are a number of hockey fans whose main focus during the next couple of months won’t be on the best league in the world. Instead, they will be focusing on the NHL’s development league, the AHL, as the minor league teams kick off their own playoffs one week after the NHL, on April 22nd.
Some will be watching to see what their NHL team’s prospect pool looks like in action, while others will be cheering on their hometown team. For both types of fans, here are five storylines to watch as the AHL teams compete for the Calder Cup.
1) The Toronto Marlies
The Marlies are a young team, with their average age of 23.2 years being the third youngest in the AHL, and the youngest out of any of the teams still in the playoffs. They had a rough start to their season, but have really come on strong over the past couple of weeks and solidified their playoff position. They won 19 out of their last 26 games, and their underlying numbers improved, as shown to us by Josh Weissbock on Twitter.
Not only is the team doing well, but they also feature a number of exciting prospects who could be making their debuts with the big club next season. 21-year-old sixth round selection Connor Brown led the team in points with 61 in 76, while Brendan Leipsic, who was acquired halfway through the season in a trade between the Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators, finished second on the team with 54 points in 74 games, split between Toronto and Milwaukee (the Predators AHL affiliate). Perhaps the most exciting of them all, however, is William Nylander, the eight overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Nylander joined the team on January 23rd, and has since posted 32 points in 37 games, an impressive feat for a player in his first North American season.
2) Matt Murray
Not much was expected of Murray as he came into his first professional season, after having played four years in the OHL with Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and providing solid, but not exceptional, play in goal.
He caught almost everyone in the Pittsburgh organization by surprise, and now has to be considered one of the most intriguing goaltending prospects in the NHL. At the age of 21, he posted an impressive .941 save percentage that led the league, and had an incredible 12 shutouts in 40 games (including a stretch of 304 minutes and 11 seconds). All of this resulted in him winning the Dudley “Red” Garrett Award as AHL’s Rookie of the Year.
The Penguins are ninth in the league in Estimated Fenwick Close percentage (again courtesy of Weissbock), but also have the league’s highest SV% at 5 on 5. If Murray continues his play into the playoffs, the WBS Pens could be making a run at the Calder Cup.
3) Manchester Monarchs
Looking back at the chart that gives us the possession statistics for the AHL, we see that the Manchester Monarchs lead the league in Est. Fenwick Close%, in the same way that their NHL affiliate Los Angeles Kings led the NHL in score adjusted Corsi For%. Fortunately for the Monarchs, they managed to make the playoffs, while the Kings missed out this season.
Given the past successes of possession teams in the playoffs, it’s safe to say that the Monarchs are one of the favorites to win the Calder Cup (that, and the fact that they finished at the top of the league with 109 points).
For the Monarchs, their 2014 first round draft pick, Adrian Kempe, joined the team for it’s final three games of the season after playing in Sweden for most of the year. He plays a strong two-way game that is typical of strong possession teams, and should fit right in with Manchester during this playoff run.
This season has an emotional element for the Monarchs, as the team will relocate to California in the offseason and become the Ontario Reign. Though the city of Manchester is still going to have a hockey team (the ECHL’s Ontario Reign are relocating to Manchester and becoming the Monarchs), the ECHL is a step down from the AHL and team won’t be the same.
4) Hershey Bears on upset alert
It happens every year, in almost every league; one team that may not belong in the playoffs based on their possession numbers gets in by riding a good goalie, or high shooting percentages, and is at risk to be bounced from the playoffs early. In the AHL this year, that team is the Hershey Bears, as they finished first in their division and second in their conference. Though their 49.6% Est. Fenwick Close% is merely poor, and not atrocious, they’re first round matchup is with the Worcester Sharks, who are third in the league with a 54.0% Est. Fenwick Close%.
Hershey does have quality goaltending prospects in Philipp Grubauer and Pheonix Copley who have given them .920% or higher goaltending all season, so part of their high PDO can be explained by their goaltending, but looking at their skaters doesn’t really show any players with lots of skill who could be expected to help give the team their 9.79% shooting percentage at 5 on 5.
Overall, Worcester is a much better possession team, and though Hershey could be a team that can sustain a high PDO, you can’t get the bounces if you don’t have the puck, and that puts Hershey on upset alert.
5) San Antonio, Utica have prospects contributing
The Florida Panthers are an up and coming young team in the NHL, and their farm team shows it, with the San Antonio Rampage featuring players such as Rocco Grimaldi, Vincent Trocheck, Garret Wilson, Alex Petrovic, Connor Brickley, and Quinton Howden, who are all likely to push for spots on the NHL roster within the next couple of seasons. Trocheck in particular is an interesting prospect, as he produces at the NHL level (62nd in the league in P/60 out of players who played 500+ minutes at 5 on 5) but clearly isn’t considered a top tier prospect, as evidenced by the fact that he is behind Dave Bolland on his team’s organizational depth chart.
As the farm team of the Vancouver Canucks, the Utica Comets have Nicklas Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Adam Clendenning, Brendan Gaunce, Andrey Pedan, and Frank Corrado all playing in prominent roles on the squad. Though none really stand out and have elite potential, they all could contribute at the NHL level once they hit their primes. All seven of the players mentioned are also under the age of 23, meaning that they still have some time to grow.
The AHL playoffs are a time for non-traditional hockey markets to follow their minor league teams a little more closely, and for markets with NHL teams to follow their prospects as the organization tries to build itself a winning culture (See: Detroit Red Wings). There are still great story lines to follow down the stretch, and just because it’s minor league hockey doesn’t mean it won’t be exciting to see how the stories end.