AHL: Eastern Conference Preview

BURMISTROV ONE OF MANY ‘NHLERS’ PLYING THEIR TRADE IN THE AHL THIS YEAR – WILL THEY STAY THERE?

AHL Eastern Conference Preview

Norfolk Admirals 3.70

The Norfolk Admirals are the singular favorite to repeat as Calder Cup Champions according to Play Now Sports, and why not? After their dream season last year, in which they won an AHL record 29(!) straight games on their way to the Calder Cup Finals, the Admirals seem unassailable.

But that’s superficial because, of course, over the summer the Admirals switched NHL affiliates from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Anaheim Ducks. Gone is super coach Jon Cooper (to Syracuse) and the bevy of Lightning prospects (like Cory Conacher) who were the core of last seasons Calder Cup winning team. But not all is lost, and this years Admirals promise to be a physical bunch. With power-forward prospects like high-scoring Emerson Etem, mac-truck hitter Devante Smith-Pelly and big Peter Holland in the fold – this years Admirals club will, if nothing else, be a handful for AHL defenses to matchup against physically. Beyond those forwards, there’s speedster Kyle Palmieri, under-sized blueline prospect Sami Vatanen, the wonderfully named Hampus Lindholm, and first year pro goaltender Igor Bobkov – a well regarded and enormous (6,5 240) puck-stopper.

Combine the Admirals’ plethora of high-end talent with AHL veterans like John Mitchell, Luca Caputi and Kendal Mcarddle and Jordan Hendry – and the Norfolk club should be back near the top of the Eastern Conference again this season.

St. John’s IceCaps 17.00

What the IceCaps lack in high-end NHL prospect talent – Alexander Burmistov is the only prospect of note who will play for the Jets’ AHL affiliate during the NHL lockout – they more than make up for in veteran savvy. In addition to Burmistov, the St. John’s “don’t call us IcedCaps” IceCaps will lean on Jason King (remember him, Canucks fans?), Carl Klingberg and captain Jason Jaffray (injured to start the season) up front. On the back-end, they boast a strong veteran core with former Vancouver Giant Brett Festerling, occasional Red Wings sixth defenseman Derek Meech. In Mark Dekanich, the IceCaps even have a steady former NHL backup in net. Their roster won’t wow anyone but it’s no wonder that they’ve been given 16-to-1 odds to emerge from this AHL season as champions.

Bridgeport Sound Tigers 26.00 

For the Bridgeport Sound Tigers – valued at 25-to-1 odds to win the Calder Cup Trophy this season, the key will probably be their blue-line. The Tigers won their division last season and with prospects like legitimate top-four NHL defenseman Travis Hamonic, NHLer Ty Wishart and highly touted first year pro Calvin De Haan joining the club (as well as steady AHL veterans like Nathan McIver) – the Tigers will ice one of the deepest blue-line groups in the AHL’s Eastern Conference for the duration of the lockout.

That steady defense corps will skate in front of, most likely, Kevin Poulin who has impressed in limited NHL action with the Islanders. Up front, power-forward prospect Nino Neidereitter will look to prove some of his doubters wrong, and he’ll be joined by tough-as-nails centre Casey Cizikas and David Ullstrom – both of whom played a regular shift with the Islanders last season. Hamonic especially is way too good for the AHL, and could well be a dominant force. If the NHL lockout lasts for an entire season, expect the Tigers to overachieve again this season.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 17.00

Unlike the famous, albeit fictional, paper company located in Scranton, the Penguins aren’t flimsy and out of date. Along the blue-line in particular, this young group could be dominate though that will in part depend on how AHL rookies like Brian Dumoulin and Joe Morrow adjust in their first seasons of professional hockey. They’ll be caddied by advanced stat darling Dylan Reese (think Chris Tanev, but bigger) and NHL-ready Simon Despres who is an outrageously cerebral two-way defender. Up front the Penguins will rely on rookie Beau Bennett and Eric Tangradi to provide offense, and Tangradi especially will have a lot to prove as his stock has taken a dramatic hit over the past sixteen months or so. Veterans like Riley Holzapfel, Philippe Dupuis and over-time hero Benn Ferreiro round out the forward group. In net the Penguins will presumably rely on Jeff Zatkoff, who is one of the most consistently excellent AHL goaltender, as their starter. If their young defenseman adjust quickly to professional hockey, the Penguins could be a great pick up at 16-to-1.

Hershey Bears 17.00

The Hershey Bears are only a couple of seasons removed from being Calder Cup champions, and they could have a good shot again this season. They’ll be coached – in part – by new Caps coach and Hall of Fame playmaker Adam Oates, so they won’t be lacking in leadership. They’ll also be backstopped by playoff hero and quality all around netminder Braden Holtby – who may have to adjust to stopping pucks without the benefit of “Hunter hockey” – but is clearly “NHL ready” were it not for the pesky work stoppage. While Ryan Potulny, Zach Hamill and Ryan MacNeil have proven themselves productive AHL players in the past, the Bears will also be expecting a significant contribution offensively from Matthias Sjogren – the heavily recruited undrafted free-agent. Powerforward Ryan Stoa has struggled so far in his professional career, but he’s got a lot of size and talent, and puck moving defenseman Dimitri Orlov should bring some added punch to Hershey’s power-play.

Connecticut Whale 26.00

The Whale are one of those clubs where, if you’re a NHL lockout pessimist and don’t foresee a season occurring, they represent great value at 25-to-one odds to win the Calder Cup. All you really have to know is that Chris Kreider is already a solid NHL skater, but at the AHL level he should be completely dominant. He’ll be joined up front by career farmhands like J.T. Miller and Kris Newbury, as well as newcomer Christian Thomas (son of Steve “Stumpy” Thomas) who plays about eight inches taller than he is, and has some scoring touch to boot. On the backend, all eyes will be on former lottery pick Dylan McIlrath. McIlrath’s skating has improved significantly since his draft year, but it remains an area of concern. He’s got a mean streak that could make him a legend in New York if he can show he belongs in professional hockey this season. About the only question for the Whale is in net – Cameron Talbot will go into the season as the presumptive starter, and while he’s played well in limited AHL duty, he’s never carried a team. Thankfully they’ll have Chris Kreider, so, you know – their goaltending may not matter all that much.

Syracuse Crunch 26.00

Syracuse at 25-to-1 odds is a great value bet, especially considering they’ll return much of last season’s Calder Cup champion team and be coached by the architect of the miraculous 29 game win streak, future NHL bench boss Jon Cooper. The Crunch are loaded this season with Brett Connolly, Cory Conacher, sniper Alex Killorn and T.J. Brown up front, super-talented blue-line prospect Mark Barbeiro on the back-end and Dustin Tokarski in goal. It’s a combination of speed, youth and talent that few AHL clubs will be able to match.

Manchester Monarchs 35.00

The rich will get richer as a result of the NHL lockout. Valued with 34 to one odds to win the Calder Cup, the Manchester Monarchs will get an infusion of talent from their locked out parent club – the Stanley Cup Winning Los Angeles Kings. With defensively sound puck moving defenseman Slava Voynov, punishing forward Jordan Nolan and electric finisher Andrei Loktionov on the roster, the Monarchs should be poised to improve upon their 83 point season a year ago. Adding even more firepower is first year pro Tyler Tofoli, who was one of the most feared snipers in the OHL a season ago.

Portland Pirates 80.00

If you want to bet on the Pirates to win the Calder Cup, you’ll get fantastic odds (79-to-1), and if you think the lockout will last for the full season – you could do worse than to throw five dollars on Portland’s club. In particular, the Pirates are going to be adding one of the league’s best, mostly anonymous defensive defenseman – a guy named Oliver Ekman-Larson. Ekman-Larson is an agile skater, and a tough-minutes beast in the NHL level; so playing a league down for the duration of the lockout, he could look like Nicklas Lidstrom. Portland sure hopes so. Joining Ekman-Larson is a pair of first year pros on the back-end – the talented Brandon Gormley, who has a unique and uncanny talent for getting the puck past the first defender from the point; and goaltender Mark Visintin, who is awesome so long as you’re not facing the Russian National U20 club.

Adirondack Phantoms 24.00

Last season the Phantoms were a .500 club, so why does PlayNowSports give them 23-to-1 odds to win the Calder Cup for this season? Two names for you: Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. Schenn and Couturier proved they could hold their own in the NHL last season. In the top hockey league in the world, and Couturier is already one of the better defensive players in the NHL. That one-two punch down the middle will be nigh impossible for most AHL defensive groups to deal with on a night to night basis. Add in Eric Wellwood, and talented defenders Eric Gustaffson and Danny Syvret and there’s ample reason to suspect the Phantoms to be much improved. Another one of those clubs that might make sense to bet on if you see the NHL lockout canceling the entire NHL season.

 Springfield Falcons 45.00

Highly touted former collegiate sniper Cam Atkinson suffered an eye-injury this week, but he looks to have been lucky and is expected to be ready to start the season. That’s a big boon to the Falcons, who will be counting heavily on Atkinson and former top-5 pick Ryan Johansen to add some serious offensive punch to their lineup. Presumptive starter Allan York is also injured, so Corey McElhinny will start the majority of games until he returns to action (hey, can’t be worse than Steve Mason!). On the back-end, the Falcons will have the services of John Moore and David Savard – both of whom would likely be on the BlueJackets roster full time were it not for an NHL lockout. At the very least the Falcons will have a potent power-play, and should be good fun to watch.

Providence Bruins 50.00

Chris Bourque will garner most of the attention (apparently his father has ties to Boston, or something?) but it’s the additions of Ryan Spooner and Jared Knight that really have the baby Bruins poised to improve on last seasons paltry 77 point performance. Jordan Caron would be on the Bruins roster if not for the lockout, and the defensive forward will look to hone his offensive game playing a league down. AHL veterans Christian Hanson, Trent Whitfield and Jamie Tardif provide depth up front, while the P-Bruins will rely on Colby Cohen and Torey Krug to chew up minutes on the backend. Will Seguin join the baby Bruins if the lockout extends into January? At 49 to one odds, that might be a risk worth taking!

Worcester Sharks 50.00

The Worcester Sharks struggled immensely last season, but look like an improved club. A lot will ride on the health of former AHL first team all-star goalie Alex Stalock, who was loaned to Peoria as he recovered from an injury last season. If he can find his old form, the Sharks could be one of the big surprises in the Eastern Conference. On the back-end, big Taylor Doherty, Danny Groulx and Nick Petrecki are the back-end of what could be a solid blue-line corps. The Sharks also have some serious size and scoring touch up front with John McCarthy and Brandon Mashinter. Wild cards include former first round pick James Sheppard, who has all the talent in the world but has to be running out of chances at this point, and import player Sebastian Stalberg.

Albany Devils 45.00

The Albany Devils were a doormat last season, but they stand to benefit as much as any Eastern Conference team not named the Phantoms as a result of the NHL lockout. Joining their club as a result of the work stoppage includes former top-five pick Adam Larsson, playoff hero Adam Henrqiue, and talented wingers Matthias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson. Larsson should play major minutes (something he didn’t get to do consistently last year), and while he’s still young he’s got the skill-set to dominate at the AHL level. Henrique is a bluechip two-way player already, and his performance last season was a revelation – there’s no doubt that he’ll rack up the points in the AHL. If the lockout consumes the entire season, the Devils could pay-off at 44-to-1 odds.

Binghampton Senators 100.00

Only one season removed from being Calder Cup champions, and the Binghampton Senators were the lowliest club in the Eastern Conference. It doesn’t get much worse than being given 99-to-1 odds to get back to the AHL summit, but here we are, and actually the Binghampton Sens have some talent and could exceed expectations. As a result of the lockout, they’ll have Mika Zibanejad (last years World Junior Championship hero) and Jacob Silfverberg on the roster. That Swedish pair should give defenses and copy editors both nightmares. They’ll also have Jared Cowen, who was very reliable for the big club a season ago and Mark Stone – who made some big plays for Ottawa in their first round series against New York. Throw goaltender Robin Lehner into the mix, and the Senators certainly have the pieces to shoot out of the cellar.

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