AHL: Western Conference Preview

AHL Western Conference Preview

The Favorites:

The Oklahoma City Barons

The Oklahoma City Barons were the class of the Western Conference last season, and that was when their offense was paced by AHL veterans like Justin Keller and Marc Arcobello. Among AHL clubs, they’ll see the single biggest infusion of NHL quality talent as a result of the lockout this season. Joining their roster will be Calder finalist Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 70 point scorer Jordan Eberle, under-rated two-way force Magnus Paajarvi and

the most highly recruited prospect of last summer: defenseman Justin Schultz. There are even whispers that Taylor Hall could join the team eventually. The only remaining question is: how do you spell automatic? The answer: the Oklahoma City Barons power-play, so long as the NHL lockout lasts.

PlayNow has the Barons at odds of 7.25 to win the Calder Cup, and that’s one hell of a value bet if you’re the type who believes the NHL lockout will last for the full season.

The Toronto Marlies

The Toronto Marlies were the Western Conference Champions last season, though they were swept in typical “Toronto sports team fashion” in the finals by Norfolk. With the lockout in full swing, likely NHL players like Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, Keith Aucoin, Mike Kostka and Joe Colborne will at least start the season playing heavy minutes at Ricoh Colliseum. They’ll be joined by stalwart AHLers like Mike Zigomanis and Ryan Hamilton – who led the team in scoring last season. The team plays in front of quality goaltender (and smart guy) Ben Scrivens – who would likely be the Leafs backup goaltender if the NHL season started this week – and they appear poised to build off of their success last season in a big way. One of their big issues is going to be having too much depth – can they find minutes for the likes of agitator Brad Ross, and sniper Greg McKegg?

The big question for the Marlies is whether or not they can hang with Oklahoma’s young guns. PlayNow has them priced to pay out at 8 to 1 (9.00), and they may be a safer pick than the Barons. Generally speaking, they have slightly more depth than the Oilers’ affiliate and could be better poised to deal with the return of NHL hockey than Oklahoma’s club.

The Next Tier of Contenders

Milwauke Admirals

With talented AHL playmaker Gabriel Bourque, and hot-shot offensive defenseman Ryan Ellis in the fold as a result of a lockout – the Admirals power-play has a chance to be scary good this season – and that’s without mentioning Chris Mueller, who has one of the best shots of any player in the AHL. The Predators’ AHL affiliate is consistently in the mix, and look for that to continue this season with former London Knight (and two-way ace) Austin Watson entering his first season of professional hockey. A lot will be expected from Watson, and if he can live up to his billing, the Admirals have a chance to be a force in the Western Conference.

Chicago Wolves

The Canucks’ AHL affiliate had a strong regular season – their first with Canucks prospects – in 2011-12, but they were bumped in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Rampage. Under last years coach Craig MacTavish, the Wolves played a trapping style of hockey and relied on aggressive penalty-killing and stellar goaltending (from Matt Climie and Eddie Lack) to offset their overall lack of offensive punch. With Scott Arniel behind the bench this season, they promise to be a more aggressive team from an offensive perspective, and they’ll start the season with Zack Kassian – who was a point per game player in roughly 30 AHL games last season. The Wolves boast a deep defense corps, led by AHL vet Mark Matheson, Kevin Connauton and shutdown puck mover Chris Tanev, and in Eddie Lack they have arguably the single best goaltender in the AHL. Jordan Schroeder, veteran Darren Haydar, and Swedish speedster Anton Rodin will be counted on to provide offense.

The Wolves are valued at 14 to 1 (15.00) to win the Calder Cup. If you believe that Eddie Lack will spend an entire season in Chicago, they’ve certainly got a fighting chance at emerging as champions from the 2012-13 AHL season.

Abbotsford Heat

The Heat were a solid AHL team last season, and are poised to be significantly better. Though seemingly half of their team dressed in the NHL last season as a result of injuries, the Heat still managed 92 points. With Sven Baertschi and Max Reinhart turning pro, up and coming puck mover TJ Brodie on the roster as a result of the lockout, and recently signed veteran Steve McCarthy filling out their blue-line – they’ve received a pretty serious infusion of talent over the past month. Those recent  additions will join a strong core including two-way center (and former Vancouver Giant) Lance Bouma, power-forward Akim Aliu and pint-sized scorer Paul Byron. Throw in the solid goaltending of Leland Irving, and the Abbotsford Heat have a chance to surprise a lot of people this upcoming season.

Value Bet Sleepers

Charlotte Checkers

Charlotte narrowly missed the playoffs last season, but that won’t be the case if the NHL lockout goes for a few months. Why? Because they’ve got Jeff Skinner on the roster for the duration of the NHL lockout, and a player with that much talent is going to absolutely terrorize AHL defenses and goaltenders. Beyond Jeff Skinner, the Checkers will boast two of the top offensive defenseman in the league in Marc-Andre Gragnani and Bobby Sanguinetti, two-way defenseman Justin Faulk (who held his own impressively in the NHL last season) and an intriguing trio of talented forwards in Zack Boychuk, Drayson Bowman and big Zac Dalpe. If the NHL lockout lasts for the full season, the only team that will benefit more than Charlotte is Oklahoma City – so if you’re a Lockout pessimist, betting on Charlotte to win the Calder Cup (twenty-six-to-one odds) is a solid value bet.

Rochester Americans

Rochester is another team that is worth taking a good hard look at if you’re one of those folks who thinks the NHL lockout is likely to wipe out the entire season. Joining the Americans this season will be would-be Sabres Luke Adam, Cody Hodgson, Corey Tripp and power-forward Marcus Foligno. Those four will be joined by this season’s first round pick Zemgus Girgensons, defenseman Brayden McNabb, newly minted pro Mark Pysyk and TJ Brennan.

Expect Cody Hodgson to make a lot of AHL goaltenders look silly, and expect Rochester’s defense (including a potential top four of Pysyk, Finley, McNabb, Brennan) to suffocate opposing offenses.

Houston Aeros

The Aeros are currently valued at 44 to 1 (45.00) to win the Calder Cup – probably the best value on the board in my humble opinion. The Aeros are going to be absolutely stacked this season, and unlike Oklahoma and Charlotte, their core may not be decimated by the return of NHL hockey.

Joining the Aeros this season is Mikael Granlund, probably the single best prospect in professional hockey. Granlund has the type of electric skill set that leaves scouts, hockey fans and general managers drooling. Beyond him, puck moving defensive stalwart Jonas Brodin will make his AHL debut this season. While it may take him some time to adjust to the North American ice surface, the big slick Swedish defender already looks poised to play a shutdown role at the AHL level. Highly regarded prospects like big Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker will also join an Aeros roster which narrowly skulked into the postseason last year, and the entire outfit will be backstopped by goaltender Matt Hackett (son of former NHL goaltender Jeff Hackett) who impressed in a short stint with Minnesota last season. The Aeros are going to be fun to watch, and I think they have a legitimate shot at running roughshod over the rest of the Western Conference this season.

San Antonio Rampage

The San Antonio Rampage are run by the same management team that runs the Spurs, so you know they’ve got some experience with over-achieving. To that end they’ve also got the single best goaltending prospect in the world – Jakub Markstrom – between the pipes. Markstrom is NHL ready right now, but with Florida’s depth in goal, he’ll likely spend the entirety of next season in the AHL, a league that he dominated last season. In addition to their stellar goaltending, the Rampage will add Drew Shore, John MacFarland and Quinton Howden to their forward ranks, and Alex Petrovic – a quick defenseman with a serious mean streak – will hold down the 1A slot on a solid blue-line group. The Rampage have a shot at making some serious noise this season, and most of their “core” players should remain in place if and when NHL hockey resumes.

Playoff Bubble

Peoria Rivermen

The Rivermen finished near the bottom of the Western Conference a season ago, but have good Calder Cup odds from PlayNow (valued at 16 to 1). The addition of Jaden Schwartz should pay some dividends and many observers expect Brett Sonne to take a big step forward this season. That said, with St. Louis Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko playing on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk in the KHL (and unlikely to join the Rivermen) they’ll be hard-pressed, I think, to make the playoffs.

Rockford Ice Hogs

The Ice Hogs were bottom feeders last season, and are valued at 49 to 1 to win the Calder Cup by PlayNowSports. While they still look to be a playoff bubble team this upcoming season, there are reasons to be bullish about their chances. In particular, the addition of Brandon Saad could be a big one for the IceHogs. Saad was probably the single most dominant player in the OHL last season, and he tore it up without much help on an otherwise lackluster Saginaw Spirit club. He’s physically mature, and didn’t look out of place in 9 NHL games last season, so I’d expect him to adjust seamlessly to AHL hockey. Big Brandon Bollig and the tough Andrew Shaw will bring some sand-paper, while Jeremy Morin and Brandon Pirri both possess high-end offensive skill. And don’t sleep on Marcus Kruger, who is quickly developing into a stellar defensive forward. Along the blue-line, Nick Leddy and Dylon Olson will be the anchors while Adam Clendening (a first year pro) should bring some elite speed and offensive skill. In net they’ll rely on Carter Hutton who impressed enormously last season. They look like a much improved squad, but the return of NHL hockey could return them to middling status in a hurry.

Grand Rapids Griffins

The Griffins have struggled in recent seasons, but they’re not lacking in high-end skill. Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist were absurdly productive last season, and they’ll look to build on their success this year. Their top-end skill will be supplemented up front by two-way force Joakim Andersson and defensive forward Landon Ferraro. On the backend, look for Adam Almquist to surprise some folks, and for Brendan Smith to continue to dominate. Brendan Smith is definitely NHL-ready, he would be a shoe-in to play big minutes for the Red Wings if not for the lockout, and he’ll play big minutes for the Griffins this upcoming season. In goal, the Griffins are untested. It was hoped that prospect Petr Mzarek would win the starters mantle, but the Wings recently decided to assign him to ECHL Toledo – meaning the Griffins are likely to roll with the untested Thomas McCollum between the pipes. The Griffins will light the lamp, but can their defense hold in their own end?

Hamilton Bulldogs

With the graduation of Max Pacioretty and David Desharnai among others, the once proud Hamilton Bulldogs have struggled mightily of late. Due to the NHL lockout, the Bulldogs will be able to rely on a bevy of NHL talents like Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion and Louis Leblanc early in the season, and may be able to lift themselves out of the cellar. The pricing folks at PlayNowSports aren’t counting on a massive improvement from the Bulldogs, and have them priced out on 79 to 1 (80.00) odds to win the Calder Cup trophy this season. With a trio of highly regarded defensive prospects in Morgan Ellis (who is currently slowed by an injury), Jared Tinordi and Nathan Bealieau turning professional this season, the Bulldogs seem poised to return to their former glory in short order – whether or not that happens this season or next, however, is the big question.

Texas Stars

Along with Binghampton, Play Now Sports has given the Stars the worst odds among AHL teams to win the Calder Cup this season, with the Texas Stars given 99 to 1 (100.00) odds to emerge as AHL champions this season. While the Stars should be much improved over last season, that strikes me as fair, because they’ll ice one of the youngest teams in the league. The Stars prospect group – and by extension the Texas Stars – have a bright future and their collection of first year professionals include former first round picks goaltender Jack Campbell, 6,7 hulk defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, and talented Swedish defensive prospect Patrick Nemeth. In addition to their wealth of young talent, the Texas Stars will benefit from having newly acquired Cody Eakin and grinder Tomas Vintour on their roster as a result of the NHL lockout. The Stars are probably too young to make much noise this season, but the pieces are in place, and the Stars will be a team to watch going forward.

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