📝 by Patrick Williams
Thanksgiving in the United States serves as one of the first real points of demarcation on the American Hockey League schedule.
AHL teams draw some of their best crowds during Thanksgiving week. With the AHL calendar nearing the end of its first quarter, the holiday provides a natural place to stake stock of a team’s season so far. And the players, they certainly eat well before burning off that energy with a busy week of games.
Each club has plenty for which to be thankful as November comes to a close, not the least of which is that the AHL is back playing a full schedule in front of fans in all 31 cities. Let’s look at each team’s reasons for gratitude.
Anyone who has undertaken a long-distance, cross-border move can appreciate what the Vancouver Canucks’ new affiliate had to handle this summer. They pulled off the move, are building new Pacific Division rivalries, and they are now ensconced in their new home just an hour east of Vancouver.
With head coach Jay Woodcroft leading the Condors, they have found the ideal equilibrium between developing NHL players and winning AHL games. Tyler Benson graduated to the Edmonton Oilers, Ryan McLeod and Stuart Skinner are looking like they will stay in Edmonton, and Philip Broberg and William Lagesson have headed to the NHL as well. After taking the Pacific Division playoff last season, the Condors are once again in contention.
The B-Sens acquired forward Jake Lucchini from the Laval Rocket for future considerations. Now the third-year pro is among the league’s scoring leaders with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 17 contests, including a four-point (one goal, three assists) night Saturday as Belleville defeated Laval, 7-3.
Hit hard by recalls to the New York Islanders, Bridgeport ended a seven-game winless streak Saturday by going into Lehigh Valley and taking a 4-1 win against the Phantoms. Armed with a deep group of veterans, that win may well reset Bridgeport going into a home-heavy December schedule.
First, the Checkers are back on the ice after a one-year absence. Secondly, they are navigating a dual affiliation with the Florida Panthers and Seattle Kraken while staying in the thick of the Atlantic Division race despite a daunting road schedule in the season’s first six weeks.
Last season the Wolves housed prospects from both the Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators. This season the Wolves are exclusive with Carolina and have an exciting group of prospects, including new goaltender Eetu Makiniemi. Andrew Poturalski is back in the Carolina organization and thriving with the Wolves.
Undrafted blueliner Jake Christiansen has emerged as one of the most dynamic defensemen in the AHL. With 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) through 17 games, he is trying to chase down Scott Perunovich’s 20 points with the Springfield Thunderbirds for the AHL points lead among defensemen.
After major offseason changes and a slow start, the Eagles are starting to make their move. Handing the Stockton Heat, one of the AHL’s early-season powers, a 5-1 loss on Saturday is big.
GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS
Key Detroit Red Wings prospect Jonatan Berggren has lived up to his promise so far in his adjustment to North America. The Griffins once again have a deep base of experience, and goaltender Calvin Pickard has been excellent.
HARTFORD WOLF PACK
The Pack are back, making XL Center a daunting visit for opponents with an 8-1-1-0 record. Newcomers Zac Jones and Lauri Pajuniemi have delivered, and veteran goaltender Keith Kinkaid has been a force to guide a young team through the adjustment to pro hockey.
HENDERSON SILVER KNIGHTS
On the ice, the Silver Knights are again a Pacific Division. Off the ice, popular head coach Manny Viveiros, who had to handle a scare with prostate cancer in October, is back behind the bench. He is scheduled to have surgery in December and has an optimistic prognosis.
The Bears have shown an ability to battle back against difficult opponents, taking come-from-behind wins against Charlotte and the Providence Bruins in the past week.
Head coach Tim Army, who earned his 100th win with the Wild on Saturday, again has Iowa contending for first place in the Central Division. Since Army’s arrival in 2018, he has helped shape Iowa into one of the league’s most consistent clubs and been entrusted with developing first-round picks like forwards Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi.
The Rocket are back at Place Bell after one season in downtown Montreal. As they continue to adjust with new head coach J-F Houle, they will also have an 11-day break in late December to heal up and gear up for the season’s second half.
LEHIGH VALLEY PHANTOMS
With five of their next eight games at PPL Center, the Phantoms have an opportunity to make their move up the Atlantic Division standings. Five of those eight games are also against division opponents.
New head coach Mark Morrison has taken over a roster brimming with quality prospects, and the Moose have delivered results. They also have key defenseman Dylan Samberg back from a training-camp injury to strengthen their line-up further.
Goaltender Connor Ingram, who has rebuilt his career in the Nashville Predators organization, has been a force for the Admirals. As Milwaukee undergoes early-season adjustments, having Ingram in net makes them a dangerous opponent every night.
Last season’s growing pains have yielded extremely impressive results this season as the Reign chase the AHL lead. The parent Los Angeles Kings have had one of the NHL’s deepest prospect pools in recent seasons. Even with graduations to the Kings, the Ontario roster still has more young talent, and that base is growing within a winning atmosphere with a league-best 4.21 goals per game.
After a difficult loss this past Wednesday at Hershey, the P-Bruins spun off back-to-back road wins to close out their week. First-year head coach Ryan Mougenel has a deep cast of strong veterans, and Providence is a perennial contender that also churns out talent consistently for the Boston Bruins.
The Amerks have AHL leading scorer Jack Quinn. Young goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen continues to find his way. Peyton Krebs arrived in a blockbuster trade. Head coach Seth Appert had everything possible thrown his way in his first pro season in 2020-21 and has shaped this year’s Amerks club into a dangerous North Division presence.
Rockford already has had to handle a coaching change that sent head coach Derek King to the Chicago Blackhawks. New interim head coach Anders Sorensen has an exceptionally young club capable of stinging some of the AHL’s top clubs.
SAN DIEGO GULLS
Expect some changes any time that Joël Bouchard arrives in town. Laval went through that process in 2018-19, but it eventually paid off quite well. Now the Gulls have undergone that same adjustment. After a slow start, four straight wins against the San Jose Barracuda may well have put the Gulls back in flight.
SAN JOSE BARRACUDA
Like Belleville and Bridgeport, the Barracuda have had to handle frequent NHL recalls, but there is reason to believe that they will make their move soon. They also have a state-of-the-art arena set to open next season.
A new affiliation with the St. Louis Blues has blossomed already as Springfield battles for the AHL’s top spot. Supplied by an aggressive offseason by Blues management, the T-birds look primed to make noise this season.
The Heat have proven to be worthy challengers to Ontario for the Pacific Division lead. The teams split their two-game series in Ontario this past week. Flames first-round pick Jakob Pelletier leads Stockton in scoring as a rookie, and Adam Ruzicka’s continued emergence as an premier power forward earned him a recall to Calgary. This is a well-rounded team.
The Crunch entered play on Saturday with the AHL’s top penalty kill after burning off 47 of 53 opposing power-play opportunities. Injuries and recalls have hit the Crunch hard this season, but having a head coach like Ben Groulx means having a leader with plenty more tricks up his sleeve.
Top prospects in Oskar Back, Riley Damiani, and Thomas Harley make the Stars a fun group to watch as they plot a climb in the Central Division.
Josh Ho-Sang has revived his career close to home and earned strong reviews from head coach Greg Moore. Goaltender Erik Källgren has excelled in his first full season in North America.
Southern Arizona is lovely this time of year, and the Roadrunners spent the holiday at home with a two-game visit from Abbotsford. Two wins later, the Roadrunners are making their move.
Talk about first impressions. A brand-new affiliation with the New Jersey Devils has been a dream so far. Playing in the rowdy Adirondack Bank Center, a young, aggressive Comets team led by new head coach Kevin Dineen has absolutely thrived. With an AHL-record 13-game winning streak to begin the season, the Comets have already banked plenty of points before December has even arrived.
The Penguins are an overtime threat with a league-high four wins in extra time. Despite a host of young faces, the Penguins are well within striking distance of several division rivals.
COACHELLA VALLEY FIREBIRDS
A new 10,000-set arena. A flashy new logo. An affiliation with Seattle on tap for next season. Life is good as hockey starts to take root in the Coachella Valley.
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, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.