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AHL rookies off to World Juniors

by A.J. Atchue || for

The holiday season is a time to give thanks and enjoy the happiness that comes with spending time with family and friends. For a handful of young American Hockey League players, though, this holiday season also brings with it the opportunity to show off their skills on an international stage.

The annual World Junior Championships begin in Buffalo on Dec. 26, and five AHL rookies are set to represent their countries in the prestigious tournament.

Four of the five will suit up for the United States – Jerry D’Amigo from the Toronto Marlies, Nick Leddy and Jeremy Morin of the Rockford IceHogs, and the Syracuse Crunch’s Kyle Palmieri. In addition, Binghamton Senators goaltender Robin Lehner has been named to Sweden’s squad.

Defenseman John Carlson, a former first-round draft pick on loan from the AHL’s Hershey Bears at the time, provided heroics in last year’s tournament when he scored in overtime of the gold medal game to lift the United States past Canada, 6-5.

It was part of a storybook 2009-10 season for Carlson, who had 39 points in 48 games for the Bears and earned a spot on the AHL’s All-Rookie Team before winning his second Calder Cup in a 12-month span in June. Carlson also broke into the NHL last year, playing 22 regular-season games for Washington and appearing in all seven of the club’s first-round playoff contests.

He parlayed that experience into a full-time role with the Capitals in 2010-11, and Carlson now leads all Washington defensemen with 17 points (4-13-17) and a plus-10 rating through 36 games.

A 19-year-old left wing, Jerry D’Amigo got his first taste of the American Hockey League when he was selected to serve as one of the “RBC Future Stars” at the 2008 AHL All-Star Skills Competition in his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y.

After spending three years with the United States National Development Program, D’Amigo attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2009-10 and averaged nearly a point per game, ranking third on the Engineers with 34 points in 35 games. He also played in the 2010 World Junior Championships and was the tournament’s fourth-leading scorer with 12 points (6-6-12) in seven contests, including a goal and an assist as part of Team USA’s gold medal game victory.

D’Amigo, a 2009 draft pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs, turned pro this season and has recorded three goals and six assists in 29 games for a Marlies club which is currently tied for second place in the AHL’s North Division. He scored his first pro goal as part of a 6-1 win at San Antonio on Nov. 3 and notched the game-winner in a 4-0 blanking of Hartford on Nov. 9.

Selected 29 spots apart in the 2009 Entry Draft, defenseman Nick Leddy and forward Jeremy Morin are now teammates both in Rockford and on Team USA.

A native of Eden Prairie, Minn., Leddy was scooped up by his home-state Minnesota Wild in the first round (No. 16) but then joined the Chicago Blackhawks organization in the Feb. 12, 2010, trade which sent Cam Barker to Minnesota.

The 19-year-old Leddy began the season by appearing in six games for Chicago – scoring his first career NHL goal on Oct. 11 vs. Buffalo – before his assignment to Rockford on Oct. 17. Since joining the IceHogs, Leddy has ranked third among team defensemen with 10 points (2-8-10) in 24 contests.

Like D’Amigo, Jeremy Morin also served as an “RBC Future Star” at the AHL’s 2008 All-Star Classic, his first introduction to the pro game. Drafted in the second round (No. 45) by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, the Auburn, N.Y., native proceeded to put up a 47-goal, 83-point effort for Kitchener (OHL) in 2009-10, his lone junior campaign.

Morin, who will make his second straight appearance in the World Juniors, has adapted well to the professional ranks this season, having accumulated seven goals and 11 points in 19 AHL contests with Rockford while contributing three points (2-1-3) in nine games for the Blackhawks over the course of multiple recalls. Five of Morin’s seven AHL goals thus far have come on the power play, and the 19-year-old also shows one game-winner.

A first-round draft pick (No. 26) by the Anaheim Ducks in 2009, Kyle Palmieri burst onto the scene this year with seven goals and nine points in just nine October games for the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. Palmieri netted a hat trick on Oct. 27 at Hamilton, part of a four-game goal-scoring run which saw the 19-year-old right wing total six goals and one assist.

At the height of his goal-scoring streak, the Montvale, N.J., native was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Nov. 2 and earned his first NHL recall to Anaheim the following day. Palmieri brought his goal-scoring touch with him, nabbing his first NHL marker in his Ducks debut on Nov. 3 vs. Tampa Bay.

Palmieri, who is also appearing in the World Juniors for a second consecutive winter, has moved between the NHL and AHL ever since and currently leads Syracuse with nine goals and is tied for fourth with 13 points despite appearing in only 20 of the Crunch’s 30 games to date. He’s also suited up in 10 NHL tilts with Anaheim.

Nineteen-year-old goaltender Robin Lehner arrived on the professional scene in 2010-11 after putting up impressive numbers for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) last season, going 27-13-3 with a 2.80 goals-against average, .918 save percentage, and five shutouts in 47 appearances.

Lehner, a second-round draft pick (No. 46) by Ottawa in 2009, has played in 10 contests for the Binghamton Senators so far this season (3-5-1, 2.69, .913), and two of his three victories have been shutouts.

A native of Gothenburg, Sweden, Lehner also made a pair of NHL relief appearances for Ottawa in mid-October, stopping all 10 combined shots he faced against Montreal and Pittsburgh.

Just over two weeks from now, players will be back with their regular-season squads and in the case of the AHL’s five World Juniors participants, back to the Calder Cup Playoffs chase.

In the meantime, though, this tournament presents a unique chance to play for one’s country and earn a share of the spotlight while doing so.