AHL rookies ripe for success

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … As the top development league for the NHL, the American Hockey League is always home to the top young players in the sport. But the best of the youngest – AHL rookies – traditionally turn a successful campaign here into a springboard to National Hockey League stardom.

First-year pros Patrick O’Sullivan and Roman Voloshenko have been vital to the Houston Aeros’ success this season. O’Sullivan, who turned 21 earlier this month, leads all AHL rookies with 28 goals and 55 points, while Voloshenko, the 19-year-old wing from Belarus, is second with 24 goals this season, including a rookie-best 13 on the power play.

Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf tore up the AHL during their six-week stay with Portland earlier this season, but fellow rookie Ryan Shannon has continued to shine for the Pirates, leading first-year AHL’ers with 38 assists and placing second with a team-best 54 points in just 43 games. Shannon, whose breakaway goal in the 2006 CCM AHL All-Star Skills Competition made highlight reels across North America, also ranks second on the Pirates with a plus-11 rating.

Steve Bernier, San Jose’s first-round draft pick in 2003, has tallied 42 points in 44 games for Cleveland while adding a goal and four assists in 13 NHL games with the Sharks this season. Josh Hennessy, selected in the second round that year by San Jose, is Cleveland’s top scorer with 45 points and has skated in all 56 games for the Barons. Additionally, Cornell product Mike Iggulden’s development has taken him from undrafted training-camp invitee to his first NHL contract with the Sharks in four short months.

Eastern Conference leader Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has the league’s top-ranked defense thanks to first-year blueliners Noah Welch, Andy Schneider and Ryan Lannon. In Hershey, Eric Fehr is the first Bears rookie in 13 years to top the 20-goal mark. Forwards Nigel Dawes and Colby Genoway, defenseman Daniel Girardi and goalie Al Montoya have Hartford charging toward the playoffs, and division foe Manchester boasts the top two AHL rookies in plus/minus in Jeff Tambellini and Richard Petiot.

Tambellini joins fellow rookies Yan Stastny of Iowa, Ben Walter of Providence and Chris Bourque of Hershey with strong family ties: their dads – Steve Tambellini, Peter Stastny, Ryan Walter and Ray Bourque – all had long successful careers in the NHL.

Geoff Platt, who skated in 15 NHL games with Columbus earlier this season, has 18 goals in 38 AHL contests for Syracuse, and Pekka Rinne of Milwaukee is tied for the league lead with 23 victories.

The AHL’s elite rookies in 2006 have big footsteps in which to follow. Among the players selected to the AHL’s All-Rookie team since its inception in 1997 are Dan Cloutier, J.S. Giguere, Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, Daniel Briere, Dan Boyle, J.P. Dumont, Jonathan Cheechoo, Ray Emery, Brad Boyes, Jason Spezza, Michel Ouellet and Thomas Vanek.

ROAD WARRIORS … The San Antonio Rampage are halfway through their annual February road excursion, as the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo has taken over the AT&T Center for 17 days. The Rampage are 1-2-0-2 on the trip so far, with visits to Milwaukee, Omaha, Peoria (for two games) and Milwaukee again still on tap.

The trade-off for the lengthy road swing is an extended stay on the homefront. Starting Feb. 24, the Rampage play 10 straight on home ice.

OLYMPIC REFS MAKE AHL STOPOVER … Four veteran NHL referees on their way to Turin to work in the Winter Olympic Games made a return to their American Hockey League roots on Wednesday night as the AHL continued to play a prominent role as the top development ground for the NHL’s officiating program.

Don VanMassenhoven (Norfolk at Hershey), Paul Devorski (Portland at Binghamton), Dennis LaRue (Syracuse at Chicago) and Dan Marouelli (Wilkes-Barre at Philadelphia) all worked American Hockey League matches as a tune-up for the Olympic tournament, which like the AHL uses a one-referee system.

LINKIN’ BLOGS … Three Ellery Award-winning beat writers have launched weblogs to give fans a daily inside look at the teams they cover, the AHL and the sport of hockey in general.

Jonathan Bombulie of the Times Shamrock newspapers in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton authors Penguins Insider; Mike Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post offers up his thoughts on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at Soundin’ Off; and Lindsay Kramer of the Post-Standard in Syracuse has a Crunch Blog.

ETC. … Thanks to a 19-2-1-1 run since Dec. 18, Grand Rapids has overtaken Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the most points in the AHL (78)… Bridgeport is 15-4-1-1 since Christmas after starting the season with a record of 12-18-2-1… Tony Voce scored four times in Philadelphia’s 6-1 win at Chicago on Saturday night, the first such effort in the Phantoms’ 10-year history… Omaha goaltender Brent Krahn has stopped 90 of 92 shots during the Knights’ current three-game winning streak… With Binghamton down 4-1, Brandon Bochenski scored one goal and assisted on the next three to give the Senators a 5-4 overtime win over Toronto on Saturday… Mark Hartigan saw his scoring streak end at 18 games in Syracuse’s 1-0 loss to Peoria on Tuesday, but he rebounded to score the game-winning goal in each of the Crunch’s three victories to close out the week… Karl Goehring made 49 saves in San Antonio’s 2-1 shootout win at Hartford on Friday night… The Wolf Pack are 14-2-2 in their last 18 games against the West Division… Ten of Chicago’s 12 shorthanded goals this season have been scored on the road… Houston drew 7,367 fans to Toyota Center for an 11:00 a.m. start on Houston Chronicle in Education Field Trip day against Milwaukee on Tuesday, their fifth straight crowd of more than 7,000… Manitoba’s Craig Darby became the 41st player in AHL history to reach 600 career points with his goal against Hamilton on Jan. 29.