AHL Weekly Release: Off and running

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The American Hockey League kicked off its 77th season last weekend with 30 teams beginning down the road to the Calder Cup.

More than 168,000 fans attended AHL games during opening weekend, an average of 6,238 per game and a 5.3 percent increase over the first weekend of the 2011-12 season.

Lake Erie’s home opener on Friday night drew 12,011 fans to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland; Grand Rapids played before a capacity crowd at Van Andel Arena (10,834) for the 17th consecutive opening night; and the Providence Bruins, who topped 10,000 in attendance eight times last season, saw 10,665 fans pack the Dunkin’ Donuts Center for opening night. Friday crowds also topped 8,000 in Rochester and Connecticut.

Nearly 20,000 fans filed into Allstate Arena to see the Chicago Wolves take on the Blackhawks’ top affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, in a two-game weekend series in Rosemont, Ill., including 14,505 who took in Saturday’s opener. Also on Saturday, Houston (8,132), Toronto (7,921), Bridgeport (7,624), San Antonio (7,439), Syracuse (6,434), Springfield (6,151), Albany (5,072) and Adirondack (4,801) all played to capacity or near-capacity crowds for their home openers.

Eleven more home openers are set for this weekend in Hamilton (Friday vs. Toronto), Hershey (Saturday vs. Rochester), Manchester (Friday vs. Providence), Milwaukee (Friday vs. Charlotte), Oklahoma City (Friday vs. San Antonio), Peoria (Friday vs. Rockford), Portland (Friday vs. Worcester in Lewiston, Maine), Rockford (Saturday vs. Charlotte), St. John’s (Friday vs. Adirondack), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Saturday vs. Bridgeport) and Worcester (Saturday vs. Albany).

In 2011-12, more than 6.4 million fans attended AHL games during the regular season.

The 30 AHL team rosters submitted to the league office on opening day included 787 players, from Abbott (Toronto’s Spencer) to Zucker (Houston’s Jason).

The AHL’s opening rosters feature a total of 92 first-round selections from the NHL Entry Draft, including 56 from the 2009, 2010 and 2011 drafts alone. Eighteen players were top-10 picks within the last four years, a group highlighted by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Magnus Paajarvi of Oklahoma City, Adam Larsson of Albany, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn of Adirondack, Brett Connolly of Syracuse, Alex Burmistrov of St. John’s and Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin of Houston.

First-Round Draft Picks on AHL Opening Night Rosters (by year)
2012 – 2
2011 – 12
2010 – 20
2009 – 24
2008 – 11
2007 – 8
2006 – 7
2005 and earlier – 8

The average age of an AHL player to start the 2012-13 season was 24 years and 2 months. The youngest player in the league on opening night was 18-year-old defenseman Hampus Lindholm of the Norfolk Admirals, the sixth overall pick (by Anaheim) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Lindholm was born on Jan. 20, 1994, making him just 15 days younger than Rochester Americans rookie forward Zemgus Girgensons, also a first-round choice (14th overall by Buffalo) in 2012. Lindholm and Girgensons are among 21 teenagers on AHL opening rosters this year. All told, there were 343 AHL players (43.6 percent) who were 22 years old and under as of Oct. 12, and 535 players (68.0 percent) under the age of 25.

Age of Players on AHL Opening Night Rosters (by percentage)
18 – 0.3%
19 – 2.4%
20 – 12.7%
21 – 14.9%
22 – 16.0%
23 – 14.0%
24 – 10.4%
25 – 8.0%
26 – 6.6%
27 – 4.6%
28 – 4.6%
29+ – 8.3%

The Binghamton Senators (23 years, 1 month) are the youngest team in the league, with 15 members of their 27-man opening-night roster aged 22 and under. The Senators are led by a strong group of top Ottawa prospects including recent first-rounders Mika Zibanejad and Jared Cowen, forwards Jacob Silfverberg and Stephane Da Costa, defensemen Mark Borowiecki and Patrick Wiercioch, and goaltender Robin Lehner, the MVP of the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Average Age of Players on AHL Opening Night Rosters (by team in yrs.mos)
BNG – 23.01
HAM – 23.02
POR – 23.02
RCH – 23.02
BRI – 23.02
HOU – 23.03
MCH – 23.05
OKC – 23.05
MIL – 23.06
GR – 23.10
RFD – 23.11
CT – 23.11
SYR – 24.00
NOR – 24.01
LE – 24.01
ADK – 24.02
CHA – 24.03
TEX – 24.03
WOR – 24.03
SPR – 24.04
SA – 24.04
PRO – 24.05
ALB – 24.06
TOR – 24.06
PEO – 24.08
WBS – 24.09
ABB – 25.01
CHI – 25.02
STJ – 25.02
HER – 26.03

AHL rosters are made up 56.3 percent by Canadians and 30.5 percent by Americans. Forty-three Swedes (5.5 percent) make up the largest contingent of European-born players in the league, followed by 16 Finns (2.0 percent) and 15 Russians (1.9 percent).

Of the 787 players on opening-night rosters, only three were born in Switzerland. But two Swiss forwards finished the season’s first weekend among the league’s leading scorers.

Sven Baertschi, a first-round pick (13th overall) by Calgary in 2011, made his AHL debut with Abbotsford and recorded back-to-back two-point games as the Heat swept their two-game series with visiting Peoria. Baertschi notched a goal and an assist in Friday’s 4-1 victory, and followed up with the game-winning goal and another helper in Saturday’s 6-2 decision.

Nino Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick by the New York Islanders in 2010, helped Bridgeport to consecutive victories with four points of his own. The second-year pro, who played 55 NHL games last season, tallied a goal and two assists in the span of 3:03 on Friday as the Sound Tigers erased a 2-0 deficit en route to a 6-4 win at Connecticut. He then scored the go-ahead goal in Bridgeport’s 4-2 victory over Providence on Saturday.

The names have all changed, but the Norfolk Admirals have picked up where they left off in 2011-12. With 4-2 and 4-3 (SO) wins over Worcester to begin the year, the Norfolk franchise has now won 30 consecutive regular-season games.

As the top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Admirals set an all-time professional hockey record with a 28-game winning streak to finish the 2011-12 regular season, then cruised to a 15-3 playoff record en route to capturing the franchise’s first Calder Cup.

While the Admirals became the top affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks prior to this season, the Lightning’s top prospects – along with reigning AHL coach of the year Jon Cooper – now reside in Syracuse. The Crunch began the season with a 6-5 shootout loss in Rochester on Friday before defeating Hershey, 4-3, in their home opener on Saturday. Cory Conacher, last year’s AHL rookie of the year and MVP, opened his second pro season with two goals and three assists in two games for the Crunch and was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week, an honor he never won in 2011-12 despite leading the league in goals and finishing second in points.

The AHL’s rookie class of head coaches – Luke Richardson of Binghamton, Scott Pellerin of Bridgeport, Jeff Blashill of Grand Rapids, Sylvain Lefebvre of Hamilton, Dean Chynoweth of Lake Erie, Dean Evason of Milwaukee, Brad Larsen of Springfield and Willie Desjardins of Texas – went a combined 11-2-0-1 over the first weekend of the season.

Match-ups to look forward to in the week ahead:

Chicago at Abbotsford, Friday (10 ET) and Saturday (10 ET) – The Wolves, top affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, make their first visit of the season to British Columbia to take on the Heat. Saturday’s game will be televised live on Sportsnet ONE, and both contests can be heard live on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio (Sirius 207, XM 92).

Adirondack at St. John’s, Friday (6 ET) and Saturday (6 ET) – The Phantoms and IceCaps have never met, but these two AHL markets have a history with each other. The Adirondack Red Wings (coached by Barry Melrose) defeated the St. John’s Maple Leafs (coached by Marc Crawford) in the 1992 Calder Cup Finals, the only seven-game series in league history in which the road team won every game.

San Antonio at Oklahoma City, Friday (8 ET) – After starting the season with a two-game split at Lake Erie, the Barons make their 2012-13 home debut on Friday night in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semifinal playoff series, won by Oklahoma City four games to one.

Rochester at Hershey, Saturday (7 ET) – The oldest rivalry in the American Hockey League is renewed as the Bears open the home portion of their 75th-anniversary season against the Americans, who began play in 1956. This will be the 445th regular-season meeting between the teams all-time; the Bears have 206 wins; the Amerks have 185.

This week’s broadcast schedule for national TV and radio. All games are also streamed at AHL Live (ahllive.com).

Sportsnet ONE
Saturday – Hamilton at Toronto, 7 ET
Saturday – Chicago at Abbotsford, 10 ET

SiriusXM NHL Network Radio (Sirius 207, XM 92)
Tuesday – Binghamton at Rochester, 7 ET
Wednesday – Peoria at Chicago, 8 ET
Friday – Connecticut at Norfolk, 7:30 ET
Friday – Chicago at Abbotsford, 10 ET
Saturday – Hamilton at Toronto, 7 ET
Saturday – Chicago at Abbotsford, 10 ET
Sunday – Grand Rapids at Toronto, 3 ET
Sunday – Milwaukee at Houston, 6 ET

Defeating St. John’s and Adirondack, the Springfield Falcons opened the season with two wins for the first time since 2005-06, and are now bidding for the first 3-0 start in the franchise’s 19-year history… Chicago’s Eddie Lack, who ranked in the top 10 in both goals-against average (2.31) and save percentage (.925) last season, played 110:28 without allowing a goal to start the 2012-13 campaign, including his third career 1-0 shootout win (Saturday vs. Rockford)… Lake Erie rookie Calvin Pickard made 40 saves for his first pro shutout, a 4-0 win at Toronto on Sunday… Sebastian Stalberg, who had five points in 13 games with Worcester after completing his junior season at the University of Vermont last spring, scored both Sharks goals in their 4-2 loss at Norfolk on Friday… Spencer Machacek celebrated his 24th birthday on Sunday by scoring the game-winning goal to lead St. John’s past Connecticut, 3-2… Whale forward Kyle Jean scored his first pro goal on a penalty shot in Friday’s 6-4 loss to Bridgeport… Oklahoma City’s opening roster featured five former first-round draft picks (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Magnus Paajarvi, Alex Plante, Jordan Eberle, Colten Teubert)… Seven of the 18 skaters in Hamilton’s lineup at Grand Rapids on Saturday night were making their professional debuts.