Change is in the air

Matthew Phillips (Photo: Jason Mowry/Getty Images)

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Change is constant in the American Hockey League. Here is some of the change you might have missed as the AHL gets set for opening night on Friday.

Lots of talented AHL players secured National Hockey League jobs coming out of training camp, including four members of the 2022-23 First AHL All-Star Team. Eighth-year pro Michael Carcone stuck with the Arizona Coyotes after winning the AHL scoring title with 85 points in 65 games for Tucson last season, while Alex Barré-Boulet is with the Tampa Bay Lightning after an 84-point season in Syracuse. Defenseman Darren Raddysh had a strong finish with the Lightning last season after averaging better than a point per game on the Syracuse blue line, and Matthew Phillips made the Washington Capitals roster following a 36-goal performance with the Calgary Wranglers in 2022-23.

Phillips is joined on the Capitals by four players who helped the Hershey Bears win the Calder Cup last season; forwards Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas and Beck Malenstyn and defenseman Lucas Johansen are all in Washington preparing for their opener against Pittsburgh on Friday.

NHL clubs also took notice of AHL coaching talent in the offseason. Greg Cronin, who had coached the Colorado Eagles since they joined the AHL in 2018, earned his first NHL head-coaching job when the Anaheim Ducks hired him June 5, and he added Bridgeport’s Brent Thompson as an assistant on his staff. Mitch Love, voted the winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the second consecutive season in 2022-23, joined the Washington Capitals as an assistant coach after leading the Calgary Wranglers to a league-best 51-17-3-1 record last season.

Ten AHL clubs will open the 2023-24 season with a new head coach and the most notable absence will be Roy Sommer, who retired in April after 25 seasons as a fixture guiding AHL prospects. Sommer, whose 1,814 games and 828 wins in the AHL both rank first all-time, will be succeeded in San Diego by Matt McIlvane; the 37-year-old’s own impressive coaching resume features league titles in Austria with EC Red Bull Salzburg the past two seasons.

Joël Bouchard takes over for Benoit Groulx in Syracuse, his third AHL head-coaching stop after stints with Laval and San Diego. With Thompson going to Anaheim, Rick Kowalsky has been elevated to the top job in Bridgeport; Kowalsky spent eight seasons as head coach of New Jersey’s affiliates in Albany and Binghamton and was a Pieri Award winner in 2015-16. And Trent Cull is the new bench boss in Calgary after six years in the Vancouver Canucks organization, including five as head coach of the Canucks’ affiliates in Utica and Abbotsford.

Chicago (Bob Nardella), Colorado (Aaron Schneekloth), Grand Rapids (Dan Watson), Henderson (Ryan Craig), Iowa (Brett McLean), and Toronto (John Gruden) will all have first-time AHL head coaches in 2023-24.

As rosters are finalized, several recent NHL first-round picks appear set to continue their development in the AHL. Defenseman Brandt Clarke, who went eighth overall to Los Angeles in 2021, had a five-game stint with the Ontario Reign last season and should be a featured piece of their blue line this season. Forward Dylan Guenther went one spot after Clarke in that draft and will start in Tucson after splitting last season between the Arizona Coyotes and his junior club in Seattle (WHL). Belleville forward Tyler Boucher went 10th in the 2021 draft, and going 16th overall to the New York Rangers was forward Brennan Othmann, who will be with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Three of the top six picks in the 2022 NHL Draft will be back in the AHL in 2023-24 after impressive showings a year ago. Defensemen David Jiricek (Cleveland) and Simon Nemec (Utica) were both named to the AHL Top Prospects Team last season, and forward Shane Wright is bound for Coachella Valley after helping the Firebirds reach the Calder Cup Finals last spring.

Finally, several long-time AHL players retired after last season, a list includes Tommy Cross (Springfield), Brian Lashoff (Grand Rapids), Garrett Mitchell (Rockford), Pat Nagle (Lehigh Valley), Kevin Poulin (Laval), Dillon Simpson (Cleveland) and Paul Thompson (Bridgeport).