📝 by Patrick Williams
The American Hockey League-bound talent continues to flow.
Those names are arriving from across the hockey map. First-round National Hockey League picks. Still more talent from the 2020 NHL Draft, one that has already sent several top prospects to the AHL and then onward to the NHL. Up-and-comers from the Canadian Hockey League, U.S. college programs and Europe.
Here is the first wave of new faces who will dot Eastern Conference rosters to begin this season:
Last Wednesday provided quite the haul for Bridgeport, and a sneak preview of what might await the parent New York Islanders eventually. The NHL club sent forwards William Dufour, Ruslan Iskhakov, and Aatu Raty to their AHL club.
Raty has generated considerable excitement on Long Island following a standout season at home in Finland. The 19-year-old, a 2021 second-round pick, posted 41 points (13 goals, 28 assists) in 47 games and then moved on to Bridgeport, where he offered up four points (one goal, three assists) in six games of Calder Cup Playoff competition, including a series-clinching overtime goal against Providence.
Dufour could be a potential steal for the organization, a 2020 fifth-round pick who had a dream finish with Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The 20-year-old’s 116 points (a league-leading 56 goals, 60 assists) placed second in QMJHL scoring, earned him the Michel Briere Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, and garnered a spot on the QMJHL First All-Star Team. In the Memorial Cup tournament, Dufour led all scorers with eight points (seven goals, one assists) to lead Saint John to a championship. For good measure, Dufour then went to the World Junior Championship in August and added a gold medal, contributing seven points (three goals, four assists) in seven games for Canada.
At only 22 years old, Iskhakov already has two years of NCAA play at the University of Connecticut, a year in Finland with TPS Turku, and his most recent stop in Germany with Adler Mannheim. The 2018 Islanders second-rounder had 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in only 25 games last season in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
Defenseman Nathan Staios saw the NHL life up-close.
His father, Steve, also an AHL product, played 1,001 NHL games and was general manager of Nathan’s Hamilton club that won an Ontario Hockey League title last season. The younger Staios was named the top defenseman in the entire Canadian Hockey League, leading all OHL blueliners with 66 points (15 goals, 51 assists).
That performance was enough for the Florida Panthers, who signed the undrafted 21-year-old to a three-year entry-level deal two weeks after Hamilton’s season finished.
The Columbus Blue Jackets plucked Marcus Bjork from the Swedish Hockey League this summer, bringing in the 24-year-old defenseman on a one-year agreement. Bjork offers 204 games of experience in one of Europe’s top leagues, and he chipped in 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in 52 games last season for Brynas.
Columbus had to wait four years for 2018 second-round pick Kirill Marchenko’s arrival in North America, but the wait could be worth it. Marchenko, a 22-year-old forward, had 20 points (12 goals, eight assists) in 39 games for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League in 2021-22. Having impressed during training camp with the Blue Jackets, Marchenko offers Cleveland another tested European pro.
HARTFORD WOLF PACK
It went well the last time a CHL Goaltender of the Year came to the AHL. Calgary Flames top prospect Dustin Wolf, who won that award in 2019-20, had a fantastic rookie AHL season in 2021-22.
Next up is Dylan Garand, who won that same honor last season with Kamloops of the Western Hockey League. Playing 45 games, he went 34-9-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. For extra emphasis, he had a 1.92 GAA, a .933 save percentage, and three shutouts in 17 playoff appearances. Garand, 20, joined the New York Rangers organization as a 2020 fourth-round pick and had a two-game AHL audition with the Wolf Pack in 2020-21.
Gustav Rydahl plays the game of a 6-foot-3, 201-pound forward, and that attracted the Rangers’ attention. So did a 30-point (15 goals, 15 assists) effort last season in Sweden on the way to a league championship with Farjestad BK, plus a trip to the Winter Olympics to represent Sweden. That work prompted the Rangers to bring Rydahl to North America for the first time after 10 SHL seasons with a one-year deal. He could offer the Wolf Pack a top-tier presence down the middle.
Yet another name from the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft to take on the AHL is Washington Capitals forward prospect Hendrix Lapierre. The 20-year-old QMJHL product went to the Capitals as the 22nd choice that year, and he will continue his pro career with the Bears.
Lapierre earned six NHL games out of training camp last season with the Capitals before his assignment to Acadie-Bathurst of the QMJHL, where he registered 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 40 games along with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in eight playoff appearances.
Eighteen-year-old NHL first-round picks moving into the AHL are becoming more commonplace.
NHL clubs have the opportunity to assign European-trained players to the AHL at 18 years old, and they are willing to exercise that option. Filip Zadina did so with the Grand Rapids Griffins, as did Filip Chytil in Hartford in recent seasons.
Now it will be 18-year-old Slovak forward Filip Mesar, taken 26th overall in this past July’s NHL Draft by the Montreal Canadiens. He already has two seasons of pro experience with Slovak club HK Poprad, and he finished last season with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 37 games. As the Canadiens continue to rebuild, Mesar will be getting an early start on adjusting to life with the Rocket.
A league championship with Eisbaren Berlin, a turn with Germany at the World Championship, and a one-year entry-level contract from the Boston Bruins made for an eventful spring for Kai Wissmann.
Wissmann will bolster the Providence blue line and provide ample pro experience after parts of eight seasons in Germany’s top circuit.
Like the Canadiens and Mesar, the Buffalo Sabres appear ready to take a similar approach with their own 2022 first-rounder, Jiri Kulich. The 18-year-old played his first full season in the Czech Extraliga, picking up 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in 49 games with HC Karlovy Vary. Following his selection by the Sabres 28th overall, he represented the Czech club at the World Junior Championship and had a pair of goals and six assists in seven games.
UP NEXT: A breakdown of some of the brand-new AHL faces who will begin this season with Western Conference clubs.
TheAHL.com features writer 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.