Weekend notebook: First quarter winding down

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

📝 by Patrick Williams

An early goal for AHL President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Howson after taking office July 1, 2020, was to nail down a uniform schedule for the league’s 32 franchises.

Part of the agreement reached in the formation of the Pacific Division in 2015 was to allow those teams to play 68 games during the regular season, eight fewer than the teams in the other divisions. But after seven seasons of unbalanced schedule lengths, Howson and the Board of Governors had a framework in place for a universal 72-game schedule to begin in 2022-23.

That means that the 18-game mark now represents the quarter point of the AHL calendar. Early developments and trends are beginning to solidify, though plenty of questions remain unanswered. As teams wrap up the first segment of the season, let’s look at the AHL’s top 10 clubs so far by their order in the overall standings:

1. HERSHEY (14-4-2-0, 30 points)
The Bears and Washington Capitals went big this summer when they landed head coach Todd Nelson.

Nelson has been a part of six championship teams as a player and coach — three of them in the AHL, including leading the Grand Rapids Griffins to a Calder Cup in 2017. But following a four-year stint with the Dallas Stars as an assistant coach, Nelson had an itch to lead his own team once again and reached out to the Washington organization after Scott Allen’s offseason move from Hershey to the Washington bench.

After chasing the Providence Bruins for weeks, the Bears finally took over the AHL standings lead with a masterful 4-2 road win against the archrival Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Wednesday. Hershey owns winning streaks of four road games and five games overall. They also are a league-best 9-1-1-0 (.864) on home ice. Hershey has had to deal with its fair share of injuries and recalls to the Capitals in the season’s first six weeks. But Nelson-coached clubs are defensively detail-oriented, and the Bears have quickly taken to his message. Through 20 games, the Bears top the AHL in both goals against (2.10 per game) and shots against (24.9 per game). The Hershey penalty kill also ranks second in the AHL at 86.2 percent.

Should an opponent manage to break through against Hershey, a top goaltending tandem still awaits in Zach Fucale and Hunter Shepard, who was named the AHL Goaltender of the Month.

2. PROVIDENCE (12-3-3-2, 29 points)
Goaltending depth is paramount in the AHL, and the Bruins have used a three-headed goaltending monster amid a torrid start to their season.

Coming off his first full AHL season, Kyle Keyser looked dominant (4-0-1, 1.87, .931) before being sidelined by injury in early November. Brandon Bussi, recalled from the ECHL when Keyser was hurt, has been excellent (5-1-2, 2.48, .929) as well. And Keith Kinkaid, brought in by Boston in the offseason to take on a heavy workload in Providence while also serving as a reliable NHL recall option, has already taken on both roles.

Falling behind does not faze Providence either. The Bruins are 4-1-1-2 in games in which they have trailed after the second period; they won two such games all of last season.

3. MILWAUKEE (14-5-0-0, 28 points)
Anyone looking for the Western Conference-leading Admirals to slow down any time soon could be in for a wait.

After losing two of its first three games this season, the Admirals have torn through the competition with victories in 13 of their last 16. Milwaukee has averaged exactly four goals per game, second-most in the AHL. They can run a top-nine group of forwards to rival any in the AHL, and 10 players already own double-digit point totals. At 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) in 19 games, forward Tommy Novak is the lone Admiral to rank among the AHL’s top-20 scoring leaders. Yaroslav Askarov, the 11th pick in the 2020 National Hockey League Draft, has settled into a reliable goaltending partnership with Devin Cooley.

Milwaukee is also a top-10 club on special teams with a power play that is clicking at 23.6 percent (13-for-55) and an 84.1 percent (37-for 44) penalty kill.

4. BRIDGEPORT (12-3-4-0, 28 points)
Start with the Bridgeport power play, which ranks fourth in the league at 27.9 percent (19-for-68).

That dangerous power play helps to put the Islanders fourth in AHL scoring at 3.84 goals per game. Top blueline prospect Samuel Bolduc has been a standout and is third in AHL scoring among defensemen with 18 points (three goals, 15 assists). After a 56-goal effort in junior with Saint John (QMJHL) last season, rookie William Dufour has continued to produce, tied for second on the team with seven goals. Bridgeport’s stable of young talent also includes Ruslan Iskhakov, Arnaud Durandeau, Simon Holmstrom and Aatu Raty.

In net, Cory Schneider (8-1-1, 2.56, .916) has been excellent while also mentoring Jakub Skarek.

5. COLORADO (13-5-1-0, 27 points)
Budweiser Events Center can be a difficult building for visitors in the best of times.

But with this season’s Eagles, visiting clubs have an even more difficult task. Colorado has won seven straight at home and sits atop the Pacific Division thanks to an 11-game point streak overall (10-0-1-0). Injuries with the parent club will strain any AHL affiliate’s roster, but Colorado is passing that stress test, dealing with a parade of movement to and from the Avalanche while barely blinking.

The Eagles are second in the league in scoring defense (2.32 goals against per game) thanks largely to the tandem of Justus Annunen and Jonas Johansson.

6. CHARLOTTE (11-5-2-1, 25 points)
The Florida Panthers knew they were getting something in 27-year-old forward Anton Levtchi when they signed him this past June.

A product of Finnish powerhouse Tappara Tampere, Levtchi was the Liiga scoring champion last season with 61 points (26 goals, 35 assists) in only 55 games on a run to a league championship. Levtchi has delivered so far with the Checkers, ranking second on the team with seven goals in 18 games and placing third in points (13). Riley Nash, Zac Dalpe and Chris Tierney have produced up front as well, and the blue line has been anchored by veteran Michael Del Zotto and another Tappara product, newcomer Santtu Kinnunen.

7. ROCHESTER (11-6-1-1, 24 points)
The Amerks faced several early tests, including a defense corps that was ravaged by injuries and recalls to the Buffalo Sabres.

Much like last season with Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka, a pair of top forward prospects have produced for Rochester. Nineteen-year-old Isak Rosen and 18-year-old Jiri Kulich, both first-round picks by Buffalo, have 14 points each through the season’s first 19 games. Kulich has points in five straight games after picking up a goal and an assist in last night’s 4-3 overtime win in Cleveland.

8. CALGARY (11-6-1-0, 23 points)
Returning much of the core that went to the Western Conference Finals last season in Stockton, the Wranglers stumbled out of the gate but have been on a roll since then.

Since starting 2-5-0-0, Calgary has gone 9-1-1-0 in its last 11 games heading into four consecutive meetings with last-place San Diego beginning tonight. Dustin Wolf is returning to form (10-3-0, 2.59, .915) following his stellar rookie performance. Jakob Pelletier’s current six-game goal-scoring streak is the longest in the AHL this season. Matthew Phillips, November’s AHL Player of the Month, continues to dominate and paces the AHL with 13 goals and 26 points.

9. TORONTO (11-6-1-0, 23 points)
The only top-10 team that missed the playoffs last season, the Marlies are just one point off the lead in the North Division despite having lost four of their last six games. An opportunity to reverse that slide comes this weekend as Toronto visits Utica tonight before hosting Syracuse and Belleville.

The Marlies, who have used five different goaltenders through the first quarter of the season, have Erik Källgren back from the parent Maple Leafs for the first time since opening weekend.

10. WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON (10-5-1-2, 23 points)
Mired in a four-game losing streak and entering a stretch of six games in nine nights, the Penguins navigated the turbulence and went 4-1-0-1 to get their season back on track.

Forward Valtteri Puustinen continues to impress after a strong first AHL campaign in 2021-22. He has 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 19 contests this season, tied with Filip Hållander for the team lead.

Another big test awaits this weekend with Bridgeport visiting Wilkes-Barre on Saturday. The Penguins then go to Hershey on Sunday afternoon.

Somehow the Belleville Senators have kept themselves afloat this season despite a seemingly never-ending crush of injuries.

Through their first 18 games, the B-Sens have dressed 35 players. Forwards Ridly Greig, Roby Jarventie and Jayce Hawryluk have been out recently. Scoring ace Cory Conacher was brought in to bolster the lineup, but has been limited to just two games. Goaltender Mads Sogaard was injured 4:16 into the season, came back two weeks later, and went down again in mid-November.

Despite an ever-changing lineup, Belleville is just one point behind fourth-place Syracuse in the North Division as the teams meet in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week tonight (7 ET). The Crunch’s five-game winning streak ended last weekend with a pair of home setbacks (one in overtime) to Providence, they have rebounded from a 2-6-1-2 start to get back to the .500 mark.

Alex Barré-Boulet, who is third in AHL scoring with 24 points (including a league-high 20 assists) in 16 games, is back with Syracuse after a recall to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Darren Raddysh, who brings a six-game scoring streak (three goals, nine assists) into the weekend, is the league’s top-scoring defenseman with 25 points overall.

🏒 Two more AHL players played their first NHL games this week, increasing the season total to 23.

Edmonton native James Hamblin made his NHL debut with his hometown Oilers on Monday night against Florida, playing on a line with former Bakersfield teammates Brad Malone and Dylan Holloway. Hamblin, who signed with Edmonton on Mar. 2, 2022, in the midst of a 21-goal campaign with the Condors, has nine points (three goals, six assists) in 15 games with Bakersfield this season.

After posting 14 points (five goal, nine assists) in 18 appearances with the Colorado Eagles, forward Jean-Luc Foudy made his NHL debut on Tuesday when the Avalanche visited Winnipeg. The 20-year-old Foudy, who went to the Avalanche as a third-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, played 65 games with the Eagles in 2021-22, finishing with 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists).

🏒 Shane Wright is taking full advantage of his opportunity to get minutes in the AHL. The fourth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old Wright was sent to Coachella Valley on a conditioning assignment Nov. 20 after appearing in just seven of the Seattle Kraken’s first 18 games.

Wright scored his first professional goal on Nov. 22 at Calgary, then burned the Wranglers for a pair of goals in his second game two nights later before scoring again last Saturday in San Diego.

🏒 Well-traveled netminder Magnus Hellberg has joined the Grand Rapids Griffins on a conditioning loan from Detroit.

After signing with the Red Wings in April to finish last season, Hellberg joined Seattle as a free agent in July. Since then, he was claimed off waivers by Ottawa during training camp, reclaimed by the Kraken on Nov. 10, and snatched up by Detroit on Nov. 23. With all the movement, Hellberg has been limited to one game this season, a 29-save effort in Ottawa’s 4-2 win over Dallas on Oct. 24.

An AHL All-Star in 2015, Hellberg has played 187 career games in the AHL with Milwaukee and Hartford.

Grand Rapids, which also added veteran forward Alex Chiasson on a professional tryout deal last week, hosts Texas tonight and Saturday.

🏒 Ontario has had a goaltending shake-up, thanks to the parent Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings assigned Cal Petersen to the Reign on Thursday after he cleared waivers. They want Petersen to find his game again after struggling in Los Angeles this season. Ontario has been good to Petersen, who played 116 games with the Reign from 2017 to 2020 and was twice an AHL All-Star.

To replace Petersen on the NHL roster, the Kings recalled Pheonix Copley from Ontario. Copley, who signed with the organization in the offseason, possesses a 6-4-1 record with a 2.48 GAA and a .913 save percentage with the Reign this year. Ontario continues a seven-game homestand this weekend, facing Colorado tonight and Bakersfield on Sunday.

🏒 Playing just .500 hockey in their new digs, the San Jose Barracuda are still trying to make themselves at home at Tech CU Arena.

Seeking a more intimate environment for the Barracuda after seven seasons at the 17,500-seat SAP Center, the Sharks organization expanded their practice facility to include the new 4,200-seat home for their AHL affiliate. First-year head coach John McCarthy likes what the venue can provide for the organization’s prospects as the Barracuda fight for their share of the competitive Bay Area sports market.

“I think the guys kind of feed off the energy a little bit,” McCarthy said. “It’s louder. Lower ceiling. Music’s a little louder.”

San Jose will look to improve on its 5-5-0-1 home mark this weekend when Tucson comes to town for games Saturday and Sunday.