Weekend notebook: Reign loaded again with young stars

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Ontario Reign brought out the star power against the San Jose Barracuda on Thursday night.

Centering one line was Quinton Byfield, who went second overall in the 2020 National Hockey League Draft to the parent Los Angeles Kings. Reign head coach Marco Sturm had the 20-year-old Byfield between Taylor Ward and Samuel Fagemo.

Centering another line was 21-year-old Alex Turcotte, chosen by the Kings as the fifth pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Turcotte had been out of action since May when he sustained a concussion in a Calder Cup Playoff contest against the Colorado Eagles. That injury capped a frustrating second pro season for Turcotte, who was limited to 35 games between Ontario and Los Angeles.

“It’s been a pretty tough year with the uncertainty of not knowing when I was going to play again or feel normal again, but now I feel the best I’ve probably ever felt,” Turcotte told LAKingsInsider.com before the game. “I’m 100 percent.”

The Kings had sent Byfield and Turcotte to the American Hockey League earlier this week, providing the prospect-studded Ontario roster with still more talent. Like Turcotte, Byfield has had his own injury frustrations. He spent most of the truncated 2020-21 season with the Reign as an 18-year-old, finishing with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 32 appearances. But he fractured his left ankle in training camp with the Kings in 2021, delaying the start of his season more than two months. This season, an illness had kept him out of action since Oct. 25.

Both players need game competition, and the AHL can provide that. The Reign’s trip to San Jose started a run of three games in four days.

Following a pair of Stanley Cup championships last decade, the Kings eventually undertook a rebuilding project and missed the NHL postseason three consecutive seasons. But those efforts have already begun to pay off, as the club returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and are off to a 9-6-1 start in 2022-23.

The Kings have Ontario alumni dotting their roster, but there is plenty of more talent percolating with the Reign.

Byfield and Turcotte were two of four first-round picks in the Ontario line-up facing the Barracuda. Defenseman Tobias Bjornfot was part of the 2019 class, going 22nd overall. Forward Lias Andersson went to the New York Rangers seventh overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, spending time with the Hartford Wolf Pack before eventually moving on to the Kings in a 2020 deal. Forward Akil Thomas, who was selected in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft by the Kings, has broken out offensively in his third pro season and has eight points (five goals, three assists) through 10 games. Those five goals tie Thomas with Andersson for the team lead; right behind them at four goals in eight games is Fagemo, another second-rounder in 2019.

With that high-end youth — supplemented by top-tier veterans like back-to-back AHL most valuable player T.J. Tynan, stalwart defensemen Cameron Gaunce and Frederic Allard, and newly added Pheonix Copley in net — the Reign were expected to be a prime challenger in the West, and they have been exactly that.

Fourth-year pro Matthew Villalta shows a 1.73 goals-against average (third in the AHL) and .945 save percentage (tied for second overall) through four appearances. Offensively the Reign are eighth overall at 3.60 goals per game, and their defense ranks fourth at 2.50 goals against per game. The Ontario power play, which set an AHL record last season clicking at 27.5 percent efficiency, is still buzzing along at 9-for-41 (22.0 percent) this season. Their penalty killers have burned off 33 of 39 opposing man-advantage situations (84.6 percent).

A 4-3 shootout loss in San Jose last night kept the Reign (7-2-1-0, 15 pts.) atop the Western Conference at 15 points, with a visit to Bakersfield on tap for Saturday before a home date with San Diego back home on Sunday afternoon.

Two teams needing points have a chance to grab them tonight when the Utica Comets host the Laval Rocket in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (7 p.m. ET).

Eastern Conference finalists a year ago, the Laval Rocket had an offseason that featured several key player losses that have in part contributed to a 2-6-3-0 to 2022-23. The Rocket will be looking for their first road wins of the season as they visit Utica, Lehigh Valley and Hershey this weekend.

The Comets, meanwhile, are 3-4-0-1 after leading the North Division wire-to-wire last season. Utica stopped a three-game winless streak last Saturday night with a 2-1 win over Rochester.

Utica is without goaltender Akira Schmid, who was recalled last weekend by the New Jersey Devils to replace the injured Mackenzie Blackwood; Schmid earned his first career NHL win in relief of Vitek Vanecek last night. Nico Daws remains with the Comets, and rookie Isaac Poulter, a WHL Central Division Second Team All-Star last season with Swift Current, has been recalled from Adirondack (ECHL).


🏒 Five more AHL products played their first NHL games in the past week. Rockford IceHogs goaltender Dylan Wells got in a period of work in relief for the Chicago Blackhawks last Saturday at Winnipeg. Calgary Wranglers defenseman Nick DeSimone debuted with the Calgary Flames on Monday following 274 games in the AHL. And last night, Grand Rapids’ Jonatan Berggren (Detroit Red Wings), Springfield’s Nikita Alexandrov (St. Louis Blues) and Colorado’s Shane Bowers (Colorado Avalanche) all saw their first NHL action.

🏒 The Colorado Eagles have brought in forward Alex Galchenyuk on a professional tryout. Galchenyuk, who attended training camp with the parent Colorado Avalanche, was selected third overall in the 2012 NHL Draft and has played 643 NHL games with Montreal, Arizona, Pittsburgh Minnesota, Ottawa and Toronto. His only previous AHL experience came during the 2020-21 season, when he rang up eight points (two goals, six assists) in six games with the Toronto Marlies.

Galchenyuk’s arrival is a boost for an Eagles team that has lost forwards Martin Kaut, Shane Bowers and Sampo Ranta to recall this week. Colorado (6-5-0-0, 12 pts.) has won three in a row after sweeping a two-game home set with the Texas Stars to begin the week, and will visit San Jose (Saturday and Sunday) and Bakersfield (Tuesday) on their upcoming road swing.

🏒 The San Jose Barracuda welcomed Ozzy Wiesblatt back to the lineup last night and he scored a third-period go-ahead goal in his season debut, a 4-3 shootout win over Ontario; Wiesblatt went to the parent San Jose Sharks 31st overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. Strauss Mann (32 saves) earned his first AHL victory in the Barracuda net.

🏒 Bridgeport Islanders third-year defenseman Samuel Bolduc has helped to key one of the AHL’s top offenses and power plays. The 21-year-old Bolduc is second among AHL blueliners in scoring with 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in 10 games, with seven of those assists coming on the man-advantage. Bridgeport is a robust 12-for-39 (30.8 percent) on the power play this season.

The Islanders visit Hershey for back-to-back games tonight and Saturday.

🏒 The Coachella Valley Firebirds have flown south for the winter.

Having been based in Seattle, home of the parent Kraken, for the first month of the season, the Firebirds have arrived in the Palm Springs area to begin the process of settling into their new home. There are housing arrangements to set up, a new city to learn, and golf to be played — including a team event this Monday.

Coachella Valley (5-3-0-0, 10 pts.) opened the season with two games in Calgary, four “home” games around Seattle, and two more contests in Abbotsford. They still have 14 more games on the road, beginning tonight in Tucson, before opening Acrisure Arena on Dec. 18.

🏒 At long last the Grand Rapids Griffins are home, but it will not be an easy homecoming — nor will it be very long.

The Griffins wrapped up an eight-game journey Wednesday night at Cleveland, falling to 5-2 to the Monsters to finish 3-5-0-0 on the trip. Grand Rapids hosts the North Division-leading Toronto Marlies (8-2-0-0, 16 pts.) tonight and Saturday and has a Wednesday morning date with Rockford before heading back on the road for a trip to San Diego next weekend.

Grand Rapids remains without forwards Jonatan Berggren, Austin Czarnik and Matt Luff, all on recall to the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings announced that Luff is out 10-12 weeks with a wrist injury suffered on Tuesday.

🏒 After pointed public words for his team following a 7-0 home loss to San Diego on Tuesday, Henderson Silver Knights head coach Manny Viveiros was much more complimentary despite a 2-1 loss at Abbotsford on Thursday.

“I’m very pleased with the way we played,” Viveiros said via audio supplied by the team. “I thought we deserved to win.”

The defeat dropped the Silver Knights’ record to 2-10-0-0 going into Saturday’s rematch with the Canucks. They are averaging a league-low 2.17 goals per game.

“We’re fighting it [offensively],” Viveiros said. “It’s not going to come easily.”

🏒 This weekend is a chance for San Diego to improve on a 4-7-0-0 open to their season and build on that romp in Henderson. The Gulls, who host Bakersfield tonight, have been without injured captain Chase De Leo for all but one game this season, but they did get top-line forward Justin Kirkland back from injury last weekend. Rocco Grimaldi is coming off a four-point night (one goal, three assists) on Tuesday and has moved into a tie for third in AHL scoring at 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 10 games.

🏒 Undrafted rookie forward Luke Toporowski has made a quick impression with the league-leading Providence Bruins. The 21-year-old signed a two-year AHL contract with the Bruins (8-1-1-1, 18 pts.) this summer and has five goals and four assists in 11 games, including a nine-game scoring streak. Toporowski finished with 63 points in 49 games between Spokane and Kamloops in the Western Hockey League last season; he then gathered 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in 16 playoff games.

Toporowski’s father, Kerry, and uncle Shayne both skated in the AHL during the 1990’s.

🏒 With the St. Louis Blues struggling, the Springfield Thunderbirds received a roster shake-up of their own Thursday. St. Louis recalled Thunderbirds forwards Nikita Alexandrov and Josh Leivo and sent forward Jake Neighbours, a 2020 first-round pick, to Springfield. Neighbours, 20, had a goal in 11 games with the Blues.

Springfield visits Lehigh Valley tonight and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday.

🏒 Rookie goaltender Remi Poirier gave the Texas Stars something to ponder before he returned to the ECHL. Poirier made 29 saves in his AHL debut on Wednesday, a 2-1 overtime loss at Colorado. The 21-year-old was a sixth-round pick by Dallas in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Poirier returned to Idaho (ECHL) on Thursday when Matthew Murray returned to Cedar Park from Dallas. The parent Stars also summoned Texas forward Matej Blumel, who is third in AHL rookie scoring with 11 points (five goals, six assists) in nine games.

🏒 Injuries for the Toronto Maple Leafs have left the AHL Marlies with an ever-changing cast in net. Originally set to take a heavy workload with the Marlies, Erik Kallgren instead has been with the Leafs since the first weekend of the AHL season after Matt Murray was injured. Then last week’s injury to netminder Ilya Samsonov led to the Leafs signing the Marlies’ Keith Petruzzelli to a two-year NHL entry-level deal.

The Marlies have summoned Dryden McKay from Newfoundland (ECHL), where he was 4-0-1 with a 2.58 GAA and a .911 save percentage this season. McKay won the Hobey Baker Award as the top men’s collegiate player in the nation at Minnesota State last year.

🏒 Jean-Sebastien Dea has at least a point in six of his past seven contests (three goals, four assists) for Tucson, and Laurent Dauphin had eight points (five goals, three assists) in eight games for the Roadrunners before being recalled to Arizona last weekend. Both Dea and Dauphin joined the Coyotes organization from the Montreal Canadiens during the offseason.

🏒 The Chicago Wolves announced that defenseman Max Lajoie has been named the 14th captain in team history. Lajoie, 25, was an alternate captain last season for the Wolves’ Calder Cup championship team. He is in his sixth pro season and came to the Carolina Hurricanes organization from the Ottawa Senators in a trade for forward Clark Bishop in January 2021.