Weekend notebook: Ringing out 2022

Photo: Mike Zitek

📝 by Patrick Williams

2022 was about revitalization in the American Hockey League following two years of upheaval.

As with the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had upended hockey in 2020. The AHL went dark in March and didn’t return until February 2021, working to construct an abbreviated schedule that enabled NHL prospects to continue their development after nearly a full year away from game action.

Last season then started well before the pandemic’s resurgence once again forced the AHL to scramble in December and January. As 2022 opened, the National Hockey League re-introduced a version of taxi squads that required an influx of players from AHL rosters.

But the AHL came through it and then some.

Simply finishing the 2021-22 schedule marked one success. Fans were back in every arena. The league extended the regular season by a week to accommodate dozens of postponed and rescheduled games, but was able to get in all 1,118 contests. And the reward was a full-fledged Calder Cup postseason, with 23 teams playing a five-round tournament. NHL front offices want their prospects to taste professional playoff hockey, and the new format meant that more than 500 AHL players had a chance to do exactly that.

Scott Howson, who took over as AHL President and CEO in July 2020, finally had his first chance to hand out the Calder Cup when the Chicago Wolves claimed their third AHL title in June.

Howson also accomplished a long-sought goal of a unified schedule. The league and its teams agreed to a 72-game format beginning in 2022-23.

The arrival of the Coachella Valley Firebirds as the new AHL affiliate of the Seattle Kraken brought the league’s membership to a record 32 teams. After managing through the pandemic, finding land and building a new arena, and then hitting the road for more than two months to start their inaugural season, the Firebirds got their payoff on Dec. 18 when they made their home debut in front of a sold-out crowd at Acrisure Arena.

Acrisure was one of three brand-new state-of-the-art AHL buildings to open in 2022. The Henderson Silver Knights moved into Dollar Loan Center in April, and the San Jose Barracuda opened Tech CU Arena in October, giving them their own home for the first time since coming west in 2015.

Also new in the fall of 2022 were the Calgary Wranglers, who relocated from Stockton, Calif., to share Scotiabank Saddledome with their parent club, the Calgary Flames. That move brought the AHL’s Canadian ranks to six teams.

So what’s ahead for 2023?

The AHL All-Star Classic is finally back, with the event being held for the first time since Ontario hosted in 2020. The Laval Rocket will stage the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell after it was postponed in 2021 and 2022.

Even outdoor play will return once again. The Cleveland Monsters are going outside on March 4 when they host the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns. It will be the 11th outdoor game in AHL history, and the first since 2018.


The final AHLTV Free Game of the Week of 2022 is a Central Division tilt between Grand Rapids and Milwaukee tonight (7 ET/6 CT).

The Griffins have a major weapon in their lineup as Jakub Vrana continues a conditioning assignment from the Detroit Red Wings. Vrana played two seasons with the Hershey Bears, including a trip to the Calder Cup Finals as a rookie in 2016, before graduating to the NHL, where he played 323 games with Washington and Detroit and won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018.

Vrana entered the NHL/NHL Players’ Association Player Assistance Program on Oct. 19, returning to active status on Dec. 16.

🏒 Five more AHL players made their NHL debuts in the last week, moving the season total to 37 AHL graduates.

Last Friday, forward Aatu Raty and defenseman Parker Wotherspoon debuted with the parent New York Islanders in a 5-1 win over Florida. Raty, who scored a goal in his first NHL game, is a second-round draft pick in 2021 who has 12 points in 23 games with Bridgeport this season. Wotherspoon, who went to the organization as a 2015 fourth-round pick, spent 293 games with Bridgeport before going to Long Island. He has a goal and 11 assists in 25 AHL appearances this season.

Goaltender Samuel Ersson of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms also made his NHL debut last Friday in the Philadelphia Flyers’ tilt against Carolina, and earned his first NHL victory with 25 saves in a 4-3 overtime win at San Jose last night. Ersson, 23, has taken a heavy workload for the Phantoms following a 2021-22 season sidetracked by injury, playing 18 games and going 9-8-1 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.

Texas forward Fredrik Olofsson, who is in his first full North American pro season after signing with Dallas last May, debuted on Tuesday as the NHL Stars won in Nashville. And Charlotte’s Anton Levtchi made his NHL debut with Florida last night, helping the Panthers to a 7-2 win over Montreal.

🏒 Four of the largest crowds in the AHL this season have already taken in games this week.

Toronto’s annual Boxing Day matinee at Scotiabank Arena drew 11,273 fans to see the Marlies take on Belleville. On Wednesday, both the Hershey Bears (10,515) and Coachella Valley Firebirds (10,087) earned exciting wins in front of sold-out crowds. And on Thursday, 11,569 fans watched the Cleveland Monsters host Charlotte.

🏒 The already red-hot Calgary Wranglers regained another weapon this week with the return of forward Matthew Phillips from the Flames.

Phillips was leading the AHL in scoring before his recall on Dec. 8, and picked up where he left off when he returned on Wednesday. Phillips had two goals, an assist and a team-best five shots in the Wranglers’ 9-2 rout of Bakersfield. Phillips has 17 goals and 16 assists in only 21 appearances in the AHL this season.

🏒 Travis Dermott’s trip back to the AHL with Abbotsford last week on a conditioning assignment from Vancouver left him happy as he worked his way back from a concussion.

Said Dermott on Vancouver’s team website: “It was great. Love all the guys down there. The coaches were great. The training staff was great. Everyone took care of me really well. It was nice just to get my feet underneath me to game speed. Get some game touches and just be as ready as I can be for whenever I jump in here.”

Dermott got his chance last night, making his NHL season debut in Vancouver’s visit to Winnipeg.

🏒 Charlotte’s 3-2 win in Cleveland last night was their first road victory since Nov. 19, and their third straight win overall on the heels of a five-game losing streak. Grigori Denisenko picked up two goals and an assist in the victory.

The Checkers sit fourth in the Atlantic Division going into the weekend. They are back at it in Cleveland on Saturday afternoon to continue a five-game road trip.

🏒 The Hartford Wolf Pack, 28th in the AHL at 2.76 goals per game, have scored 15 goals in their last three contests. They dialed up a season-high seven goals in a win at Bridgeport on Tuesday, their highest output this season and their first seven-goal game on the road since Apr. 8, 2016.

Leading the way has been forward Ryan Carpenter, who joined the club earlier this month from the New York Rangers. Carpenter recorded a hat trick against Bridgeport and is now tied for the team lead with seven goals, all coming in his last five outings.

🏒 Hershey is on the verge of break the race for first place in the AHL wide open.

Already seven points ahead of the field, the Bears (22-6-2-1, 47 points) host Providence on New Year’s Eve after shutting out the Bruins in a 1-0 masterpiece on Wednesday night, kicking off a seven-game homestand. Hunter Shepard outdueled Brandon Bussi in a battle of two of the league’s top goaltenders.

With the win, Hershey’s Todd Nelson earned coaching honors for the Atlantic Division for the upcoming 2023 AHL All-Star Classic. The head coach of the team with the best record in each of the AHL’s four divisions after play on Sunday, Jan. 1, will receives that honor.

🏒 Joining Nelson in the head-coaching contingent in Laval for the AHL All-Star Classic will be Toronto’s Greg Moore.

Moore will guide the North Division, thanks to the Marlies’ 19-8-1-1 record following a 4-2 win at Belleville on Wednesday. Moore took over the Marlies’ post midway through the 2019-20 season after Sheldon Keefe’s promotion to the Toronto Maple Leafs and has gone 84-75-5-5. He is the third Marlies head coach to earn All-Star honors, joining Keefe (2016, 2018) and Dallas Eakins (2013). Moore went to the AHL All-Star Classic as a forward with Hartford in 2008.

🏒 The Iowa Wild have a new captain.

The team announced Wednesday that defenseman Dakota Mermis will take over the role from Mason Shaw, who has been on recall to the Minnesota Wild since Oct. 21. Mermis, who won the Yanick Dupré Memorial Award as the AHL Person of the Year last season for his community work, also captained Tucson in 2018-19.

Mermis went out on Wednesday night and recorded a goal and two assists as Iowa ended a five-game losing streak with a 5-3 win over Colorado.

🏒 One hot club meets another tonight as the Manitoba Moose host Abbotsford.

Manitoba is only four points behind Central Division leader Texas and owns three games in hand on the Stars. The Moose have had a road-heavy slate, playing 13 of their past 17 games on the road. But they have gone 9-4-1-1 in that span and have a four-game winning streak. They face a Canucks team that has taken nine wins in its past 11 games. The clubs, who split a two-game series in Abbotsford three weeks ago, will also meet Saturday afternoon for Manitoba’s annual New Year’s Eve home game.

🏒 Quinton Byfield’s recall from the Ontario Reign to the Los Angeles Kings this week also meant a change for Alex Turcotte.

Turcotte, the fifth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, had been on the left side of a line with Byfield and Tyler Madden. But wth Byfield gone, Turcotte went back to his natural center position Wednesday night on a line with Taylor Ward and Samuel Fagemo for the team’s game at Coachella Valley. Turcotte responded with a goal and an assist in the Reign’s 7-6 loss to their new I-10 rival.

🏒 The Rochester Americans are paying tribute to their storied past and an AHL Hall of Fame member.

To honor the late Joe Crozier, Rochester announced that the team will wear a red-white-and-blue “JC” jersey patch for the rest of the season. Crozier, who passed away on Oct. 11 at 93, served the Amerks as a head coach and general manager and guided the team to three Calder Cup championships in the 1960s. He is one of only six AHL head coaches ever to win the Calder Cup at least three times.

🏒 Coming to the Chicago Blackhawks organization has paid off so far for David Gust, an Orland Park, Ill., native.

Signed by the Blackhawks in the offseason, the Rockford forward grabbed his second hat trick in seven games in the IceHogs’ 4-1 win against Grand Rapids on Wednesday. With 17 goals now, he is one away from matching his AHL career high set with Bakersfield in 2018-19. He needed 59 games that season; tonight’s game with the Wolves would be his 30th appearance this season.

🏒 Lehigh Valley fans can stick around for a New Year’s Eve celebration following Saturday night’s home battle with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Among the post-game activities will be the “World’s Largest Puck Drop” on Hamilton Street outside PPL Center, featuring a 20-foot, 1,000-pound illuminated puck emblazoned with the Phantoms logo.

🏒 John McCarthy always was an honest captain during his playing days, and that has not changed now that he has stepped behind an AHL bench.

The AHL is a place to learn the pro game, and a rocky experience can be part of that growth process. And the first-year Barracuda head coach is not shy about publicly challenging his team. Already down 2-0 to Bakersfield at home Tuesday, a turnover deep in the offensive zone allowed Condors defenseman Michael Kesselring to go the other way and score with only two seconds to go in the first period. The Barracuda went on to lose, 5-1, and have a six-game losing streak.

“It was completely controllable,” McCarthy told reporters after the game. “We dove into the [offensive-zone] blue line four-on-four. We have to change these things about our game in order to have success. We have to stay above pucks. We can’t dive in. We have to win battles. All those things we talk about, winning habits of a hockey team, were absent from our game, in my opinion.

“We’ve got to make the decision if we want to do the hard things to win. They’re hard by nature. Stopping [on pucks] is harder than swinging. Going through somebody is harder than not going through them. Being hard on your stick is harder than waving it.”

The Barracuda have a chance to answer McCarthy’s challenge going into home dates with Coachella Valley tonight and Saturday.