Weekend notebook: Roster upheaval creates chances for newcomers

Photo: Kelly Shea

📝 by Patrick Williams

Three goaltenders unavailable.

Five top defenseman, gone.

Four of the team’s top five forwards ― not available.

And one win.

Hartford Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch faced that picture going into a road game Wednesday night against the rival Bridgeport Islanders. They left Webster Bank Arena with a 3-2 win on a Justin Richards goal with 2:21 remaining. Just up from Jacksonville of the ECHL, Wolf Pack goaltender Francois Brassard put together a 31-save victory in his AHL debut.

Now Knoblauch and the Wolf Pack will try to pull off the feat again in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (3 ET/noon PT) when the Providence Bruins visit XL Center this afternoon in one of the AHL’s longest-running rivalries.

To fend off roster issues created by COVID-19, this week the National Hockey League re-implemented taxi squads through at least the NHL All-Star break in early February. That move will allow an NHL team to carry up to six players on its taxi squad. Naturally, those players will come from where players typically come from ― the American Hockey League. The result has been more than 260 transactions involving AHL players since the start of business Dec. 26. Mix in league COVID-19 protocols and standard day-to-day injuries, and AHL clubs have been scrambling this week, Hartford included.

“I think it couldn’t be any more busy than it is right now for our team,” Knoblauch said.

To start the week, the Wolf Pack saw number-one netminder Keith Kinkaid depart for the parent New York Rangers. Adam Huska, his goaltending partner, headed to New York to join a taxi squad that also included defensemen Zac Jones and Matthew Robertson and forwards Morgan Barron, Tim Gettinger, and captain Jonny Brodzinski. Injuries have also hit the Wolf Pack: top defense prospects Braden Schneider and Tarmo Reunanen each missed a second consecutive game Wednesday.

With a lineup to fill out in Bridgeport, the Wolf Pack started working the phones. Joining Brassard from Jacksonville were defenseman Zach Berzolla and forwards Jake Elmer and Brandon Fortunato.

That took care of four spots.

Next came defenseman Michael Brodzinski ― Jonny’s brother ― and Aaron Luchuk from Orlando of the ECHL. Goaltender Tyler Wall is also out of the Hartford lineup, so the Wolf Pack put a call in for goaltender Brandon Kasel with Adirondack (ECHL). To round out the group, defenseman Mike Lee arrived from ECHL.

Now Knoblauch had to round up those new faces and turn them into a usable line-up against a stubborn Bridgeport club. The eight players had combined for 114 career AHL games, and four of them had yet to ever play in the NHL’s top developmental league. Even with those moves, the Wolf Pack had to go one skater short Wednesday; all but Luchuk dressed against Bridgeport. Tasked with incorporating seven new ― and largely unfamiliar ― players into an already made-over lineup, Knoblauch leaned toward simplicity.

“We give them the necessities… you don’t want to [overburden] them thinking too much,” Hartford’s third-year head coach said. “We want them playing hockey ― that’s most important thing ― and playing off their instincts.”

Only Anthony Greco remained from Hartford’s top-six line that also featured their captain and Gettinger.

“[Brodzinski is] our leader,” Knoblauch said of Hartford’s top scorer with 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 23 games. “Our leading point guy, on the power play, the penalty kill, top face-off guy. Jonny’s a big part of our team, and usually when our team is having success and winning, he’s playing well and contributing.”

The challenge from 11-8-3-1 Providence on New Year’s Eve afternoon will not give the Wolf Pack much time to regroup. Out of action since Dec. 17 and having battled COVID-19 themselves, the P-Bruins have been getting back to health of late. The teams have gone to overtime twice and to a shootout once in their three meetings this season, with the Wolf Pack taking two wins.

“They’re a good hockey team,” Knoblauch said. “Very well-coached and disciplined with their systems. A tough team. They’re heavy. They’re not a perimeter [team]. They do have skill, but they play very physical and in your face. So it’s a very intense game every time, and it’s an exciting game.

“It’s [an opponent] I think is a good challenge for us.”

While all of these moves are a challenge collectively, they mean opportunities individually.

Brassard, 27 years old and in his fourth pro season, has struggled to find playing time. With prospects like Huska and Wall on the organizational depth chart, Brassard was squeezed out of the Hartford goaltending picture last season; he spent the year with Pittsburgh’s ECHL affiliate in Wheeling and only got into nine games.

Brassard arrived for Wednesday’s game not having had a practice with the Wolf Pack this season.

“We feel he is a good goalie,” Knoblauch said. “[Wednesday] he finally got his opportunity. He played very well.”

Overcoming roster losses is “what the American League is about,” Knoblauch said.

“It’s not too often I’ve ever coached where I’ve been missing 15 players at one time, but it’s an opportunity for other guys to have a chance.”


In a week filled with moves to and from the NHL, a pair of AHL forwards have found themselves on the move via an old-fashioned trade.

On Wednesday the Minnesota Wild sent Will Bitten to the St. Louis Blues organization for Nolan Stevens.

The 25-year-old Stevens had 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 20 games with the Springfield Thunderbirds this season. A 2016 fifth-round pick by the Blues, the deal is the first for Stevens, who is in his fourth pro season. Minnesota subsequently assigned him to Iowa.

Bitten, 23, had been with the Wild organization since a trade from the Montreal Canadiens in Oct. 2018; he finished with eight points (three goals, five assists) in 23 games for Iowa this season and has been assigned to the Thunderbirds.

Stevens is the son of Dallas Stars assistant coach John Stevens, a member of the AHL Hall of Fame, and the younger brother of Abbotsford Canucks forward John Stevens.


What a day ― and what a week ― for the Rochester Americans.

Tuesday saw eight players involved in Amerks-related transactions. Then on Wednesday, hours before a home meeting versus Providence, six more players either arrived or departed from the Rochester roster. With goaltender Mat Robson unable to dress, Rochester called on local netminder Bryan Haude to back up that night’s starter, Michael Houser.

Head coach Seth Appert also went one skater short, after Rochester lost forwards Peyton Krebs, JJ Peterka, and Arttu Ruotsalainen along with defensemen Casey Fitzgerald and Ethan Prow to recall by the parent Buffalo Sabres.

In between all of the off-ice activity, the Amerks fended off a late Bruins push to nail down a 5-3 win on Wednesday. Captain Michael Mersch supplied two goals and two assists; the long-time AHL power forward’s 16 goals rank him first in the league.

Buffalo then recalled forwards Brandon Biro and Ryan MacInnis along with defenseman Oskari Laaksonen following Wednesday’s game.

The Amerks will pack up their bus and head to New England for games at Springfield on Saturday and Hartford on Sunday.


Bakersfield Condors goaltender Stuart Skinner returned to the AHL in style Wednesday night.

Assigned to the Condors by the Edmonton Oilers earlier in the day, Skinner flew to Los Angeles and subsequently was driven to Bakersfield in time for the game that night against the Ontario Reign. Skinner immediately suited up and went out to deliver 24 saves in his first AHL action since Oct. 17. Behind Skinner’s work in net and two goals from Cooper Marody, the Condors picked up a second point when Seth Griffith converted a breakaway 36 seconds into overtime for a 4-3 triumph.

Skinner’s return also came with Ilya Konovalov with Edmonton on taxi-squad duty. Skinner, 23, went 4-5-0 in 10 games for the Oilers with a 2.70 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. His 20 wins last season with Bakersfield led the AHL.

Now the 8-8-1-3 Condors will leave town for a six-game road trip that starts Saturday against the Henderson Silver Knights, moves to Ontario on Sunday, and then goes north for four consecutive games at Abbotsford; two of those games are make-ups for postponements caused by flooding in the Abbotsford area in November. The Condors’ next home date is not until Jan. 14 against the Stockton Heat.


The decision to shut down the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship due to COVID-19 has led to some top talent returning to the AHL earlier than expected.

The Winnipeg Jets have reassigned Cole Perfetti from the Canadian entry to the Manitoba Moose. Perfetti, who turns 20 on Saturday, has 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 17 AHL games this season. In a pair of games for Canada at the tournament, he racked up a goal and five assists.

Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Donovan Sebrango has been returned to the club by the Detroit Red Wings after playing two games for Canada at the tournament. Sebrango, 19, scored once for Canada and has three assists in 20 games with the Griffins. He went to Detroit as a 2020 third-round pick.

Ontario has gotten Swedish defenseman Helge Grans back; Grans has supplied eight points (three goals, five assists) in 16 games for the Reign and added three assists in two games with Sweden.

Decisions on the next stop for Utica Comets forward Alexander Holtz (Sweden), Belleville Senators forward Roby Jarventie (Finland), and Rockford defenseman Michael Krutil (Czechia) have not been announced by their respective NHL organizations.


🏒 Hershey forward Ryan Dmowski scored in a 6-1 home defeat of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Wednesday, giving him goals in five straight games. The 24-year-old has six goals and nine points in his last five games; he had totaled six goals and 11 points in 57 career AHL games before this stretch. In all, the Bears have taken five of their past seven contests to move to 14-9-2-1 and a hold on third place in the Atlantic Division.

🏒 Syracuse faced a trying December with eight games postponed due to league COVID-19 protocols. The Crunch have not played since a visit to the Toronto Marlies on Dec. 15, and is scheduled to return to action on Jan. 5 at Rochester.

🏒 Going into weekend play, the Utica Comets are on a seven-game point run (5-0-2-0) as they prepare to meet the Lehigh Valley Phantoms at home on New Year’s Eve, their first game since Dec. 17. Utica still has just one regulation loss all season (18-1-2-0), while the Phantoms are on their own streak of points in five straight (4-0-0-1).

🏒 Stockton’s 7-0-0-1 streak has kept the Heat (18-2-2-1 overall) in the Pacific Division lead. Stockton, which is 11-0-2-0 on home ice this season, entertains San Jose in a New Year’s Eve matinee.

🏒 The Chicago Wolves’ 12-game winning streak remains on hold as their weekend games were postponed. The streak has tied a franchise record, and their 20 wins this season best all AHL teams.

🏒 Andrew Hammond of Iowa, who has a league-high three shutouts, returned from an injury Wednesday for his first action since Nov. 27 and made 31 saves in a 3-2 overtime victory over Colorado.

🏒 Rochester (24-for-86) still holds the AHL’s best power play at 27.9 percent. Stockton continues to lead the AHL on the penalty kill at 90.5 percent (86-for-95). Springfield scored its league-leading sixth shorthanded goal on Tuesday night at Bridgeport.


🏒 Thirteen AHL players have made their NHL debuts already this week alone, bringing the total for the season up to 87. The fifth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Alex Turcotte made his NHL debut with Los Angeles on Tuesday night. Rochester call-ups JJ Peterka and Ethan Prow made their NHL debuts for Buffalo on Wednesday, with the sixth-year pro Prow scoring a goal. Rafaël Harvey-Pinard scored a goal for Montreal in his debut on Tuesday; he was joined by Corey Schueneman (Tuesday) and Brandon Baddock (Thursday) as newcomers in the Canadiens lineup. Defenseman Alex Alexeyev became the sixth Hershey Bears player this season to debut in the NHL with the Washington Capitals. The Syracuse Crunch saw Sean Day, Darren Raddysh and Hugo Alnefelt join the growing list of alumni with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Tucson forward Michael Carcone made his NHL debut with the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday following 306 AHL games across parts of six seasons. Defenseman Dmitri Samorukov’s NHL debut came with Edmonton on Wednesday after his recall from Bakersfield, and Felix Sandstrom made 43 saves and was named the game’s third star in Philadelphia’s 3-2 overtime loss at San Jose on Thursday.

🏒 Stockton rookie Dustin Wolf was recalled by the Calgary Flames on Thursday and dressed as the back-up for their 6-4 win at Seattle. Wolf is 14-0-2 in 16 starts for the Heat this season with a 1.84 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage.

🏒 Milwaukee Admirals forward Michael McCarron scored for Nashville on Thursday night, his first NHL goal in nearly five years. The Predators recalled McCarron from Milwaukee on Dec. 12; he has produced six points (three goals, three assists) in 14 AHL games this season.

🏒 The Laval Rocket have brought in veteran wing Devante Smith-Pelly on a professional tryout deal. The veteran of 395 NHL games and former second-round draft pick last played with Ontario last season, collecting one assist in 14 games. For his career, Smith-Pelly has 91 points (47 goals, 44 assists) in 158 AHL contests with Ontario, Hershey, Norfolk and Syracuse.

🏒 In need of blueline help with three regular defensemen on recall to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Syracuse has added NHL veteran Jason Garrison on a professional tryout. Garrison’s first two pro seasons (2008-10) were spent with the Rochester Americans, where his head coach was current Crunch bench boss Ben Groulx.


The final games of 2021 begin with a matinee in Iowa as the Wild complete their two-game series with the Eagles… In Stockton, the Heat welcome the San Jose Barracuda to start a home-and-home set that concludes Sunday in San Jose… Milwaukee visits Grand Rapids, and Ontario will usher out 2021 at home against Henderson… On New Year’s Day, Belleville heads on the road to play the second of three games in a row against Toronto; that game will air live on TSN4 (Saturday, 3 ET)… Bridgeport goes to Lehigh Valley, and the Griffins-Admirals two-game set finishes in Milwaukee… Sunday’s slate includes Bridgeport moving on to Hershey for an afternoon meeting with the Bears, the Thunderbirds in Providence, and Iowa going to Winnipeg for the first of two games with the Moose.


“I think when you can allow new guys to be comfortable, it allows them to play their game on the ice. That’s how I feel when I’m in a new environment, so I try to help other guys feel that way, too.”

— Rochester captain Michael Mersch on leading the Amerks’ welcome committee.