Weekend notebook: Teams gearing up with five weeks left

📝 by Patrick Williams

Another day, another deadline.

The last of them arrives today at 3 p.m. ET with the AHL’s trade/loan deadline.

One week after the National Hockey League trade deadline passed, the AHL’s own roster deadline is set for this afternoon. It will be one last opportunity for an NHL organization to tinker with its AHL roster before the Calder Cup Playoffs (save for incoming junior and college players). After today, it will be a full sprint to the end of the regular season April 16.

When the AHL expanded its playoff field to 23 teams last season, it was a move made to provide postseason experience for more players across the league. Last season more than 500 players had an opportunity to compete in the Calder Cup Playoffs, a prime goal for NHL organizations.

That bigger pool of playoff teams also means that more clubs are remaining in contention longer. Along with the clubs that currently hold the 23 available playoff spots across the AHL, seven more teams are within eight or fewer points.

New York Rangers assistant general manager Ryan Martin also doubles as the general manager in Hartford. His Wolf Pack remain in the thick of the Atlantic Division playoff race and undertook a significant retooling last week leading up to the NHL trade deadline, bringing in defensemen Adam Clendening and Wyatt Kalynuk plus forwards Anton Blidh, Jake Leschyshyn and Will Lockwood for Hartford’s playoff chase. Two points out of an Atlantic Division playoff spot, the Wolf Pack are in Rochester tonight and Toronto on Saturday afternoon. A successful run would put the Pack back into the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015.

“You can be in sixth, seventh or eighth place and still be playing really meaningful games the last third of the season,” Martin said. “A few years ago, by Christmas you could be done, basically, and be like, ‘Well, this year’s over.’”

“This is a way better set-up. Every night it’s almost like a playoff game. It’s not only getting into the playoffs, it’s playing those meaningful games that’s critical for player development.”

Clendening brings help to a Wolf Pack power play that is ranked 31st in the league at 15.2 percent. Fourteen of his 26 points this season have come on the power play, and the two-time AHL All-Star has been one of the league’s top offensive defenseman for the better part of the past decade.

The deal to Hartford caught Clendening by surprise, but he has ties to the organization; Clendening played 31 games for New York in 2016-17, and won a bronze medal at the 2021 IIHF World Championship for Team USA, which was managed by Rangers GM Chris Drury.

“I think there’s a lot of talent, a lot of depth, especially with a couple of the other guys that we’ve brought in now,” Clendening said. “It’s definitely a deep team.”

Along with the Wolf Pack, a number of AHL teams have already made moves to address roster needs as they move into the final five weeks of the regular season. Tucson added defensive help Thursday, bringing in veteran Steven Kampfer from Grand Rapids. Still dealing with several player recalls to Nashville, Milwaukee picked up veteran forward Anthony Angello, who had been with Springfield. Belleville received forward Graham McPhee from Bakersfield for defenseman Xavier Bernard. Colorado acquired forward Kale Kessy from Hershey.

In Rockford, Mark Bernard, who serves as general manager of the IceHogs as well as the vice president of hockey operations/team affiliates for the parent Chicago Blackhawks, loaded up for a playoff run this spring, starting with sniper Rocco Grimaldi and his 27 goals in 54 games arriving from San Diego last week. The IceHogs added size up front with Hunter Drew, a veteran defenseman in Andy Welinski, and NHL experience in net via goaltender Anton Khudobin. Joey Anderson, acquired from Toronto, is eligible to come down from the Blackhawks, as is second-year pro Lukas Reichel.

Sitting fourth in the Central Division at 62 points, the IceHogs visit Grand Rapids tonight before heading to Chicago on Saturday.

“I think once some guys get back, it’s going to be an even deeper team and has the potential to have a long playoff run, so that’s what I’m excited for,” Grimaldi said.

Said Drew, “I think it’s just an excited mindset. Guys are here now, and it’s time to win. Really dialing it in and talking about ways to make it happen. With this group and everyone that’s been brought in or guys who have been here, it’s like, ‘This is a good team.’

“It’s a good squad, and I think guys are excited to produce and bring exciting hockey to Rockford.”

The trade of Clendening will also give Alex Vlasic a chance to run the Rockford power play, according to Bernard. A second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Vlasic turned pro last spring after three seasons at Boston University and appeared in 15 games with the Blackhawks. In 45 games with the IceHogs this season, the 6-foot-6 Vlasic has 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) and a plus-10 rating.

Done correctly, work this week can go a long way toward success come May and June, extended playoff experience for prospects, and a chance to chase the Calder Cup. Last season the Chicago Wolves landed Richard Panik on loan from the New York Islanders, and he became a key part of their eventual Calder Cup run.

Hartford, Rockford and several other clubs have taken steps in hopes of finding their own spring success. They could have more company soon enough.

Said Martin, “Our goal is to win a Calder Cup.”

The Pacific Division playoff race takes center stage tonight when San Jose visits Bakersfield in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).

The Condors are coming off a wild 6-5 home win Wednesday against Central Division leader Texas; up 5-3 midway through the third period, the Condors surrendered two goals before Justin Bailey’s power-play tally with 2:36 to go put the win away. The Condors are on an 8-3-0-1 run and sit sixth in the Pacific Division, two points clear of the playoff line.

The Barracuda are coming off their own impressive win, a 6-2 decision in Ontario on Wednesday night. With a 5-2-1-1 mark in its last nine, San Jose is three points behind seventh-place Tucson for the last playoff spot in the division.


🏒 Three more AHL names joined the list of players making their NHL debut this season, which is now at 62.

Hershey Bears rookie defenseman Vincent Iorio debuted with the Washington Capitals last Saturday, and picked up an assist on an Alex Ovechkin goal in an 8-3 win at San Jose. Iorio, 20, was a second-round pick by the Capitals in 2021 and has been a steady presence for the Bears with 17 points (two goals, 15 assists) and a plus-12 rating in 51 games.

Traded to Arizona on March 2, defenseman Michael Kesselring made his NHL debut a night later as the Coyotes hosted Carolina. The 23-year-old Kesselring has scored 13 goals this season, one off the AHL lead among blueliners.

And on Thursday, Tyson Foerster skated in his first NHL game for Philadelphia as the Flyers visited the Hurricanes. Foerster, a first-round choice (23rd overall) in the 2021 NHL Draft, is tied for the team scoring lead with 38 points (18 goals, 20 assists) in 56 games for Lehigh Valley this season.

🏒 A memorable week became even more so on Thursday night for Chicago Wolves netminder Pyotr Kochetkov, who made 19 saves in Carolina’s 1-0 win over Philadelphia. It was his fourth shutout in 19 NHL starts this season.

Last Friday in Winnipeg, Kochetkov scored a shorthanded empty-net goal — the 20th goaltender in AHL history to record a goal — and made 39 saves in a 4-1 win over Manitoba. He also racked up 44 minutes in penalties over the weekend, including game misconducts both Friday and Sunday.

Kochetkov, 23, is 13-5-2 in 20 appearances for the Wolves this season with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

🏒 Look out for the Belleville Senators, whose late-season hunt has heated up despite a patchwork line-up.

On Wednesday at Laval, the Senators closed out their season series with the Rocket with a 5-1 win. If Belleville ends up edging out the Rocket for a North Division playoff spot, look no further than the teams’ season series, in which the Sens won nine of 12 meetings. Jake Lucchini put up 19 points in 12 games against Laval; he has 23 points in 34 games against the rest of the league.

Wednesday’s win pulled the B-Sens to within one point of the Rocket for the fifth and final North Division playoff spot. The Senators stay on the road this weekend, visiting Utica tonight and Lehigh Valley on Saturday.

🏒 Providence Bruins goaltender Kyle Keyser loves going to Hershey, even if Bears fans do not always return the sentiment.

Last Saturday night, Keyser made 22 saves in a crucial 1-0 Bruins win at Giant Center. Named the game’s first star, Keyser took his post-game spin on the ice and gave a good-natured fist pump to the capacity crowd of 10,520 Hershey fans.

“This is a good crowd here,” the always-affable Keyser smiled afterward. “Every time we play here, it’s sold out, and they like to get on the opposing goalie. They were booing me the whole game. So, you know, sometimes you’ve got to give them a little bit of it back, but in a good way and a respectful manner.”

Providence, which won two of its three visits to Hershey this season, hosts the Bears on Saturday and Sunday as the teams continue to jockey for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Hershey enters the weekend with a one-point lead on the Bruins.

🏒 The Milwaukee Admirals and Texas Stars suddenly have company in their battle for first place in the Central Division.

Manitoba, 9-1-1-1 since the All-Star break, is now tied with the Admirals for second place, one point behind the Stars. All three teams have 17 games remaining entering the weekend. Following a win and an overtime loss in Abbotsford earlier this week, the Moose continue their seven-game road swing with two games in Iowa this weekend.

The Wild, meanwhile, have been on their own run lately. Since a nine-game winless slide, Iowa has won four of its last five and has built an eight-point lead on Chicago for the Central Division’s fifth and final playoff spot. The Wild begin the weekend without rookie forward Sammy Walker, recalled to Minnesota on Thursday; Walker is tied for first in the AHL’s rookie scoring race with 24 goals and 44 points.

🏒 Springfield’s Joel Hofer continued his dominance of the Hartford Wolf Pack on Wednesday with a 31-save effort in the Thunderbirds’ 4-0 victory at MassMutual Center. It was Hofer’s second shutout of the Wolf Pack in a span of six days.

The reigning Howies Hockey Tape/AHL Player of the Week has allowed three goals on 111 shots over his last four starts, good for a 0.74 GAA and a .973 save percentage. He is 6-1-1 against Hartford this season, surrendering just 13 goals (1.59, .949).

🏒 First overall in the AHL with 83 points, the Calgary Wranglers will become very familiar with hotels over the final five weeks of the regular season.

The Wranglers swept Colorado in a pair of games at Scotiabank Saddledome this week, leaving them with only four home games remaining on the schedule. Calgary starts a four-game trip with two games in Ontario this weekend.

At 19-6-1-0 (.750), the Wranglers own the second-best road record in the AHL. They are also two points away from becoming the first team to clinch a berth in the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs.

🏒 Calgary’s closest pursuer, the Coachella Valley Firebirds are plenty familiar with long road trips of their own. Now they are playing 14 of their final 20 games on home ice, a stretch that began with a 6-3 win over Henderson on Wednesday.

The Firebirds have five games in hand on Calgary and are only three points behind the Wranglers for the AHL lead. Coachella Valley’s .755 points percentage is tops in the AHL, and is on pace to shatter the record for a first-year club currently held by the 1969-70 Montreal Voyageurs (43-15-14, .694).

With six wins in their last seven games, the Firebirds host Texas twice this weekend.


🗣️ “Part of [the development process] is the struggle. It’s real important to struggle and figure out how to reset and get it back.”

— Providence Bruins head coach Ryan Mougenel