📝 by Patrick Williams
The influx is well underway.
All 32 National Hockey League teams are busily shaping rosters, including sending young talent to the American Hockey League to continue their development.
For some players, these decisions have put their NHL hopes on hold, at least for the moment. Perhaps it was an expected move for a player. Or a near-miss for a player on the brink of the NHL. For others, it might be a fresh start with a new NHL organization. Or it could mean 24 hours on the NHL waiver wire, wondering what the next move might be. What also will follow for players is a scramble to hammer out logistical work like finding housing for the winter.
Whatever the case, and whatever happened last season, October represents a clean sheet. The AHL preseason schedule begins today, and the bid to further impress the decision-makers will continue.
Eastern Conference prospects were profiled previously. Next come the Western Conference up-and-comers:
The AHL now has a home in Calgary, where the Flames have continued a league-wide trend of stationing their AHL prospects much closer to home.
Last season in Stockton, Calif., those Flames prospects went to the Western Conference Finals, pushing the eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves to six games in a tightly played series. Now Flames management – and hockey fans who make their way out to Scotiabank Saddledome this season – will be able to see many of those Flames hopefuls up-close.
Leading the way will be standout goaltender Dustin Wolf, whose dream rookie season included winning the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the league’s most outstanding goaltender. Wolf immediately took to the AHL following an excellent Western Hockey League career, playing 47 games as a rookie and going 33-9-4 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He then took that level even higher on that spring run, winning eight of his 13 decisions to go with his 2.23 GAA and .929 save percentage.
But the Flames, with Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar already on the NHL roster, are positioned to give the 21-year-old Wolf additional time in the AHL. What might he do for an encore with the Wranglers?
The battle for an NHL role continues for Calgary native Matthew Phillips as well. A familiar playmaker at the AHL level, he broke out even further last season, tying for eighth in league scoring with 68 points (31 goals, 37 assists). As both the Flames and Phillips work to get him to the AHL, it will be worth watching to see how he furthers his game with the Wranglers.
Defenseman Ryan O’Rourke is back, albeit after an unconventional detour.
Taken in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft by the Minnesota Wild, O’Rourke spent the 2020-21 season with Iowa because the Ontario Hockey League did not play that season. That meant that O’Rourke was able to take on the role of an AHL defenseman at only 18 years old. However, the NHL’s player agreement with the Canadian Hockey League meant that O’Rourke had to return to the OHL last season to complete his junior career, and he ended up with 46 points (10 goals, 36 assists) in 51 games for Sault Ste. Marie in 2021-22.
Now O’Rourke is once again in Iowa. With 33 AHL games of experience, O’Rourke is that much more prepared to face AHL-level competition as a 20-year-old.
The Los Angeles Kings seemingly have an endless flow of top-notch prospects preparing with the Reign for eventual NHL duty.
Producing an NHL-level defenseman often requires a slow-and-steady development plan, and the Kings are going that route with 20-year-old Helge Grans, one of their second-round selections from the 2020 NHL Draft. Grans continued his education this summer when he represented bronze-medalist Sweden at the World Junior Championship and served up four assists in seven appearances. He played 56 games last season with the Reign (seven goals, 17 assists), sampled Calder Cup Playoff competition for the first time, and can be expected to take a heavy role this season in Ontario.
After wrapping up his season in Finland with Liiga club JYP Jyvaskyla, 2021 second-round pick Samuel Helenius took on additional work with the Reign in a late-season move. With those 12 games behind him, he will be able to settle in from the start with Ontario this season. Forward Akil Thomas, a 2018 second-round pick by the Kings, will be back as well for his third pro season with the Reign. In a 2021-22 season limited to 40 games, he finished with 13 points (eight goals, five assists). And after being held to 14 games as a rookie forward in 2020-21, Tyler Madden made himself comfortable with the Reign last season as he posted 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) in 48 games.
The parent Chicago Blackhawks have undertaken a full rebuild, and the team to the west in Rockford will take a vital role in that process.
Undrafted and signed from Skelleftea of the Swedish Hockey League in May 2021, goaltender Arvid Soderblom has emerged as one of Chicago’s leading prospects, and last season did nothing to change that belief, either. Soderblom, 23, led all Rockford goaltenders with 38 outings, and he delivered a 21-15-2 record with a 2.76 GAA and .919 save percentage. Although Rockford went out in last spring’s Central Division semifinal series against the Wolves, Soderblom earned five games of postseason play and had a .925 save percentage.
SAN DIEGO GULLS
To the south of the Reign are the archrival Gulls, a team with its own bevy of impressive youth. The Kings-Anaheim Ducks rivalry is intensifying again, and those battles also play out between the Reign and Gulls.
The third season in the AHL can often be the one in which goaltenders become dominant; Lukas Dostal could be that netminder for San Diego. A 2018 third-round pick by the Ducks, the 22-year-old Dostal enters his third year after appearing in 40 games in 2021-22, putting up an 18-14-4 record paired with a 2.60 GAA and .916 save percentage.
Already possessing an extensive international resume at the junior level, Dostal’s work with the Gulls impressed enough decision-makers to land him a spot with the Czech club that took a bronze medal at the World Championship in Finland this past May.
UP NEXT: A breakdown of some of the brand-new faces – 2022 NHL Draft first-round picks included – who will advance to the AHL this season.
TheAHL.com features writer Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.