AHL Central News: 2020-21 Season Preview

The American Hockey League has not played since March 11, 2020. That will all change tonight as the 2020-21 season will finally begin. Four of the six teams of the new Central Division will be in action on the first night of the most unique season in the AHL’s 85-year history.

Just like in the National Hockey League, the AHL realigned their divisions for just season due to health concerns and travel restrictions. The Central has gone from eight teams a season ago to six.

The San Antonio Rampage are no more. They were sold last season to the Vegas Golden Knights and were moved to Nevada. They will play their first game as the Henderson Silver Knights on Saturday and play in the Pacific Division.

The Manitoba Moose have been moved to the five-team Canadian Division for the season. Finally, the Milwaukee Admirals, the best team in the league last season, has opted not to participate in 2020-21. They are one of three teams that suspended operations this season, with the other two being the Charlotte Checkers and Springfield Thunderbirds.

This season will one like no other we have ever seen. Teams are playing schedules of different lengths across five divisions. There will be very few fans if any at all. Some teams are playing in entirely different cities. Some are playing at practice facilities instead of their home arenas. It is still undetermined if there will be any sort of playoffs and a modified and temporary CBA was agreed on just a couple of days before the drop of the puck. 

The 2020-21 AHL season is going to be fluid with plans changing on the drop of the time. Once again, we will be your first stop for all the AHL Central Division news throughout the course of the season.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at the six teams that will be duking it out for the Central crown this season.

Chicago Wolves

2019-20 Results: 27-26-5-3 (62 pts, 4th place in the Central)

Key Subtractions: The entire 2019-20 roster and coaching staff

Key Additions: The entire 2020-21 roster and coaching staff

The Wolves spent the last three seasons as the Golden Knights’ affiliate but were without an NHL parent club after Vegas bought the Rampage. They now enter this whacky season with two affiliates. They became the new AHL team of the Carolina Hurricanes and then they agreed to take on prospects from the Nashville Predators after the Admirals opted out of the season. This leaves them with a pretty stacked roster.

Speaking of which, this roster features only one player who has ever previously played for the team; goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, who played 28 games during the 2017-18 season. There is some exciting young talent from both the Hurricanes and Predators playing in Chicago this season including former first-round picks Seth Jarvis, Dominik Bokk, Philip Tomasino, Michael McCarron and Ryan Suzuki. They have also inherited a very solid group of AHL veterans. Tanner Jeannot, Tommy Novak, Rem Pitlick, Anthony Richard and Jeremy Davis were all core members of the Admirals team that had the best record in the league last season.

New head coach Ryan Warsofsky has an interesting season ahead of him. He was the head coach of the Checkers last season, but now he is heading into his first season in Chicago getting players and input from two franchises. While he knows this season brings new challenges, it is still about producing on the ice.

“We want to be a team that is hard to play against,” Warsofsky said in a recent media call. “We want to play fast. We want to get up the ice. But, at the same time, we want to be structured in how we play. The one message we talked about earlier was no matter win or lose, teams who play us will leave the building and say ‘Wow, they are hard to play against.’ Our biggest identity will be how hard we play and our effort.”

The Wolves will play their home games at Triphahn Center in suburban Hoffman Estates, which is the team’s practice facility, with no fans or media allowed. This will mark the first time in their 27-season history that the Wolves will not play at the Allstate Arena. They begin their season tonight by hosting the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Cleveland Monsters

2019-20 Results: 24-31-5-2 (55 pts, 8th place in the North Division)

Key Subtractions: Paul Bittner, Adam Clendening, Marko Dano, Stefan Matteau, Doyle Somerby, Calvin Thurkauf, Sam Vigneault

Key Additions: Gavin Bayreuther, Adam Helewka, Evan Polei, Cliff Pu, Tyler Sikura

No matter what happens this season, the Monsters really can only go up. When the 2019-20 season was stopped last March, they had just 24 wins, the third-fewest in the entire league and were at the bottom of the standings in the North Division. They scored just 159 goals, only the Bridgeport Sound Tigers scored fewer.

To make matters worse, three of their top six scorers from last season will not be in uniform when the season starts. Clendening and Matteau are both on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ taxi squad and Thurkauf has been loaded to EV Zug of the Swiss League.

The additions of veteran forwards Helewka and Sikura should help fill in the void offensively. Helewka is back in the AHL after spending the 2019-20 season playing in both Russia and Sweden. In 2018-19, he had 21 goals and 50 points in 65 AHL games split between the Tucson Roadrunners and Admirals. Sikura led the Rockford IceHogs last season with 34 points.

Tyler Sikura Rockford Icehogs
Sikura has moved on to Cleveland. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks has recently been recalled to the Blue Jackets’ taxi squad. He posted a .904 save percentage (SV%) and .296 goals-against average (GAA) in 20 games with the Monsters last season. Cam Johnson was sent back to Cleveland in a corresponding move and will likely backup Veini Vehvilainen.

The Monsters will play their home games at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse with up 10% capacity. However, it is unsure when their schedule will actually begin. They were scheduled to play two games at the IceHogs starting tonight, but they did not make the trip due to the league’s COVID protocols. The two games will be rescheduled for later dates.

Grand Rapids Griffins

2019-20 Results: 29-27-3-4 (65 pts, 3rd place in the Central)

Key Subtractions: Matthew Ford, Ryan Kuffner, Pat Nagle, Matt Puempel, Eric Tangradi, Chris Terry, Kyle Wood, Filip Zadina

Key Additions: Riley Barber, Kevin Boyle, Patrick Curry, Tory Dello, Max Humitz, Jared McIsaac

The Griffins got off to a slow start in 2019-20, but as the younger players gained confidence and mixed in the veterans, they got themselves up into third place and a playoff spot when the season was wiped out.

Roster turnover will give the Griffins a different look this season. Terry, who led the team in points the last two seasons, is playing in the KHL. Puempel, who has been a key contributor over the past three seasons, left to play in Sweden. This duo combined for 91 goals and 201 points over the past two seasons and will be tough to replace.

This will be the perfect situation for some younger players who are familiar with the league to step in and show they belong in Detroit. Forwards Michael Rasmussen and Evgeny Svechnikov will be looked upon to be the new leaders up front. Barber, a newcomer, and a five-year AHL vet will be a nice addition.

On the back end, the focus will be on some younger prospects hoping to take the next step. Dennis Cholowski spent 2019-20 going back and forth between the AHL and NHL. The 20th overall pick of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft has been sent down to the Griffins because the organization wants him to play big minutes in the AHL.

He will be joined on the blue line by two second-round picks, Gustav Lindstrom and McIsaac, selected in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Lindstrom played 45 games for the Griffins last season and McIsaac will make his professional debut the first time he takes the ice.

Brian Lashoff will join these young defenders on the blue line. Just prior to his 12th season with the Griffins, he was named the 17th captain in team history.

“Brian has played 500 games for the Griffins and 136 games for the Red Wings, and he has had the great fortune to be a part of several successful and championship teams,” said head coach Ben Simon. “To play for the same organization for 12 years speaks to his overall qualities as both a hockey player and a person. His character, work ethic and perseverance epitomize what we look for in a player. He is a consummate professional who does things the right way both on and off the ice.”

The Griffins will start their 30-game season with four straight games on the road, beginning tonight at the Wolves. They will play their home games at the Van Andel Arena, but fans will not be permitted to attend.

Iowa Wild

2019-20 Results: 37-18-4-4 (82 pts, 2nd place in the Central)

Key Subtractions: Sam Anas, Mark Bartkowski, Kyle Bauman, Colton Beck, Louie Belpedio, J.T. Brown, Kappo Kahkonen, Mike Liambas, Brennan Menell, Nico Sturm

Key Additions: Calen Addison, Adam Beckman, Joseph Cramarossa, Damien Giroux, Fedor Gordeev, Hunter Jones, Ivan Lodina, Ian McCoshen, Ryan O’ Rourke, Tyler Sheehy

The biggest shame of the 2019-20 season never having Calder Cup playoffs was robbing us of a potential seven-game series between the Wild and Admirals. When the season was canceled these two teams had the two highest point totals in the entire league.

The Wild will start the season without the top six scorers from last season. Anas, who led the AHL with 50 assists and 70 points last season, signed with the St. Louis Blues organization. Mayhew, who was named the AHL MVP for 2019-20 for scoring 39 goals, is up with Minnesota Wild right now. They also recently recalled Luke Johnson and Kyle Rau.

In addition to losing a ton of offense, the Wild will have a huge void to fill between the pipes. Kahkonen is up in the NHL with Minnesota and is likely there to stay. He had been one of the best AHL goaltenders over the past two seasons. In 2019-20, he finished fourth in both GAA (2.07) and SV% (.927) in 34 games.

Kaapo Kahkonen Iowa Wild
Kahkonen is in Minnesota to stay. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Iowa is hoping a group of rookies will make an immediate impact to pick up the slack. Beckman, a third-round pick in 2019, will make his professional debut after leading the entire Canadian Hockey League (CHL) with 107 points in 63 games for the Spokane Chiefs last season.

On the backend, Addison will make his professional debut. He was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the trade for Jason Zucker last season. The 20-year-old defenseman had 10 goals and 52 points in 50 Western Hockey League (WHL) games last season for the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

O’Rourke was drafted in the second round this past October and is making the jump straight from the Ontario Hockey League right to the AHL. He had 37 points in 54 OHL games with the Soo Greyhounds and also plays with an edge and does not shy away from a battle.

In goal, Jones will join the team after wrapping up his junior career with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL. The 2019 second-round pick will likely backup Dereck Baribeau, who played four games for Iowa last season.

The Wild will begin their 34-game schedule with three straight home games against the Texas Stars starting tonight. They will play all their home games at the Wells Fargo Arena and will be allowing fans to attend.

Rockford IceHogs

2019-20 Results: 29-30-2-2 (62 pts, 5th place in the Central)

Key Subtractions: Nicolas Beaudin, Adam Boqvist, Lucas Carlsson, Joseph Cramarossa, Collin Delia, Morgan Entwhistle, Alexandre Fortin, Dennis Gilbert, Brandon Hagel, Matthew Highmore, Philipp Kurashev, Kevin Lankinen, Nick Moutrey, Jacob Nilsson, Dylan Sikura, Tyler Sikura, Joni Tuulola, Anton Wedin

Key Additions: Evan Barratt, Matej Chalupa, Scott Darling, Cody Franson, Wyatt Kalynuk, Michael Krutil, Anton Lindholm, Cole Moberg, Cale Morris, Cam Morrison, Isaak Phillips, Alec Regula, Michal Teply, Chris Wilkie, Chad Yetman

Last season, the IceHogs were a team that struggled to score goals and had to rely on their goaltenders to earn points. So, losing nearly all your top offensive players and both of your top netminders does not give fans in Rockford much to be excited about.

A lot of key players like the Sikura brothers, Nilsson and Fortin have left the organization. Because of the taxi squad and key injuries with the Chicago Blackhawks, there are many big contributors from last year’s team who skating in the NHL right now.

This leaves the door wide open for a lot of young players to make a name for themselves at the pro level. AHL rookies Barratt, Chalupa and Teply are all looking to be a factor up front. On the backend, Kalynuk, Krutil and Regula are looking to make a fast transition into the AHL game and become key members of the defense.

Matt Tomkins will inherit the Rockford net with Dellia and Lankinen in Chicago. He appeared in 13 games for the IceHogs last season and went 5-7-1 with a .896 SV% and 3.12 GAA. He will be backed up by Morris, who is turning pro after a very good college career at Notre Dame. A familiar face in Scott Darling, who won the 2015 Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, has been added to the mix to bring in some veteran leadership.

Matt Tomkins Rockford Icehogs
Tomkins will start the season as the No. 1 goalie. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

“To be honest, I think our strength is going to be on our backend,” head coach Derek King said during his weekly chat with the media. “I like our goalie situation. Our forwards are just a little young and naïve. I don’t think they know what’s going to hit them. I am trying to be optimistic about it but I am also going to have a lot of patience and not get overly revved up because they are making mistakes.”

The IceHogs are playing all their home games at the BMO Harris Bank Center in downtown Rockford but will not be allowing any fans in the building. They were supposed to open the season tonight against Cleveland but as we mentioned earlier, those games have been postponed. Instead, the Wolves will make the short trip west to play their rivals on Saturday afternoon.

Texas Stars

2019-20 Results: 27-28-3-4 (61 pts, 6th place in the Central)

Key Subtractions: Gavin Bayreuther, Landon Bow, Nicholas Caamano, Emil Djuse, Rhett Gardner, Dillon Heatherington, Tanner Kero, Joel Kiviranta, Brad McClure, Michael Mersch, Jake Oettinger, Jason Robertson, Reece Scarlett

Key Additions: Nick Baptiste, Derek Barach, Dawson Barteaux, Riley Damiani, Colin Markison, Max Martin, Nick Moutrey, Nick Porco, Nikita Scherbak, Cole Schneider, Antonio Stranges

The Stars had a roller coaster 2019-20 season. A 12-game losing streak between Oct. 23 and Nov. 22 put them behind the 8-ball with a 3-13-2 record. They were the last team in the AHL to win 10 games, with the double-digit victory coming on Dec. 11. However, they pulled things together and were only one point out of a playoff spot when the season was canceled in March.

Robertson and L’Esperance, who both scored 25 goals last season, are playing with the Dallas Stars and with the taxi squad are likely to stay in the NHL all season long. They also lost both of the goaltenders from 2019-20, Oettinger and Bow, to Dallas. So, like everyone else in the division, they are going to need a few games to figure things out.

Texas went and brought a whole slew of AHL veterans who should make a formidable roster. The best of the lot is 30-year-old veteran Schneider. He had 18 goals and 46 points in 54 games for Milwaukee last season. He has 543 AHL games under his belt, scoring 168 goals and 411 points. On Thursday, he was named the eighth team captain in franchise history.

“Cole is a guy that leads by example, both on and off the ice. He’s a new face to the organization, but he established his leadership qualities very quickly, and throughout training camp,” said head coach Neil Graham. “We’ve had the chance to see him a lot in our division when he was in Milwaukee. I have nothing but respect for him, and the details that he puts into his game, and we saw that right away. We expect him to be a guy who can help our younger players along. At the end of the day, we just want Cole to be himself. His leadership will come naturally.”

Scherbak is back after playing the 2019-20 season in the KHL. The 25-year-old forward has 32 goals and 106 points in 168 career AHL games. Colin Markison has also been loaned to the Stars by the Wolves. He played two seasons in Texas before moving onto the Charlotte Checkers for the 2019-20 season. He was a key contributor to the Stars’ 2018 run to the Calder Cup Final.

The Stars begin their season tonight with three big games in Iowa. They will play their home games at the H-E-B Center and will allow a limited number of fans into the building.

This crazy and whacky season gets underway tonight. Keep it here for all of the coverage on the AHL Central with weekly recaps and updates and breaking news when it happens. Let the games begin!

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