The American Hockey League dropped the puck on its 84th season Friday night and the teams of the Central Division are reloaded and ready for the long grind. Last season, the Central was an extremely competitive division with just eight points separating second and seventh-place. With just four playoff spots up for grabs, we should expect another thrilling season ahead.
Wolves Gunning for Fourth Straight Division Crown
The Chicago Wolves had one heck of a run during their 25th season as they doubled down on their third consecutive Central Division championship by advancing to the Calder Cup Finals. They lost a lot of offensive production in the offseason, but have retooled with some NHL experience and youth.
2018-19 Record: 44-22-6-4, 98 points (1st in the Central); lost in Calder Cup Finals to Charlotte Checkers in five games.
Notable Subtractions: Daniel Carr, Cody Glass, Brooks Macek, T.J. Tynan
Notable Additions: Patrick Brown, Jake Leschyshyn, Nicolas Roy, Garret Sparks
Few teams were hit harder in the offseason than the Wolves were as they lost their top three scorers off of last season’s Western Conference winning roster. AHL MVP Carr, Macek and Tynan combined for 68 goals and 202 points during the 2018-19 regular season. That leaves a monstrous void to fill.
Overcoming adversity is nothing new for the Wolves, as they dealt with injuries to almost all of their key players at some point during their run to the Calder Cup Finals. Curtis McKenzie and Keegan Kolesar, who both scored 20 goals last season, will be back to help lead the way up front. Gage Quinney will be looked upon to step up his production as well. The Wolves have also added some recent Vegas Golden Knights draft picks including Paul Cotter, Lucas Elevens, Ben Jones and Leschyshyn.
While the Wolves will need a few games to figure things out up front, they boast a blue line that includes four legit NHL prospects and some veteran leadership. Jake Bischoff, Dylan Coghlan, Nic Hague and Zac Whitecloud; all of whom could make their NHL debuts at some point this season. Added to the mix are veterans Brett Lernout and Jaycob Megna, who have 64 games of NHL experience between them. (Update: Hauge made his NHL debut Friday night.)
The Wolves will have a pretty good tandem in net this season. Oscar Dansk, who started 19 of the Wolves’ 22 playoff games last spring, is returning. He will be joined by Sparks, a native of nearby Elmhurst, IL, who spent all of last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and won the 2018 Calder Cup with the Toronto Marlies.
Quotable: “I think our team’s coming together very nicely. I like our physicality and our compete level. We have good leadership up and down the line. I think we have the league’s three best captains (McKenzie, Brown, Megna) from last year. That’s a very positive thing. They’ve been working extremely hard. They’re jelling on and off the ice.” – head coach, Rocky Thompson
The Week Ahead: Saturday, Oct. 5 vs Grand Rapids Griffins
Admirals Hoping Late-Season Surge Carries Over
The Milwaukee Admirals struggled during the first half of 2018-19, but they used a late-season 14-game point streak to surge up the standings and finish in second place of the Central Division. They are still looking for their first playoff series win since 2011.
2018-19 Record: 36-24-14-2, 88 points (2nd in the Central); lost in Central Division Semifinals versus Iowa Wild in five games.
Notable Subtractions: Adam Helewka, Tyler Gaudet, Justin Kirkland, Duncan Siemens
Notable Additions: Steve Santini, Frederick Gaudreau, Miikka Salomaki, Rem Pitlick
The Admirals are bringing back many of the same players who made that late-season run into the playoffs for their historic 50th season. Anthony Ricard, Cole Schneider and top prospect Eeli Tolvanen are all returning and should lead an improved offensive attack. Gaudreau and Salomaki will bring some NHL experience to the forwards. Also, last season’s MVP, Carr, was brought on board and made the Nashville Predators opening night roster, but there is a chance he finds his way to Milwaukee at some point this season.
Newcomer, Petlick, who the Predators signed as an undrafted free agent, is looking to excel in his first professional season. He had 21 goals and 45 points, in 38 games, for the University of Minnesota last season.
Steve Sartini, who was acquired from the New Jersey Devils in the P.K. Subban trade, will start the season in the AHL. The 24-year-old defenseman brings 114 games of NHL experience to the Admirals’ blue line. He will be added to the mix with Frederic Allard, Alexandre Carrier, Matt Donovan and Jarred Tinordi who all have a lot of experience playing with each other.
Head coach Karl Taylor will not have to worry much about his goaltending. AHL veteran Troy Grosenick, who was one of the best goaltenders in the league last season, is back. He will split time with youngster Connor Ingram, who posted a 2.26 goals-against average (GAA) and .922 save percentage (save %) with the Syracuse Crunch last season.
The Week Ahead: Sunday, Oct. 6 @ Wild
Wild Aim to Build Off Franchise-Best Season
Iowa had their best season since joining the AHL and was one of the toughest teams to beat on their home ice in the entire league in 2018-19. Not only did they make their Calder Cup playoffs debut, but they also won their first-ever postseason series.
2018-19 Record: 37-26-8-5, 85 points (3rd in the Central); lost in the Central Division Finals in six games to the Wolves.
Notable Subtractions: Gustav Bouramman, Andrew Hammond, Cal O’Reilly, Carson Soucy
Notable Additions: Gabriel Dumont, Luke Johnson, Cody McLeod, Nico Sturm
The offense was rarely an issue for the Wild last season as only the Wolves scored more than their 242 goals within the Central. Captain Cal O’Reilly led the way with 67 points, who is now with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, but it was Gerry Mayhew who turned the most heads. He scored 27 goals in the regular season and added 11 more in 11 playoff games. His performance earned him an NHL contract from the Minnesota Wild.
Undrafted free agent Sturm and former Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Johnson will add some depth to a roster that is returning 14 players from last season.
Kaapo Kahkonen will be the Wild’s number one goaltender after a very impressive rookie season. He will be backed up by first-year pro Mat Robson, who set a University of Minnesota school record with a .924 career save %.
Quotable: “Teams that are in the playoffs seven, eight, nine, 10 years in a row understand what it takes to make the playoffs. They bring it every year because they know it’s a reset, and they’ve got to do it all over again. They have a fabric to their culture, a discipline to their culture. Teams that make it once and then don’t make it haven’t established the identity that’s necessary to be a consistent playoff team.” – head coach Tim Army
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 4 vs Rockford IceHogs; Sunday, Oct. 6 vs Admirals
Youth Movement to Spark Griffins
The Griffins spent the majority of the 2018-19 season near the top of AHL Central before settling for the fourth and final playoff spot.
2018-19 Record: 38-27-7-4, 87 points (4th in the Central); lost in the Central Division Semifinals to the Wolves in five games.
Notable Subtractions: Carter Camper, Martin Frk, Wade Megan, Harri Sateri
Notable Additions: Calvin Pickard, Moritz Seider, Evgeny Svechnikov, Joe Valeno
The Griffins will boast one of the deepest teams in the AHL Central this season. Thanks to an influx of prospects, they will have a nice mix of veteran leaders and exciting young talent. They will start the season with forwards Michael Rasmussen, Svechnikov, Valeno and Filip Zadina along with defensemen Seider who were all drafted in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings in recent years.
There is plenty of AHL veterans to help guide the youth movement in Grand Rapids. Turner Elson, Matthew Ford, Matt Puempel and Chris Terry were all key players to the Griffins’ offense last year. On the blue line, Joe Hicketts, Brian Lashoff and Dylan McIlrath are all returning as well.
The Griffins will have a whole new goaltending tandem this season after both Sateri and Patrik Rybar departed in the offseason. Filip Larsson will embark on his first professional season after a nice career at the University of Denver. He will share then net with the veteran Pickard, who has played in 104 NHL games during his career.
Quotable: “No question, it’s a huge responsibility and one that we don’t take lightly. We are going to be measured a lot with how we develop these young kids. That doesn’t change anything. The expectation is going to be on them to have the ownership to take charge of their careers.” – head coach Ben Simon
The Week Ahead: Saturday, Oct. 5 @ Wolves
Moose Hoping for a Quick Start
The Manitoba Moose, much like the Admirals, got hot at the end of the season to push for a playoff spot. Despite earning points in seven out of their last 10 games, the Moose came up two points shy of a postseason berth.
2018-19 Record: 39-30-5-2, 85 points (5th in Central)
Notable Subtractions: Mason Appleton, Eric Comrie, Marko Dano, Felix Girard
Notable Additions: Adam Carlson, Andrei Chibisov, Derek Hulak
Roster turnover is a way of life in the AHL, but the Moose are bringing back nearly the same team that won 39 games last season. That is very rare at this level. If young players like Michael Spacek, Kristian Vesalainen and Kristen Reichel take the next step in their careers and veterans like Seth Griffin and Logan Shaw do what is expected of them, the Moose should be a very competitive team this season.
The Moose’s blue line will get a major boost to start the season as top defensive prospect Sami Niku will head to the AHL locker room at Bell MTS Place. The offensively-minded blueliner spent a lot of time with Winnipeg Jets last season but rarely cracked the lineup. The NHL squad decided it would be better for him to play every night with the Moose, rather than watch from the press box.
Manitoba lost both of their goaltenders from a year ago as Appleton made the Jets opening night roster and Comrie was claimed off of waivers by the Arizona Coyotes. Mikhail Berdin will begin the season as the starter and he looked very capable of handling the pressure in his appearances last season. He will be backed up by Adam Carlson, who spent last season in the ECHL.
Quotable: “The quicker you can get everybody on the same page, the better off everyone will be, top to bottom. You see teams win the Stanley Cup, you see teams win the Calder Cup, it’s never the top lines that are doing all the legwork.” – Moose captain Peter Stoykewych
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 4 @ San Antonio Rampage; Saturday, Oct. 5 @ Texas Stars
Stars Depth Could Lead to Success
The Stars stayed competitive all season long, but with too many talented players called up to the NHL, they fell five points short of a playoff spot.
2018-19 Record: 37-31-4-4, 82 points (6th place in the Central)
Notable Subtractions: Erik Condra, Justin Dowling, Denis Garianov, Travis Morin
Notable Additions: Tanner Kero, Jake Oettinger, Jason Robertson, Riley Tufte
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill has done a very good job at building up his organizational depth and that will benefit Texas this season. The Stars have lost their top three scorers from last season in Condra, Dowling and Gurianov. They will have Joel L’Esperance back for his second AHL season. He scored 30 goals in just 54 games for the Stars last season.
The Stars’ 2016 first-round pick Riley Tufte will give the AHL a go this season. He had 25 goals and 48 points over the past two seasons, helping the University of Minnesota-Duluth to back-to-back national titles. 2017 second-round pick Jason Robertson turns pro this season after a terrific junior career which saw him score 149 goals and 317 points in 252 OHL games.
Ben Gleason leads a relatively young defensive corps for Texas. He had 32 assists during his rookie year last season.
Goaltender Landon Bow played in 46 games last season, posting a 2.89 GAA and a .893 save %. He will likely see less action this year as prospect Jake Oettinger will join the Stars for his first full professional season. He played in six games for Texas at the end of last season after his college career at Boston University concluded.
Quotable: “We have a great leadership group this year that includes seven guys on our team. It is a great group and part of the message is that you don’t need a letter to be a leader. We believe that Dillon has earned the captaincy and his leadership is going to be a great fit for our team.” – Head coach Derek Laxdal
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 4 vs Tucson Roadrunners; Saturday, Oct. 5 vs Moose
Influx of Prospects Likely to Help IceHogs
The IceHogs scored the fewest goals in the entire AHL during the 2018-19 season. A handful of recent Chicago Blackhawks draft picks will start the season in Rockford and should help them light the lamp for often.
2018-19 Record: 35-31-4-6, 80 points (7th in the Central)
Notable Subtractions: Andrew Campbell, Peter Holland, William Pelletier, Jordan Schroeder
Notable Additions: Nicolas Beaudin, Adam Boqvist, Aleksi Saarela, Kris Versteeg
The IceHogs did not have a single 20-goal scorer last season, but that should change in 2019-20. Depending on how long Dylan Sikura sticks in the AHL, he could easily hit 20 after scoring 19 last season. Newcomers MacKenzie Entwistle, Brandon Hagel, Philip Kurashev and Saarela will add to the offensive firepower.
In a very underrated move, the Blackhawks brought two-time Stanley Cup winner Versteeg back into the organization on an AHL contract. If the newly named captain stays healthy, you can pencil him in for at least 20 goals.
The new and improved blue line will draw a lot of attention this season as Beaudin and Boqvist, both drafted in the first round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, have gone pro. Boqvist is a dynamic offensive defenseman who will help with the attack and on the power play. Chad Krys is another prospect the Blackhawks have high hopes for in his rookie season.
Goaltending was never an issue for the IceHogs last season and that should be the case again. Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen are back to split the crease. Lankinen is coming off a gold-medal-winning performance for Finland at the World Championships last May.
Quotable: “Obviously we’re young, so I think speed is going to be our strength. We’re not a big team that will outmuscle teams all the time, so we’ll have to do everything with pace. We’ll need to get pucks up quick to our forwards and get the puck out of our end and into [the opposition’s] as quick as we can. The biggest thing we need to continue to work on is our defensive zone coverage, closing on guys and ending plays. We don’t have a big team so we’re going to have to have good sticks.” – head coach Derek King
Nowhere to Go but Up for Rampage
While the St. Louis Blues went on a magic run to the Stanley Cup, it was the exact opposite for their AHL affiliate. San Antonio finished the season with the fourth-fewest points in the league.
2018-19 Record: 31-38-0-1, 69 points (8th in the Central)
Notable Subtractions: Chris Butler, Jared Coreau, Trevor Smith, Tyler Wotherspoon
Notable Additions: Andreas Borgman, Derrick Pouliot, Alexei Toropchenko, Adam Wilcox
Part of the reason for the Rampage finishing in last place was that their two leading scorers were both defensemen. Their top-scoring forward was Jordan Kyrou only played in 47 games because he was back-and-forth between San Antonio and St. Louis before suffering a season-ending knee injury in March. He is nearing a return and will likely be back up with the Blues at some point.
If Klim Kostin can cut down on his penalty minutes while increasing his scoring, he could become a very effective player for the Rampage. He had just 10 goals while racking up 102 penalty minutes last season. He had three goals and six points during the preseason with the Blues.
Alexei Toropchenko, a fourth-round draft pick in 2017, will play in his first full AHL season. He had 17 goals in each of the last two seasons for the Guelph Storm in the OHL.
Mitch Reinke, who led all rookie defenseman with 33 assists on 2018-19, will look to improve on his big first season with the Rampage. His partner in crime, and last season’s leading scorer, Joey LaLeggia is back as well.
The Rampage used six different goaltenders last season. Ville Husso, who appeared in 24 games, is the only one of those back for 2019-20. He will be backed up by Alex Wilcox and his 173 games of AHL experience.
Quotable: “I think every day you have the ability to get better and to learn, and I think that’s what guys are learning when they get down there. Ultimately, you want to get to the NHL as quickly as possible, but it is a process. To pick up those important tools and learn how to play when you’re not at 100 percent and practice when you’re not at 100 percent, that’s very important.” – Blues general manager Doug Armstrong
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 4 vs Moose; Sunday, Oct. 6 vs Roadrunners
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.