After an unprecedented 2020-21 shortened season, the American Hockey League (AHL) is back! Last season saw very few fans, many teams playing in their practice facilities, and no Calder Cup Playoffs. Another aspect of the goofy season that is gone is the taxi squads, which has coaches across the league doing cartwheels. The AHL has returned to their regular divisions and arenas with fans back in the stands to cheer them on all the way through the Calder Cup Finals.
For the fourth straight season, this will be your one-stop source for all the happenings within the AHL’s Central Division. The seven teams will do battle all season long in one of the most competitive divisions in all of professional hockey. The AHL season is a roller coaster, and we will cover all the ups and downs between now and when the Calder Cup champions are crowned in June.
Key Subtractions: Frederic Allard (returned to Milwaukee Admirals), Antoine Bibeau (signed with Seattle Kraken), Alexandre Carrier (returned to Admirals), Jeremy Davies (returned to Admirals), Josh Healey (returned to Admirals), Connor Ingram (returned to Admirals), Tanner Jeannot (returned to Admirals), Sean Malone (signed with Buffalo Sabres), Tommy Novak (returned to Admirals), Rem Pitlick (returned to Milwaukee/claimed off waivers by Minnesota Wild), Sheldon Rempal (signed with Vancouver Canucks), Anthony Richard (returned to Admirals), Drew Shore (retired), Cole Smith (returned to Admirals), Phil Tomasino (returned to Admirals), David Warsofsky (signed in Germany)
Key Additions: Jalen Chatfield, Jack Drury, Eric Gelinas, Josh Jacobs, Ville Koivenen, Alex Lyon, Kyle Marino, Sam Militic, Blake Murray, Andrew Poturalski, Artyom Serikov, C.J. Smith
The road to winning the Central has come through Chicago more often than not the past few seasons. The Wolves won the Sam Pollock Trophy for leading the division wire-to-wire last season. They finished with a 21-9-1-2 record and .682 points percentage, the third-best in the entire AHL. However, they had the luxury of picking from two NHL affiliates as they took on the Nashville Predators’ players when the Admirals decided to opt-out of the 2021-22 season. This season the Wolves will just have players from the Carolina Hurricanes organization.
With the Admirals returning, the Wolves will be without some key players from last season’s high-powered attack like Jeannot, Petlick, and Tomasino. They still have plenty of their own talent in David Cotton, Dominik Bokk, Stelio Mattheos, and Spencer Smallman up front.
Chicago added Poturalski, who led the AHL with 34 assists and 43 points last season with the San Diego Gulls. Joey Keane, Max Lajoie, and Cavan Fitzgerald return to a defensive corps that surrendered 94 goals in 33 games last season. Goaltender Beck Warm will form a solid duo with the veteran in Lyon. Second-year head coach Ryan Warsofsky will have a very deep roster to navigate the season.
“Camp was really good, some surprises,” Warsofsky said during a recent media call. “We put some things in place that are a little bit different than last year. Obviously, it’s a new team and new roster, but guys are picking up things quickly. Each day we’ve gotten a little bit better.”
The Wolves kick off their season this Saturday night by hosting their inter-state rivals, the Rockford IceHogs.
Grand Rapids Griffins
Key Subtractions: Kevin Boyle (signed in Austria), Dennis Cholowski (taken by Kraken in Expansion Draft), Charles-Edouard D’Astous (signed with Colorado Avalanche), Tory Dello (signed with Laval Rocket), Albin Grewe (signed in Finland), Joe Hicketts (signed with Wild), Max Humitz (signed to ECHL deal), Dylan McIlrath (signed with Washington Capitals), Jarid Lukosevicius (signed with Abbotsford Canucks), Gregor MacLeod (signed in Germany), Pat Nagle (signed with Lehigh Valley Phantoms), Dominic Turgeon (signed with Wild), Evgeny Svechnikov (signed with Winnipeg Jets)
Key Additions: Jonatan Berggren, Victor Brattstrom, Kevin Lynch, Jon Martin, Ryan Murphy, Wyatt Newpower, Dan Renouf, Kirill Tyutyayev, Luke Witkowski, Hayden Verbeek, Dennis Yan
The Griffins, like the Wolves, always seem to find themselves near the top of the division. They continually put together a roster with the right mix of talented prospects and AHL veterans to be a tough team to beat. After a bit of a slow start, they finished the 2020-21 season with a 16-12-3-1 record. They will have 14 players under contract with the Detroit Red Wings to start the season and eight players on AHL deals.
One of those players on a two-way NHL contract is Riley Barber, who led the Griffins with 20 goals and 34 points last season. He will be joined by veterans Chase Pearson, Tyler Elson, and Dominik Shine up front to go along with talented prospects like Berggren, Taro Hirose, and Joe Veleno. Brian Lashoff, who has played 513 career games with the Griffins, will lead a relatively young group on the backend. Veteran goaltender Calvin Pickard will be backed up by rookie Brattstrom.
“For the Griffins, this season isn’t necessarily about who starts the season with them, but rather who will stick it out with them,” said Devin Little, who covers all things Red Wings for The Hockey Writers. “Some of Detroit’s top prospects – including Veleno, Berggren, and McIsaac – are all set to begin the season playing at Van Andel Arena, and with that comes heightened expectations. With captain Lashoff leading the way from the blue line, this team has a nice mix of veterans and young players and should present a big challenge for their opponents on a nightly basis.”
The Griffins kick off their 26th season by hosting the IceHogs on Friday night before traveling to Milwaukee on Saturday.
Key Subtractions: Josh Atkinson (signed in Austria), Matt Bartkowski (signed with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins), Louis Belpedio (signed with Montreal Canadiens), Jared Burton (signed in Norway), Gabriel Dumont (signed with Tampa Bay Lightning), Luke Johnson (signed with Winnipeg Jets), Gerry Mayhew (signed with Philadelphia Flyers), Ian McCoshen (signed with Henderson Silver Knights), Mitch McLain (signed with Admirals), Brennan Menell (traded to Toronto Maple Leafs), Dmitry Sokolov (signed in Russia)
Key Additions: Kevin Czuczman, Bryce Gervais, Joe Hicketts, Jon Lizotte, Doyle Somerby, Nathan Sucese, Dominic Turgeon
The Wild are always a team that is hard to play against. They have the right mix of skill and toughness that makes them a difficult matchup each time out. However, they lost quite a bit from last season’s team, and it may take them some time to find their footing.
The most significant loss is Mayhew, who won the 2020 Les Cunningham Award for being voted the AHL’s Most Valuable Player. He led the league with 39 goals and scored 61 points in 49 games before the pandemic hit. He split time between Iowa and Minnesota’s taxi squad and still scored nine goals and 18 points in 19 AHL games. Dumont has also moved on, and he led the team last season with 12 goals, 19 assists, and 31 points.
Adam Beckman will certainly help fill the void left behind by Mayhew and Dumont, but the top-rated prospect may not be in Iowa very long. 2020 first-round pick Marco Rossi will look to impress in his first professional season. Defensively, Hicketts, and his 286 career AHL games, have been added to a relatively young group of blueliners that includes the offensive-minded Calen Addison. Youngster Dereck Baribeau, who looked good in 10 games last season, will split goaltending duties with veteran Andrew Hammond.
The Wild will kick off their season with a weekend series at the Texas Stars on Saturday and Sunday.
Key Subtractions: Marco Dano (signed in Czech Republic), Tyler Graovac (signed in Russia), Westin Michaud (signed with Stockton Heat), Skyler McKenzie (signed in Sweden), Nathan Todd (signed with St. Louis Blues)
Key Additions: Mikey Eyssimont, Isaac Johnson, Luke Johnson, Evan Polei, Austin Poganski
The Moose did not play in the Central Division last season. Like in the NHL, all the Canadian teams had to play in the same division due to travel restrictions between the United States and Canada. They had an excellent season north of the border, finishing in second place with an 18-13-3-2 record and 41 points. With teams traveling between countries again, the Moose can renew their rivalries with their old Central foes.
Manitoba lost their top scorers from last season, with Dano playing in Europe and Cole Perfetti making the NHL club out of training camp. The duo combined for 21 goals and 58 points during the shortened schedule. They are hoping David Gustafsson and Jeff Malott can pick up the slack along with veteran additions like Luke Johnson, Polei, and Poganski. The Moose should be able to generate some offense from the blue line with the likes of Jonathan Kovacevic, Declan Chisholm, and Ville Heinola. Mikhail Berdin is back in the AHL after spending last season in Russia and will be the number one goaltender.
The Moose will start the season on the road with a weekend series at the Toronto Marlies before a midweek game at the Laval Rocket on Wednesday.
Key Subtractions: Lukas Craggs (signed with Rochester Americans), Luke Evangelista (returned to OHL)
Key Additions: Egor Afanasyev, Xavier Bouchard, Dylan Blujus, Robert Carpenter, David Farrance, Parker Gahagen, Joseph LaBate, Matt Luff, Mitch McLain, Jake McLaughlin, Grant Mismash, Cole Schneider, Matt Tennyson, Tomas Vomacka
The Admirals are back on the ice after sitting out the 2020-21 season. No team suffered more from the cancelation of the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs as they led the AHL in points and were primed for a deep postseason run. Not many faces left from that squad, but Schneider is back after spending last season with Texas.
Milwaukee will be sporting a veteran team that should win a lot of games this season. Schneider will be joined by McLain, Tommy Novak, Michael McCarron, and Anthony Richard to provide the experience up front. The defensive corps has seen plenty of AHL action over the years, led by Matt Donovan and his 379 games. He will have some good company in Josh Healey, Frederic Allard, and Jeremy Davies. Goaltender Connor Ingram will be back in a full-time role after missing much of last season. He was one of the top goaltenders in the AHL during the 2019-20 season.
Head coach Karl Taylor, who won the 2020 Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award for being the AHL’s most outstanding coach, is back behind the Admirals bench.
“We’ve all been looking forward to having our team back,” Taylor said after a recent practice. “There were a lot of positives for our players and team last year, but it’s a milestone for us to be back in Milwaukee.”
The Admirals will play their first home game in 19 months when they drop the puck on the season against the Griffins on Saturday night.
Key Subtractions: Mitchell Fossier (signed in Slovakia), Cody Franson (signed with the Hershey Bears), Anton Lindblom (signed in Russia), Cole Moberg (signed with San Jose Barracuda), Ivan Nalimov (signed in Russia), John Quenneville (taken by Kraken in Expansion Draft, signed in Switzerland), Tim Soderlund (traded to Edmonton Oilers), Matt Tomkins (signed in Sweden)
Key Additions: Brett Connelly, Collin Delia, Liam Folkes, Jakub Galvas, Kale Howarth, Alex Nylander, Jakub Pour, Lukas Reichel, Arvid Soderblum, Ryan Stanton, Malcolm Subban
The IceHogs dressed 17 different rookies during their strange 2020-21 season. Of course, having so many first-year pros on the team did not lead to a lot of success in the standings. Rockford finished in last place with a 12-19-1-0 record and 25 points. Their 89 goals were tied for the fewest in the league for teams that played more than 25 games.
The good news is that many of those young players will be back this season with a better idea of what to expect. Leading scoring Dylan McLaughlin will have plenty of veteran help with the likes of returning captain Garrett Mitchell. Connolly and Nylander bring plenty of NHL experience to their lineup.
The spotlight will be on Reichel, the Blackhawks’ top rated-prospect. Their blue line boasts some talented youngsters like Nicolas Beaudin, Jakub Galvas, Isaak Phillips, and Alec Regula. They have a plethora of solid goaltenders to start the season. The Blackhawks are high on Swedish rookie Soderblom. He will be joined by Delia and Subban.
“We want to be a hard team to play against,” head coach Derek King said during this week’s media day. “I think we have some offense and can put some pucks in the net. In order to do that, we are going to have to play a nice north-south hockey game. We have a lot of bodies. I have a lot of players who have some NHL experience. I have a lot of decisions to make on who is going to start the first game, but I guess that’s a good problem to have.”
IceHogs will open the season tonight at Grand Rapids before playing in Chicago on Saturday. They will play their first six games on the road as renovations finish up at the BMO Harris Bank Center.
Key Subtractions: Nick Baptiste (signed in Finland), Derek Barach (signed in Finland), Mavrik Bourque (returned to QMJHL), Landon Bow (signed in Czech Republic), Julius Honka (signed in Sweden), Adam Mascherin (signed in Sweden), Nick Moutrey (signed in Finland), Nikita Scherbak (signed in Slovakia), Cole Schneider (signed with Admirals), Jake Slaker (signed with Cleveland Monsters)
Key Additions: Yauheni Aksiantsiuk, Oskar Back, Andres Borgman, Jeremy Gregoire, Curtis McKenzie, Alex Petrovic
Our final stop takes us to the Lone Star State. Texas lost quite a bit of talent from their 2020-21 squad that finished in second place with a 17-18-3-0 record and 37 points. Mascherin, who led the Stars with 18 goals last season, is the most significant blow offensively. His departure, along with Schneider, Baptiste, and Scherbak, mean Texas will have to make up for 100 combined points from last season.
Riley Damiani is back after leading the Stars with 36 points last season. He will get some help up front from veterans like Anthony Louis and Josh Melnick.
Texas also signed McKenzie, who is no stranger to Stars fans. The former captain played five seasons with the Stars, helping them win the Calder Cup in 2014 and get back to the Finals in 2018. He is fifth in franchise history with 190 points. The blue line will feature Thomas Harley, who had eight goals and 25 points last season. He will be joined by Ben Gleason, who chipped in with 17 points. Jake Oettinger was a victim of the numbers game in Dallas, but he will be the top goaltender at the AHL level.
The Stars begin their season by hosting the Wild in back-to-back tilts on Saturday and Sunday.
Five of the seven Central Division teams will qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs this season. A new and unique playoff format has 23 teams making it to the postseason, with nine teams getting a first-round bye and 14 teams playing best-of-three divisional series. It will be quite the ride between now and then, and the AHL Central News column will keep you up to date every step of the way.
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.