In many ways, the AHL’s North Division for the 2017-18 season is very different from the one that ended the 2016-17 season. A slew of new head and assistant coaches and three revamped teams – including two in new cities – will make this division one to watch heading into October.
For the 2017-18 season, the North Division consists of seven teams: Binghamton Devils, Utica Comets, Syracuse Crunch, Laval Rocket, Toronto Marlies, Belleville Senators and Rochester Americans.
Three teams in the division have relocated. The AHL no longer resides in Albany, with the Devils moving their franchise to Binghamton, NY. They’ll play at Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, which seats 4,679 for hockey. The previous residents, the Senators, have moved to Belleville, ON.
Belleville is a new AHL city; it was home to the OHL’s Bulls from 1981 until 2015. The Senators will play at Yardmen Arena, former home of the OHL team. The rink has since been revamped, with expanded seating fitting 4,400. Other improvements include board repairs, a renovated floor refrigeration system, new dressing rooms and bathrooms.
Finally, the St. John’s IceCaps have moved to Laval, QC and become the Laval Rocket. They’ll play at Place Bell, a brand-new rink seating 10,000. The Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate returns to Quebec for the first time since 2002 (then the Quebec Citadelles, Quebec City, who became the Hamilton Bulldogs, then the IceCaps before returning to the province).
The AHL will have four Canadian teams this season, including three in the North Division. However, none will have to travel to Newfoundland, which brought its own challenges in costs, time and wear-and-tear on teams.
Returning Faces Behind the Bench
Among the relocating teams, there will be some familiar faces and some minor personnel changes.
Kurt Kleinendorst returns as the Senators head coach, moving with the team from Binghamton to Belleville. NHL alumni Paul Boutilier joins him as an assistant. Boutilier was an assistant coach with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs last season. His playing career included over 300 NHL games, with a heap of AHL, IHL and CHL action too.
The Senators finished at the bottom of the division last year with a 28-44-2-2 record and 60 points and no doubt hope to finish higher this season.
Sylvain Lefebvre stays with the Rocket in the franchise’s move. Larry Carriere will be the team’s general manager and will also act as special advisor to the Montreal Canadiens’ hockey operations department.
The franchise finished fourth in the division last season, with a 36-30-8-2 record and 82 points. They saw a first-round exit in the Calder Cup playoffs, downed by the Crunch in four games.
The Devils haven’t announced any personnel changes for their AHL squad. Rick Kowalsky returns as head coach, a position he’s held since 2010. Meanwhile, Sergei Brylin, who has been an assistant coach since 2013, also returns to his position. The Devils finished third in the division last year, going 39-32-2-3 with 83 points. However, they too lost in the first-round, with the Marlies beating them in four games.
The consistency behind the bench will likely prove helpful in adjusting to the teams’ new homes while they strive for better finishes and more playoff success moving forward.
New Faces Behind the Bench
Both the Americans and Comets will have new head coaches this season, much-needed respites for the teams.
The Americans will be led by former player Chris Taylor. Taylor played for the Americans on and off between 1999 and 2011 and was an assistant coach in Rochester from 2013-2016.
He’ll be joined by assistants Gord Dineen and Toby Petersen. Dineen has coached in the AHL since 2003, including the last two seasons as an associate coach with the Marlies. Petersen has been an assistant coach in the AHL for the past three seasons, including most recently with the Cleveland Monsters.
Finally, the team also has a new general manager, Randy Sexton. Sexton spent the last seven seasons scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s also assistant general manager of the Buffalo Sabres.
"We are not going to rest until we restore the Americans to their rightful place among the elite teams in the AHL." –GM Randy Sexton pic.twitter.com/YO4bH2eaMj
— Prescott Rossi (@PrescottRossi) July 8, 2017
The new faces in Rochester could prove helpful for the struggling team, which has missed the playoffs for three straight years.
Likewise, the Comets have several new pieces. Trent Cull takes over as head coach and Gary Agnew joins him as an associate. Cull spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach with the Crunch, a position he also served in from 2006 to 2010. He’s also got head coaching experience in the OHL with Sudbury. Agnew was head coach of the Crunch from 2001-2006 and has also coached at the NHL level.
Ryan Johnson will take over as general manager. Johnson isn’t new to the Canucks organization; he was named director of player development in 2016 after three years as a consultant. Last season, the Comets were three points shy of a playoff spot. With some new faces leading the charge, they’ll look to push their way back in.
Elsewhere, the Marlies hired Rob Davison as an assistant coach and the Crunch added Ken Klee as an assistant coach and Karl Goehring as goaltending/video coach.
All of these changes, along with new players shuffling in and out, will make the North Division one to watch. The season begins October 6 with some teams in action right off the bat; the rest kick off their season the following day.