Welcome back, everyone!
It’s the first Monday of the month and that means it’s time for some AHL talk. If you caught any of the features last year, you might recognize several of the young names who are making impressions early on this NHL season – we’ll talk about some of them later on.
The AHL is possibly the most important development league in the world as far as NHL teams are concerned. Some franchises, in fact, like Nashville and Detroit almost never promote one of their players to their major league club prior to them first cutting their teeth in the AHL. The league often acts as a stepping stone where skilled prospects hone their game to an NHL respectable level, or at times, a purgatory where ripened prospects wait for an appropriate role to become available in the NHL.
So, to kick it off, let’s get in to some of the players you’ll want to keep an eye on this year…
High Profile Prospect “Vets”
The term veteran is being applied very loosely here… Typically, the journeymen type veterans who’ve played upwards of four seasons in the league are on a downward trajectory as far as NHL potential goes. The following players are guys who’ve already spent a season or more making an impact in the league and are extremely close to making an NHL impact. They’re either being held back by their club’s roster limitations, cap implications or some details they’re working including responsible two-way play. In any case, they already have the potential to become fantasy relevant NHL players and you should keep an eye on them in the short-term.
Josh Ho-Sang | Bridgeport Sound Tigers |22 years old
The carousel-of-doom continues for Ho-Sang under the Islanders revamped management core. He’s come close to proving that he is capable of producing middle-of-the-lineup type offense at the NHL level, but has yet to truly cover his other bases in the AHL. Obviously the Isle’s feel he has more to give and will benefit from the demotion. Not to worry though, surely Matt Martin and Ross Johnston will fill the offensive void in his absence (sarcasm is difficult to imply in writing… but if you didn’t catch that, they will not fill the void). Expect him to be near the top of the team’s recall list.
Mason Appleton | Manitoba Moose | 22 years old
Returning to the Moose after his rookie-of-the-year AHL campaign just a year ago, Appleton was forced out of the Winnipeg Jets roster by sheer depth. While another stint in the minors certainly isn’t a surprise for the 22-year-old, Appleton would likely already slot in on a few other NHL rosters. His opportunity for success in the AHL this year is immense – far different from what kind of success he would see in a depth role with the Jets. With the organization’s already potent offense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Appleton dangled as a high-value trade chip come February.
Sami Niku | Manitoba Moose | 21 years old (22 on October 10th)
Sami Niku, in many ways, should already be a Winnipeg Jet. Last year’s Eddie Shore Award winner has a supreme offensive skill set, and has a more well-rounded game than several of the Jet’s depth defenders. It’s been argued that for Niku to make the Jet’s opening night roster, he’d have had to blow away the competition in camp, and that it wasn’t good enough for him to simply, be better. Regardless of the nature of his demotion, fantasy owners, and Niku himself need only look back twelve months to the book of Kyle Connor, to see reason for optimism.
Andrew Mangiapane | Stockton Heat | 22 years old
Two years removed from eclipsing the 100-point plateau with the Barrie Colts, Mangiapane continues to sustain his offense with the AHL’s Stockton Heat. In 39 games with the Flames affiliate, the 5-10 sophomore tallied a more-than-respectable 46 points including 21 goals. His chance to break into the NHL came late in the year, and with some hiccups. Unfortunately, with each passing season comes more competition, and this fall is no different. With Dillon Dube breaking into Flames camp as a dynamic offensive threat, the team opted to retain him on their roster, rather than the elder Mangiapane. Should injuries arise, he’ll likely be up to the plate for his second pro audition.
Honorable Mentions: Alex Volkov (TBL/21), Sebasian Aho (ISL/22), Blake Speers (NJD/21), Brendan Guhle (BUF/21), Alex Nylander (BUF/20), Lias Andersson (NYR/19), Lucas Wallmark (CAR/23), Rudolfs Balcers (OTT/21), Thatcher Demko (VAN/22), Klim Kostin (STL/19), Nick Merkley (ARZ/21)
Rookies to watch
There’s always plenty of optimism surrounding rookies entering the pro’s and the AHL is no different. A glut of inexperienced players will transition from their various junior or international leagues this fall, hoping for success, and to make a name for themselves. Their respective NHL clubs will weight this season heavily as their benchmark for future potential as a professional hockey player, and you should do the same for fantasy hockey.
Vitaly Abramov | Cleveland Monsters | 20 years old
A shoulder injury hampered Abramov’s pre-season routine slightly, but the speedy Russian struggled in Blue Jackets camp once he was healthy, prior to being assigned to the Monsters. He’s a fringe candidate to get into the NHL roster this season, unless a top-6 role becomes available with some type of a Panarin trade-deadline blockbuster. His AHL potential this year, however, is excellent. While refining his defensive assignments, Abramov will also get the opportunity to lay a foundation of confidence at the pro level, one that will hopefully work as a spring-board to NHL production.
Filip Zadina | Grand Rapids Griffins |18 years old
The 2018 sixth overall draft pick couldn’t squeak through Ken Holland’s mandatory AHL screening in his first kick at the can. His preseason was slightly underwhelming, producing a mere three points in seven contests. A larger role with the perennial contender, Griffins, however, will help Zadina to foster some growth in his confidence at the pro level before he gets another opportunity with the Wings. He’ll fit nicely into the void left by graduating winger Tyler Bertuzzi who’s now busy in the Red Wing’s top-6.
Carter Hart | Lehigh Valley Phantoms | 20 years old
With the departure of Dustin Tokarski to New York/Hartford, top goaltending prospect, Carter Hart will, for the time being, own the crease for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Alex Lyon technically remains on the NHL roster, though he’s been assigned to the season-opening injured reserve with a lower body injury. According to NBC Sports, he’ll remain on the IR for approximately four weeks, allowing Hart a fairly loose leash by which to build his case for either a promotion, or a lock on his current starter status. Hart was undeniably the most impressive goaltender during the Flyers preseason, opening the door to the possibility of beginning the year as the Flyers starting netminder. The organization, rather, opted to allow Hart a gradual progression through the AHL, and ride out the final year of Brian Elliott’s contract.
Eeli Tolvanen | Milwaukee Admirals | 19 years old
It’s unlikely that Tolvanen will complete the 2018-19 campaign in the AHL with the Admirals for two reasons. One – if the Predators see a rash of injuries on the front end, Tolvanen will likely be one of the first recalls from Milwaukee, and given an opportunity to produce offensively, he will probably do so. The second reason that Tolvanen is unlikely to finish the year in the AHL is because his ELC contains an “out-clause” that allows him to return to Jokerit in the KHL where he would have to stay for the year, should he feel that is a better place for his development than the AHL. He’s required to play at least ten games with the Admirals before making his decision, meaning that we could learn his fate as soon as Halloween.
Henrik Borgstrom | Springfield Thunderbirds | 21 years old
Entering the NHL’s preseason, Borgstrom ranked amongst the top candidates to finish the NHL season as a leader in Calder trophy voting. His demotion to the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, however, has given pause to that assumption. It’s rare for a player who doesn’t start the season with his NHL club to be in contention for the trophy upon conclusion of the year, but Borgstrom will be out to prove otherwise with a fast start in Massachusetts.
Honorable Mentions: Drake Batherson (OTT/20), Keiffer Bellows (ISL/20), Cam Dineen (ARZ/20), Nicolas Hague (VGK/19), Brayden Burke (ARZ/21), Jeremy Roy (SJS/21), Jayden Halbegawasch (SJS/21), Boris Katchouk (TBL/20), Logan Brown (OTT/20), Tyler Steenbergen (ARZ/20), Ty Ronning (NYR/20), Louis Belpedio (MIN/22), Cal Foote (TBL/19), Cliff Pu (CAR/20), Ville Meskanen (NYR/23), Aaron Luchuck OTT/21), Jonah Gadgovich (VAN/19), Sean Day (NYR/20), German Rubstov (PHI/20), Kale Clague (LAK/20), Libor Hajek (NYR/20), Jonathan Dahlen (VAN/20), Adam Gaudette (VAN/22), Cooper Marody (EDM/21), Trent Frederic (BOS/20), Martin Kaut (COL/19)
Graduates to watch
What would you say if I told you that this NHL season will feature upwards of 660 AHL alumni? I say upwards because the official number is already 660, but we’re almost certainly going to see several players get an opportunity throughout the year who haven’t already.
Each team is limited to a 23-person roster, plus their injured reserve meaning that, according to AHL.com, 83% of this year’s NHL players will have cut their teeth in at least one AHL contest. Last year, no team featured less than 17 AHL alumni, while the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders led the way with 25 alumni. Obviously the metric is not a measure of success or failure, however, the fact remains that only a very small percentage of NHL players get there without serving some time in North America’s premier professional development league. Here are some of the players who will be looking to make an impact on the big league after some AHL seasoning.
Mathieu Joseph | Tampa Bay Lightning | 2017-18 Syracuse Crunch 13-38-53 in 70gp
Joseph is currently serving the Lightning roster as a replacement for injured forward Tyler Johnson. The Quebec native played his rookie AHL season with the Syracuse Crunch and immediately made an impact on the league, tallying a team-leading 53 points in his 70-game campaign. The organization is obviously a fan of what the 21-year-old winger brings to the ice, and how his tenacity can be applied to the modern NHL game, especially on the fore-check. Whether or not he remains on the Lightning roster continually this fall remains to be seen, however, if he is returned to Syracuse you can be confident that it won’t be permanent. He’s currently being cast as a third-line right winger alongside Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. This assignment could put him on a 35-point pace through a full 82 games.
Daniel Sprong | Pittsburgh Penguins | 2017-18 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins: 32-33-65 in 65gp
The boom-bust Dutchman isn’t quite a pure NHL rookie – though he does technically fit the criteria of a Calder eligible player. After being drafted by the Penguins in the mid-second-round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Sprong became the subject of a classic CHL/NHL-agreement casualty. Because he was drafted out of the QMJHL, Sprong was required, upon completion of training camp, to either be returned to Charlottetown, or remain on the Penguins NHL roster – not be sent to the AHL. At first, the Penguins chose to retain Sprong as an NHL player, but after eight mildly successful games in the league, he was returned to Quebec. Fast forward three years and Sprong has finally completed an appropriate, albeit, rocky, development path via the AHL. After a massively successful point-per-game rookie campaign with the WBS Penguins, Sprong is ready for the next step in that path – a fourth line role flanking Riley Sheahan (not ideal for offensive success, but a good spot for development nonetheless), and a second-unit power play opportunity with Jake Guentzel and Derrick Brassard. In this role, 40 points should be considered a successful rookie campaign.
Valentin Zykov | Carolina Hurricanes | 2017-18 Charlotte Checkers: 33-21-54 in 63gp
The dynamic Russian has been grinding his way in the AHL since 2015 – initially in the LA Kings system with the Ontario Reign, Zykov was part of the Hurricanes return for Kris Versteeg at the 2016 NHL trade deadline. Since joining the ‘Canes organization, Zykov has been offered brief stints with the big club, but was never able to stick. After a tremendous season with the Charlotte Checkers where Zykov led the AHL in goals, Don Wadell inked the 23-year-old to a two-year, one-way contract worth $1.35 million. The one-way factor, plus the fact that he would require waivers in order to get to the AHL almost certainly guarantee’s Zykov a full-time NHL positon. Slotted alongside fellow rookie Martin Necas, and veteran, Brock McGinn, he should have a reasonable shot at 35 points – unless, of course, he works his way on to one of the team’s two power play unit’s, in which case, 45 points would not be out of the question.
Warren Foegele | Carolina Hurricanes | 2017-18 Charlotte Checkers: 28-18-46 in 73gp
Perhaps the biggest opening-night roster surprise in terms of AHL veterans, the former third-round selection and OHL alumni Warren Foegele made his mark in ‘Canes preseason and established that his AHL success was no fluke. Even at the AHL level, Foegele’s offensive success was a bit of a surprise, leaving the impression that his future success should not go unpredicted. After concluding his OHL career as part of the dominant Erie Otters squad, Foegele’s potential had been questioned, a notion he quickly silenced upon breaking into the AHL. Now he’s back at the plate, but this time in a ‘Canes uniform and alongside veterans like team captain Justin Williams and pivot, Jordan Staal – a prime opportunity for 5-on-5 success. If he’s able to hold down that role early, he could be a sneaky candidate for a 20-goal rookie campaign.