The AHL leading Milwaukee Admirals are the first team to 40 wins this season while sporting a deep, albeit not star-studded lineup.
Welcome to the March edition of the AHL Report! Over the past 2 months, we’ve been covering each team in the league and focusing in on some of the AHL’s notable breakout players this season. Changing approaches for something new for our readers, this AHL Report will zero in on the league’s top four teams, as determined by our current divisional leaders. This month I’ll delve into some of the players crucial to these teams’ success and in particular, why these teams find themselves atop the standings both within their division and across the league at large. The four teams currently leading their respective divisions include the Milwaukee Admirals, the Belleville Senators, the Hershey Bears, and the Tucson Roadrunners. Note: All stats and standings totals are listed as of 11:59 pm on 2020-03-08.
North Division Leaders; 38-19-4-1 (81 points)
Tied with the Admirals for the most regulation and overtime wins thus far, the Senators make-up revolves around their skilled star forwards, and the offensive depth that trickles down throughout the lineup. Granted, many of the Baby Sens players are or will be visiting Ottawa to finish off this year, Belleville has ridden the offensive production of promising prospects Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, and Vitaly Abramov. In the current league points scoring race, Norris sits in 4th, Batherson in 6th, and Formenton in 7th. Coming out of the NCAA, Norris was penciled in as a two-way center who would need to utilize this AHL season as a developmental year to springboard himself into the professional game. It is safe to say Ottawa fans are more than pleasantly surprised with Norris’ offensive punch since turning pro. In 55 games thus far, the 6’1, 190lbs Norris is zipping at over a point a game pace, currently at 61 as of March 9th. AHL Player of the Month in February with 16 points in nine games, Norris has seen brief stints with Ottawa already. It will be interesting to watch what follows – will the struggling Ottawa Senators bring Norris up for some end-of-year seasoning and further NHL experience? Or will they leave Belleville’s top center down in the AHL to help lead his team on what they hope to be a long playoff run?
While Norris is often the straw that stirs the drink for Belleville, the team’s success truly comes from their offensive depth. Although many players have had less than a full season in the AHL due to call-ups and injuries, we have seen the likes of Rudolfs Balcers and Logan Brown show off their offensive skills (over a point per game pace) to such a degree that they have been forcing Ottawa to get a closer look. Further down the list, we see Vitaly Abramov is soon to double his rookie point totals in his second AHL season, perhaps adding some further degree of hope for the skilled winger’s NHL potential down the line. Aside from the Senators’ notable prospects, Belleville has been getting consistent contributions from your more ‘career AHLers’ as well. We’re talking strong and even potentially career seasons for Jordan Szwarz, Joe Labate, and Michael Carcone to name a few.
At the end of the day, Belleville’s success depends on the offensive production of the forward cast. If they fall, it’s likely either due to the fact that the scoring depth dries up, or their otherwise mediocre goaltending fails to hold it together.
Atlantic Division Leaders; 37-18-3-4 (81 points)
Backed by solid performances in two goaltenders who have split time (31 games each), Hershey is arguably the weakest offensive team out of our four division-leading teams. Goalies Phoenix Copley and Vitek Vanecek have been particularly solid and it is no secret, good goaltending keeps teams in games no matter how close those games may be. At large, Hershey is led by their veteran cast which includes Philippe Maillet, Matt Moulson, and Mike Sgarbossa. The veterans clearly lead the charge here and in a league where rookie professionals are commonplace, this type of long-term pro hockey experience equates to points on the boards and a rising number in the win column for the Bears. This is one of the differences with the Bears; on many AHL teams, young, future NHLers and prospects are often given ice-time and opportunity to learn on the fly. This can often misfire and delay development if they are not ready to meet the challenge. Hershey however, has the veteran talent and leadership to play the big minutes while they bring along a solid group of young Capitals prospects. Seeing Hershey over the course of this season we find that rookies Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, and Brett Leason have all been slowly worked into the line-up and given increased responsibility.
With their sound goaltending performances and the perfect blend of AHL veterans and developing rookies, the Bears have a bit of a unique look this year that should work in their favor for their playoff push. They’re in a very tight race to hold onto their division lead though with the Providence Bruins close on their trail and frankly, losing Christian Djoos to the Anaheim Ducks certainly won’t help their chances of holding on long-term. With the fourth-lowest GA in the AHL and the second-best penalty kill, the Bears are another defensive-minded organization that has thrived at shutting down chances. They’ll certainly make a push for the division title, however, they likely lack the offense to do much damage in the playoffs.
Central Division Leaders; 40-14-5-3 (88 points)
The best of the best. Milwaukee leads the American Hockey League with 88 points and has been in the league lead for the most part of the entire season. A defensive juggernaut, the Admirals have only allowed 140 goals this season (averaging 2.26 GA per game), in large part thanks to Head Coach Karl Taylor’s tight defensive system and the great goaltending of their dual star netminders Connor Ingram and Troy Grosenick. Ingram and Grosenick score 3rd and 7th in the AHL in GAA, and 3rd and 9th in save percentage respectively for goalies who have played over 1140 minutes. Old hockey wisdom will often tell you that if you have a great goaltender, you have a great coach and a great team system. Well, when you have two great goaltenders… I guess you have the dominant season the Admirals have laid out thus far. Of course, that’s not to say they aren’t offensively inclined either, their 205 goals place them third in the AHL. Oddly enough, they also lead the league in yet another category that historically, one would not assume is representative of team success – the Admirals lead the AHL in penalty minutes at 909!
The interesting aspect of the Admirals roster is that for the most part, there is a noticeable lack of what we would typically refer to as star power on it. They have two roster players over a point a game (barely) in Daniel Carr (48 points in 46 games) and Yakov Trenin (35 in 32), however, the rest is more supporting cast type of players who have found ways to be effective and find the net. Sporting four 20 goal scorers already this is a team built on defensive structure and a patient approach centered around capitalizing on the opposition’s mistakes. Having Trenin back from Nashville the last several weeks has been huge, and if he stays in Milwaukee, he provides the Admirals with their finest offensive weapon.
Pacific Division Leaders; 35-18-1-2 (73 points)
While Tucson has the lowest point total of any divisional leader at this point in the season, they have also played six fewer games than the other three teams given the Pacific Division’s less intense scheduling. The Roadrunners are solid both offensively and defensively, despite perhaps not being a contender for number one in either category from a league perspective.
As we’ve seen with all four division leaders, one of the common threads is depth in scoring, and naturally, Tucson does not disappoint with seven scorers over 30 points and more certainly right around the corner. Offensively, Tucson has been led by career years from Michael Bunting and Kyle Capobianco in addition to an excellent sophomore AHL season by forward Brayden Burke. There is plenty of experience throughout the line-up with Andy Miele, Beau Bennet, and Michael Chaput playing supporting roles to the younger Coyotes prospects. They may not be the flashiest of teams, however, the Pacific Division is not particularly strong this year with a lot teams in more developmental stages. It’ll be a fight to hold onto the top spot with Colorado and Stockton not far behind, however, my money would be that the Roadrunners will finish off the season atop their division and likely represent the best chances of a long playoff run for any Pacific club.
Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this month’s edition of the AHL Report! Have any questions or requests? Shoot me a follow and/or a DM on Twitter at @Kyle_AHL_Report !
Kyle Stewart is the author of Dobber Prospects ‘AHL Report’. Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., in addition to prospect scouting, Kyle has a Masters in sport psychology and works with athletes of all levels as a Mental Performance Consultant in Ottawa, Ontario.