As the Calder Cup playoffs have fully geared up, it is always a matter of curiosity to see which players may be playing their final game in the AHL. While it is by no means a certainty, the Calder Cup is a chance where prospects get to show what they can do when it matters most. With some players at the point where this is little to prove in the minor league level, let us take a look at some names who may be NHL-bound next season.
Specifically, this week I’ll be looking at the Atlantic and Central Divisions of the AHL – next week, stay tuned for the North Division and the Pacific Divisions.
Madison Bowey (WSH) has had a strong season with the Hershey Bears, but may not be ready for prime time. Posting four goals and 29 points over 70 games this season, with a plus-22 rating, the former Kelowna Rocket has had an impressive freshman campaign – however, with the Capitals depth on defense, there is little need to rush him.
The same may not be said for Jakub Vrana (WSH), however – after a nearly point-per-game season with the Bears, the young left winger may be ready to make the jump should a top-six opportunity present itself in training camp. Though small in stature, Vrana has excellent offensive tools including solid playmaking abilities and a solid wrist shot.
Rocco Grimaldi (FLA) is typically known for two things – great skill and small stature. Standing a mere 5-6, Grimaldi possesses the kind of talent that many coaches dream about. In his second professional season after a career at University of North Dakota, the diminutive winger had a strong opening game of the playoffs by posting three assists against the Hersey Bears. Despite seeing time with the Panthers this season, Grimaldi will be looking to lock down a roster spot in 2016-17.
Alexander Khokhlachev (BOS) may be making his strongest case yet for a roster spot next season. In his fourth year with the Providence Bruins, the Moscow-native is coming off a 68 point in 60 game season where he was an offensive catalyst finishing second in team scoring. Seizing a roster spot will be no easy feat, as he will be battling for a third-line role behind incumbents David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron – a role already held by fellow prospect Ryan Spooner.
Though many could call the handling of this young man early in the 2015-16 campaign, Daniel Sprong (PIT) has returned to the professional level to make a statement. After being returned to the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL after making the team out of camp, many questioned the club on its treatment of the winger. Openly criticized in the media, then demoted to his junior club, the Dutch-born forward produced a 15 goal and 44 point season in just 31 games with Charlottetown. Upon returning to the pro ranks, Sprong has produced two goals in two games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. Given his history with the club, it would not be unheard that he lines up at Consol Energy Centre next year.
Will the real Anthony Mantha (DET) please stand up? After much discussion about the scoring touch this 6-5 winger was bringing to the NHL after a 57 goal performance in the 2013-14 season, Mantha has continued to find that scoring touch. While it must be said that the QMJHL has been known as a league to inflate scoring numbers, the overall package of size and skill is tantalizing for the Red Wings – particularly if Pavel Datsyuk carries through on a move home to Russia. While another AHL season is likely best for the big forward, the cap hit of $7.5M that will come with Datsyuk leaving may result in looking for offensive help in the system – and Mantha may be that guy.
In the same vein, Martin Frk (DET) may also get his shot in the NHL. After a very good junior career, concussions derailed this young man after his draft year – leaving many to question his future. Those questions gained steam as the former Halifax Moosehead failed to produce with the Grand Rapids Griffins over his first two seasons. That appears to have turned around, however, as Frk has produced in his third year with 27 goals and 44 points over 67 games. While his offensive game may not translate at the NHL level, it bears worth watching to see if this may be the breakthrough he needs.
The Nashville Predators have surprised many with their playoff performance thus far… and it appears more help is on the way. Kevin Fiala (NSH) is coming off his best professional season since being drafted 11th overall in 2014, posting 18 goals and 50 points over 66 games with the Milwaukee Admirals. Though his defensive remains a work-in-progress with a minus-19 rating over that time, his keen playmaking abilities and effortless skating may force the Predators to consider him for a role next year. While another season of honing his play in his own end is likely the best thing for the young Swiss, a solid training camp may force their hand.
Boasting an embarrassment of riches, Pontus Aberg (NSH) is another name that may end up on the back of a mustard-yellow jersey in September of this year. Though it is reasonable to question if he will be an offensive catalyst at the professional level, the Stockholm native has produced well in his second AHL season with Milwaukee, posting up 25 goals and 40 points. Likely to find himself in a checking-line role to start, likely to replace that which was ear-marked for one Jimmy Vesey, Aberg will be looked to use his six-foot frame and continue his development at the NHL level.
Easing the burden of potentially losing the aforementioned Fiala and Aberg is the emergence of Russian forward Vladislav Kamenev (NSH). Standing 6-2 and weighing over 200 pounds, Kamenev has shown that he already has NHL size and speed. However, the native of Orsk, Russia brings a two-way style of play to the game that is far better suited to a longer development curve. All this said, big forwards who can line up at the wing or at centre are attractive commodities – and with the salary cap likely to stay stagnant, financial forces may have him on the opening night roster.
Though the suffering of the Columbus Blue Jackets is known to many, their fans have reason to be excited. Oft-maligned forward Kerby Rychel (CBJ), amid speculation of trade rumours throughout the past two seasons, enjoyed a productive season with the Lake Erie Monsters. Producing six goals and 27 points over 37 games while seeing spot time with the lowly Blue Jackets squad, the 6-1 forward may be emerging. Though his ability to play in a top-six role at the NHL level may be in question, it is entirely possible we see him in a third-line spot with Columbus as they continue to look towards better days.
This brings us to University of Michigan standout, and unquestionable blue-chip prospect, Zach Werenski (CBJ). The cerebral defender has played only a handful of games at the professional level, and yet has not appeared at all out of place. Notching an assist in seven games with the Monsters at the end of the AHL season, the Grosse Pointe native has posted a goal and assist in the teams two playoff tilts against the Rockford Icehogs. Though a season in the AHL would probably do a world of good, the talent level Werenski brings may force him to the front of the line on a team that could sorely use that kind of skill.
Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll be looking at the Central and Pacific Division AHL clubs, and which prospects may find their way into the league next season. Feel free to follow me on Twitter!
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