Top 15 Minor League Hockey Player of the Year Candidates
While the NHL season melts at a glacial but increasingly worrisome pace, leaned-on Edmonton Oilers youngster Taylor Hall has just signed an AHL deal with the Oklahoma City Barons. As early as Friday’s home date with the Houston Aeros, the Barons will suddenly have the two most recent No. 1 overall NHL draft picks with at least one NHL season on their transcript, the other being Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
As the specter of a 2004-05 reprise of the season-slaughtering NHL lockout goes, so goes the shape of the silver linings that come with it. Most, if not all, NHL fanbases are seeing some of their franchises' top young talent in the organization’s AHL garb, while still a few other established major leaguers are playing “Double A” in the ECHL.
If there is to be a comparable occurrence in the top minor leagues in 2012-13, the primal candidates are as follows.
Sven Baertschi: Abbotsford Heat (AHL)
The touted Flames farmhand has found alternative employment across the provincial border with Calgary’s child club but will still be subject to substantial scrutiny by Calgary’s pro hockey press corps.
Working with the likes of Roman Horak, Dustin Sylvester and Ben Walter, Baertschi will be banked on heavily to help the Heat make the best of their Winnipeg Jets-like arrangement in the AHL’s North Division. If they hold up and appear reckonable enough come playoff time, and if Baertschi has compiled a substantial output, he will easily have a case for top-performer honors.
Cory Conacher: Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Sean Couturier: Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)
For all of the understandable hype surrounding the overwhelmingly talent-laden Barons, a similarly sizable smattering of NHL-caliber talent is permeating Philadelphia’s farm team.
While Adirondack may not boast the same elite talent as Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, etc., it can still fuel a sound Calder Cup contender. That, in turn, will embolden the odds of one of its players collecting an MVP trophy.
Couturier was the most productive among the members of last year’s Flyers who have been assigned to pass the time with the team’s top affiliate. His 27 points in 77 games as an NHL rookie were not exactly the most head-turning data, but he can garner more glamour with his current cast on the Phantoms while honing himself for more fruitful years in Philadelphia.
Brandon Dubinsky: Alaska Aces (ECHL)
After a relatively slow start (by his standards and considering the level at which he is playing), Dubinsky erupted for a hat trick and a 5-2-7 overall log in three games last weekend. That has earned him at least one accolade, in the form of the ECHL’s player of the week laurel.
Justin Faulk: Charlotte Checkers (AHL)
Not since goaltender Jason LaBarbera in 2003-04 has a non-forward been named the AHL’s regular-season MVP. Garry Lariviere, who shared the accolade with Mal Davis in 1983-84, was the last blueliner to lay hands on the Les Cunningham Award.
Consider Faulk one viable candidate to disrupt those trends.
Faulk, who had a so-so rookie season spent predominantly with the Carolina Hurricanes, is indefinitely a staple with the Charlotte Checkers. So far, he is on pace for a prolific year from the point, which is all but a prerequisite for any skater to be named a league’s top player.
Like the aforementioned Baertschi’s Heat, Faulk’s Checkers are geographic misfits in their division. However, they have so far played more games than any other team in the league and own one of the league’s best winning percentages while Faulk owns the team’s best point-per-game rate.
Mikael Granlund: Houston Aeros (AHL)
Expected to hit the pond sprinting and contend for the Calder Trophy once the Wild resume normal business, Granlund will pass the time pursuing the Calder Cup in the slightly less intensive AHL. Naturally, a more dense output and bigger role should be expected of him at a level that is a step below The Show.
Taylor Hall: Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)
His season delayed by a shoulder ailment, which also ended his sophomore NHL campaign, Hall will lean heavily on basic health during his AHL detour just as much as he will for his foreseeable future in Edmonton.
With that said, there are 69 games left on the Barons’ 2012-13 agenda. Hall has previously totaled games within the 60-range twice on a glacially rebuilding Oilers team and chipped in goals and assists in the 20-range each time.
Now, he is playing one level lower on a natural favorite for the Calder Cup. It would not be a stretch to assert that Hall will double his point total from 2011-12 in Edmonton to 2012-13 in Oklahoma City the same way Spezza did between 2003-04 in Ottawa and 2004-05 in Binghamton.
Adam Henrique: Albany Devils (AHL)
Granted, Henrique is off to a slow start, but recall that he played a major role in the parent New Jersey team’s run to last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. Compared to his current peers in Albany, he has had more to recover from over the summer and less time to do it.
With that being said, he can get into a reckonable rhythm at any time. When he does, he should be a greater version of the rookie who tallied 50 points for the Baby Devils in 2010-11.
Nazem Kadri: Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Kadri entered this season with 35 goals and 81 points in 92 career regular-season AHL appearances over two seasons split between the Marlies and the parent Maple Leafs.
By AHL standards, Kadri is now a seasoned elder statesman and could be stuck at this level for a full year, but one more year only.
If he thaws out from a somewhat tepid start of zero goals and three points in his first six games, he should at least crack the 30-point range in each of the first two production columns. In turn, Kadri should be a pilot or co-pilot in Toronto’s effort to recompense last year’s four-game falter in the Calder Cup Finals and cement his ticket to full-time NHL employment beginning in 11 months.
Chris Kreider: Connecticut Whale (AHL)
Kreider, who co-piloted Boston College to an NCAA title and then joined the Rangers on the fly as they started what would be a three-round playoff run deep into May, could have a 2012-13 log similar to Henrique’s.
He has not been nearly as impactful as some of his teammates so far this young season, but he is in a position and of the ideal mold to change that in plenty of time.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)
Nugent-Hopkins figures to be the Barons’ top center for as long as the parent club in Edmonton is locked out. Working with Hall and Jordan Eberle, among others, at this level ought to have him working as a student-teacher in the way of playmaking, while finishing his share of attacks as well.
Nick Petersen: Orlando Solar Bears (ECHL)
The prolonged lockout-induced of Granlund, among others, in Houston could keep Petersen locked in Orlando for the better part, if not the entirety, of the 2012-13 season.
Assuming he does play the vast bulk of his ECHL team’s schedule, he has a near two-point-per-game pace to subsist on after roughly one month of game action.
Brayden Schenn: Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)
Justin Schultz: Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)
Through his first seven AHL games, the prospective two-way Oilers blueliner has yet to endure a single pointless outing. Schultz has totaled six goals and six assists, including a pair each of even-strength, power-play and shorthanded strikes and four multipoint performances.
Assuming he stays healthy and stays at this level for the balance of 2012-13, Schultz has only completed about one-eleventh of his first professional campaign. He will inevitably have to brace himself for a slight slowdown as games eventual build up to about 30 more than he ever played in a single college season.
Still, with what he has in stock right now, if Schultz avoids any protracted slumps or sit-outs, he can become the AHL’s first defenseman to average more than a point per game since Andy Delmore in 2005-06.
Devin Setoguchi: Ontario Reign (ECHL)
How he fares in the face of likely rust in his initial reintroduction to game action and what he does with his supporting cast will both be interesting X-factors. In his fourth full NHL season last year, he tied a career low with 36 points and surpassed his previous low with 19 goals, though his new Minnesota Wild teammates were not as deep as his previous posse in San Jose.
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