NHL Lockout: 5 AHL Teams You Need to Pay Attention to
From Portland, Maine, to Houston, Texas, to Abbotsford, British Columbia, AHL hockey has taken root in recent years and has now been flooded by swarms of young, NHL-caliber talent.
Justin Schultz? Nino Niederreiter? Sven Baertschi? Justin Faulk? Jordan Eberle? They've all found places among the AHL's top 30 scorers as their top-level teammates remain locked out, and their success has made the minor leagues more relevant than ever this winter.
More than a few teams are tearing up the league with an influx of television-worthy youngsters. Which squads are worth paying attention to? We point out five that could fulfill your desire for professional hockey during the NHL work stoppage.
The Tampa Bay Lightning's stacked AHL lineup won the Calder Cup with Norfolk last year, and despite finding a new home in Syracuse this time around, they haven't shown any signs of decline.
The Crunch lead the Eastern Conference's East Division at 7-2-2—an impressive record indeed, although not quite comparable to this squad's incredible 43-3 run to finish last season.
Cory Conacher, coming off an 80-point campaign a year ago, leads the team with seven goals and 13 points in just 11 games. Highly-touted NHL prospects Brett Connolly and Vladislav Namestnikov aren't far behind, however, and promising goaltender Dustin Tokarski (5-1-1, 1.96 GAA) may well be the true star of this team.
If the Crunch can explode in the season's latter half as effectively as last season, they're a sure bet to contend for a second consecutive AHL title.
Grand Rapids Griffins
The Detroit Red Wings have been criticized often for their aging roster, but the Grand Rapids Griffins are out to prove that wrong.
The Wings' AHL affiliate has gone on a November tear, winning five straight to pull within three points of the Western Conference lead.
23-year-old Gustav Nyquist has tallied 15 points and a plus-9 rating in 13 games; steady defensemen Brendan Smith and Adam Almquist have combined for five goals, including three on the powerplay, and a plus-five rating as the Griffins' top defensive pairing. All three could win Opening Day jobs on the Red Wings' roster come lockout end.
Grand Rapids is also drawing tremendous attendance from the Red Wings fanbase, with an average crowd of 6,625 making the 2.5-hour drive from Detroit to see a number of future Wings take the ice.
In less than half a decade, the Charlotte Checkers have gained a solid following and tradition of success in one of hockey's more unlikely locations.
Competing against the southern U.S. climate and two in-city "Big Four" sports franchises, the Checkers rank among the AHL's top 10 in attendance every year. Of course, having a loaded team doesn't hurt; many of the Hurricanes' top youngsters, including Justin Faulk, Zac Dalpe and Brett Sutter, are stuck in Charlotte until the NHL lockout ends.
Faulk and Zach Boychuk are tied for the team lead with 14 points, but unheralded grinder Drayson Bowman's 10 goals are tops in scoring and blueliners Marc-Andre Gragnani and Bobby Sanguinetti are keeping the team's back end secure.
Meanwhile, netminders Justin Peters and Dan Ellis have posted save percentages of .905 and .940, respectively, while teaming up for a 9-3-1 record.
Add in a handful of other household names—Jeremy Welsh, Jared Staal, Jerome Samson and Victor Rask, to name a few—and there's little reason to wonder the Checkers currently lead the AHL in points.
For Columbus Blue Jackets fans, the NHL lockout may not be much of a bad thing.
For starters, the Jackets' 29 wins in 82 games last season may have looked fantastic compared to the club's likely-disastrous 2012-13 campaign.
Additionally, though, the Springfield Falcons have enjoyed a terrific start to their season, thanks largely to the contributions of Columbus up-and-comers Ryan Johansen (10 points, plus-11 rating), Cam Atkinson (12 points, plus-six rating), Matt Calvert (10 points, plus-four rating) and Tim Erixon (eight points, plus-seven rating).
Of all of Springfield's stars, conversely, veteran NHL goalie Curtis McElhinney may be the most impressive so far—his 8-1 record, .955 save percentage and four shutouts are all off the charts.
The Falcons lead the Eastern Conference with 18 of 22 possible points in 11 games; their 17 goals allowed (1.55 per game) are the fewest in the league by a mile.
Oklahoma City Barons
Justin Schultz. Jordan Eberle. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Taylor Hall. Magnus Paajarvi. Colten Teubert. Alex Plante. Yann Danis.
The Edmonton Oilers have essentially moved to Oklahoma City this winter.
So how are they only 6-5-1?
That's a tough question to answer, and a crucial reason why the Oklahoma City Barons should draw a lot of attention as the AHL season wears on.
If the Edmonton Oilers are to break their ridiculously lengthy streak of No. 1 overall draft picks, these talented youngsters are going to need to grow up quickly—and a .500 record against (mostly) AHL competition is a bad sign in those regards.
The fourth-worst offense in the AHL's 15-team Western Conference? It might be time for an optimistic but unstable Oilers franchise to start pressing the panic button.