SPRINGFIELD, Mass – After a season in which the Atlantic Division produced the American Hockey League’s longest-ever playoff game with five, yes five, overtime periods, a few teams are looking to make the most of their large roster turnover. Returning division champion Lehigh Valley Phantoms look to be a lock to repeat, but a few teams are game to play spoiler for either the Providence Bruins or Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers
In perhaps one of the NHL’s under-the-radar, most frustrating stories, the New York Islanders have once again assigned Josh Ho-Sang to the Sound Tigers. Though the Sound Tigers return many familiar faces, including leading scorer Travis St. Denis, they have lost Casey Bailey to the Kontinental Hockey League and Tanner Fritz appears to have made the parent club’s opening night roster, the only two other players for this team who scored more than 35 points last season. Brent Thompson’s team will need everyone on its roster to step up and light the lamp more than each did the previous season if the Sound Tigers have any hope of making the playoffs this upcoming season. Much like its parent club, however, Bridgeport has an upward battle on its hands.
The unfortunate loser in the quintuple overtime playoff game, the Charlotte Checkers look to push for their third-consecutive playoff berth in a year where their parent club, the Carolina Hurricanes, have had an organizational shakeup from top to bottom. Luckily for the Checkers, two of the team’s goaltenders from this past season, Alex Nedeljkovic and Callum Booth, are returning, with Booth and Jeremy Helvig currently posed to battle it out for the back up role. However, an injury in the crease for the Hurricanes may mean Nedeljkovic begins the season in the show. Though the Checkers have lost their three scorers who recorded more than 50 points last season, all five scorers who recorded 40 or more points will be back in Charlotte. This is a promising sign for Charlotte who dropped both preseason games to the Phantoms but iced an ECHL-heavy lineup, as North Carolina’s other professional hockey team looks to avenge its second-round elimination to the Phantoms.
Hartford Wolf Pack
In an offseason where many of the bottom teams made moves to get better, the Wolf Pack were hit and miss. They lost second-leading scorer Scott Kosmachuk to the Colorado Eagles. However, Cole Schneider returns to Hartford, and bringing in Olympian Bobby Butler, who led the Milwaukee Admirals in goal-scoring this past season, means the Wolf Pack may have a better shot at improving in scoring as a whole this year. Lias Andersson and Vince Pedrie are two second-year players who, if they continue to develop as they have, can do a lot towards improving Hartford’s record, and they might have the highest expectations of any after promising rookie campaigns. Bringing in Dustin Tokarski means the Wolf Pack are better in net than seasons past, and this team can only go up from here. Where the ceiling for this Wolf Pack team is is yet to be seen, but Hartford fans have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Newly minted head coach Spencer Carbery may have his work cut out for him this season, as the Bears need to improve upon their 46 loss, 69 point season from 2016-17. Though its parent club won the Stanley Cup in June, the Bears did not even make the playoffs. Once again, Hershey will be a young team, and though leading goal-scorer Riley Barber will return to Pennsylvania, he’s missed a good amount of games to injury the past two seasons. Hershey will need him to be healthy in order to at least go .500 on the season. The addition of Sergei Shumakov will only benefit the Bears as the top-15 scorer in the KHL looks to find his groove on North American ice in the AHL. Simply put, there are a lot of question marks surrounding Spencer Carbery’s team as he throws numerous new bodies into the locker room and prays they will gel.
Lehigh Valley Phantoms
The Phantoms are posted to return at least five of their top six scorers from the 2017-18 season, and will also have Alex Lyon and Branden Komm as its duo in net. For any team, this would be nothing but great news, but for Scott Gordon, this means his men have a pretty good chance of running away with the division for the second season in a row. Lyon posted an impressive 1.98 goals against average and .944 save percentage in 11 playoff games for the Phantoms last season, including making 94 saves in his team’s 2-1 quintuple overtime win. The return of the Phil Varone, Greg Carey and Nicolas Aube-Kubel line spells trouble for any team it will face, as they combined for 72 goals, and 97 assists in the regular season. With the number of important returning faces, at this point it’s not a matter of if the Phantoms will clinch the Atlantic, but rather, when.
After the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Bruins benefit the most in the Atlantic from their parent club’s deep and talented prospect pool. Though this team finished fourth in the Atlantic last season, an influx of new and returning youth could elevate this team to a top-two finish. Zane McIntyre and Dan Vlader could be one of the league’s most talented goaltending duos, and young guns Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork will at least begin the season in Providence. Though Austin Czarnik will be a big loss for the P-Bruins, head coach Jay Leach is optimistic in the continuing development of his second-year players. The P-Bruins should be a shoo-in for the playoffs, and as long as their prospects keep improving, Providence fans should be excited about this team. For more in-depth analysis of the P-Bruins, click here.
After failing to go .500 during the previous two regular seasons, it was clear that head coach Geordie Kinnear and general manager Eric Joyce needed to make some waves this offseason to try and build a Thunderbirds team which could challenge for its first-ever playoff berth. Make waves, they did, as the parent club Florida Panthers signed former Manitoba Moose goaltender Michael Hutchinson to a contract on the first day of NHL Free Agency. Hutchinson’s 2.08 GAA and .935 SV% easily tops any performance by a Thunderbirds goaltender to date, and having Samuel Montembeault as a back up can only benefit the young netminder’s development. They also brought in Matt Mangene, Paul Thompson and Harry Zolnierczyk who can only help this team improve over its past two seasons. Though it is yet unclear exactly how all of these new pieces will be able to come together as a team, the Thunderbirds should be able to go above .500 for the first time in team history.
After losing their top two scorers, and their longtime captain, the WBS Penguins find themselves undertaking a daunting task in trying to replace the contributions of three key players. This will be the fourth full season with Clark Donatelli as the bench boss, and though he continues to produce perennial playoff teams, they have made it out of the first round just once. WBS looks to be playoff bound at this point in the season, but that is more an indictment of how weak the Atlantic Division could be than how optimistic WBS fans should be about this team. If Donatelli’s team can find chemistry early, and stay healthy, then the Penguins could surprise many. For the full WBS season preview, click here.