SPRINGFIELD, Mass – The two Texas teams join the Central Division, and the Cleveland Monsters have moved to the North, meaning that the AHL’s toughest division has only gotten tougher. Which of the five teams in this division who played some bonus hockey will be one of the top four this season?
Rocky Thompson’s team went from being far and away the worst team in the Western Conference last season, to winning the Central Division title by April. Though they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Rockford IceHogs, the Wolves got younger, faster, grittier and deeper. There are 14 familiar faces who will be on the bench in Chicago this season, and while the team lost two of its best scorers, it gained a ton of depth and toughness through free agency. How? First and foremost, they brought in former Texas Stars captain Curtis McKenzie who is a huge reason the Stars made it to the Calder Cup Finals, with 11 goals and 9 assists in 22 playoff games. They also added Olympic Silver Medalist Brooks Macek from the DEL, where he is coming off of back-to-back championships and the goal-scoring title. Look for Macek to impress in his first professional season in North America. The Wolves also got younger and faster by adding Erik Brannstrom, Zach Whitecloud, Dylan Coghlan and having Nic Hague in his first full AHL season. All four are highly-touted defensive prospects for the Golden Knights, and each is should benefit will from a full season under Rocky’s tutelage. Chicago will certainly have a chance at redemption in the playoffs, but it is yet to be seen if they’ll finish in first place.
Grand Rapids Griffins
After losing its head coach Todd Nelson to the Dallas Stars in the offseason, former assistant Ben Simon has the reins in Grand Rapids. He brought with him the two coaches who were his assistants in Cincinnati when he guided the Cincinnati Cyclones to an Eastern Conference Championship. Simon and the Griffins also made waves during free agency, bringing in goaltender Harri Sateri who had a 2.30 goals against average and 0.927 save percentage with Springfield last season. They also signed Wade Megan who is one season-removed from 66 points (33 goals, 33 assists), added the AHL’s points leader in Chris Terry (32G, 39A, 71 PTS) and Carter Camper’s 61 points (16G, 45A). In regards to the younger talent such as Filip Zadina, it will be most beneficial for his development to be playing more minutes and in a larger role at the AHL level than being a healthy scratch in the NHL. Simply put, this Griffins team is meant to score, and score a lot, but it also has the depth on the backend and in net to keep a favorable goals scored/allowed ratio. This Griffins team is the early favorite in the Central Division for both the title and a deep playoff run.
The Iowa Wild are coming off a 33-27-10-6 campaign in 2017-18, finishing six points behind Rockford for the final playoff spot in the Central. If they are to make the playoffs for the first time since moving to Des Moines in 2013-14, the Wild will need to find a way to keep the puck out of the net. Iowa allowed 3.24 goals a game last year, finishing 24th in the league in that department. The Wild hope C.J. Motte is the answer in net; he was 3-1-1 with a .926 save percentage and a 2.13 goals against average in limited action last season. First-year head coach Tim Army will also need his squad to improve its record in games going beyond 60 minutes if it is to contend. Iowa left way too many points on the table in 2017-18, gaining the extra point just five times in 16 opportunities (4-10 OT, 1-6 SO). This will need to change with every point crucial in a division as tight as the Central is expected to be. One thing the Wild do have going for them is the return of their leading scorer from a year ago, Cal O’Reilly. O’Reilly contributed 64 points (15G, 49A, 64 PTS) to the Wild cause last year, and will be counted on to provide an offensive punch again. Like most of the teams in the Central, it is too early to count Iowa out, but the Wild figure to be a bubble team yet again.
The Moose once again have JC Lipon who recorded 17 goals and 21 assists; Michael Spacek, who set a franchise rookie record with 10 power-play goals last season; and Mason Appleton, who topped all rookies in the AHL last season with 22 goals and 44 assists. They’re also bolstered by the addition of 6’7” 2016 first round draft pick Logan Stanley on the backend who will be playing in his first professional season of hockey after logging 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) this past season with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. Look for Stanley to make an immediate impact. However, Eric Comrie lost his #2 in Michael Hutchinson, whose 2.08 GAA and 0.935 SV% will be tough to replace. While this Moose team will certainly be competitive once again, how successful they will be is dependant upon if and how badly their parent club is hurt by injuries. They fell in the Central Division significantly at the end of the season due to call ups by Winnipeg, and it also hurt them in the playoffs. Assuming the organization stays healthy and that the Moose found a way to replace Hutchinson, they’ll be playoff-bound yet again.
The 2018-19 Admirals will have a new look after bringing in Scott Nichol (former Director of Player Development of the Nashville Predators) as the new GM, and Karl Taylor (former assistant coach with the Texas Stars) as the new head coach. Only nine players from the 2017-18 squad have made it to the opening night roster with many players having jumped ship – pun intended – to other organizations. Leading scorer Emil Pettersson returns, but Bobby Butler is now in Hartford with the Wolf Pack and Frederick Gaudreau has earned a promotion to the big club. Starting goaltender Anders Lindback has gone overseas, and it appears Troy Grosenick has earned the full time netminder gig. Nick Baptiste is one of the new faces for Ads fans to be excited about as he should benefit from being in a new organization. In short, the Admirals intend to be a different team than last, but only time will tell if they’ll be able to compete in a tight Central Division.
Colin Delia. Last season, he was the rookie goaltender who helped turn Rockford’s season around. This included the IceHogs sweeping its opponents in the first two rounds of the Calder Cup Playoffs after making a late-season push for a playoff berth in the first place. Both the Blackhawks and IceHogs have placed so much trust in the young netminder who had begun the season with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel that they allowed both goaltenders Jeff Glass and Jean-Francois Berube to go elsewhere. Dylan Sikura also joins brother Tyler Sikura on the IceHogs roster, and they look to bring an impressive one-two punch to the organization. Leading scorers Tyler Sikura, Matthew Highmore and Anthony Louis all return, and the IceHogs also brought back Alex Broadhurst, who had 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists/) with the Monsters last season. If Jeremy Colliton’s team can pick back up where it left off, the IceHogs figure to push for a playoff spot yet again barring the Blackhawks treating the lineup like a revolving door as they did in 2017-18.
San Antonio Rampage
San Antonio will also be hoping a new coach can help them reach the postseason in 2018-19. The Rampage were 35-31-10-0 in 2017-18, finishing last in the Pacific and on the outside looking in come playoff time. The Rampage have not made the second season since 2014-15, and have only made it four times in team history, exiting in round one all four times. Drew Bannister comes in as the new bench boss after a season in which he led the OHL’s Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds to franchise records for wins (55) and points (116), earning Coach of the Year honors for both the OHL and the CHL as a whole. Goal scoring will be a massive key to the Rampage making or missing the playoffs this season, as San Antonio was 27th in the league scoring just 2.61 goals per game in 2017-18. On top of that, last year’s leading scorer Andrew Agozzino (23G, 21A, 44 PTS) is now with the Colorado Eagles. With the offense in question, the Rampage will lean heavily on their goaltending. Thankfully, they return Ville Husso between the pipes; he posted a 15-14-0 record (2.42 GAA, .922 SV%) last season.
The Texas Stars come in as the defending Western Conference Champions, and off a playoff run which saw them come within one win of the Calder Cup. The Stars are now without Mike McKenna,14-8 (2.44 GAA, .927 SV%) in the playoffs, who signed with the Senators organization this summer. The Stars will turn to the duo of Landon Bow and Philippe Desrosiers to fill the void between the pipes. Bow was 20-15-5 (2.86 GAA, .903 SV%) in 46 appearances, while Desrosiers was 1-0-0 (0.86 GAA, .962 SV%) in two games for Texas last year. They will give coach Derek Laxdal the luxury of going with the hot hand in net. Texas and San Antonio have moved to the Central Division, which could bode well for the squad from Cedar Park. The Stars had a record of 21-7-1-3 against the Central in 2017-18. One area in which the Stars need to improve is the penalty kill. Texas ranked 27th in the AHL, killing just 78.9% of opponent power plays. The Stars return key defensemen such as Gavin Bayreuther and Dillon Heatherington, giving them a sturdy foundation to build upon when on the kill. They will also need to replace their captain, and leading playoff scorer, from a year ago in Curtis McKenzie (11G, 9A, 20 PTS in playoffs). Travis Morin (10G, 51A, 61 PTS) and Justin Dowling (13G, 28A, 41 PTS) return, and Denis Gurianov (19G, 15A, 34 PTS) is coming off an impressive preseason for NHL Dallas. When you add it a together, Texas has all the pieces to compete for the Central crown.