As the clock ticks down to the 80th season of the American Hockey League, the anticipation for this new era for the AHL is going strong. With a whole new landscape and plenty of talent to go around, this year could be one of the tops for the top minor league in the North American hockey landscape. Yet, you don’t know where you’re going unless you remember where you’ve been.
The 2014-15 season started off with some movement as the Phantoms were able to move into a stable location in the Lehigh Valley after being displaced from Philadelphia and using Adirondack as a temporary home until the arena in Allentown was built. The void in Adirondack was filled soon after with the Abbotsford Heat moving to Glens Falls, New York after years of bleeding money out in British Columbia.
On top of that, a rule change was something that got people buzzing. The AHL instituted a seven-minute overtime from the traditional five-minute over time. Each team would still start 4-on-4, but the first whistle after three minutes brought about a big change. That whistle would reduce teams to 3-on-3. This was brought in to reduce the possibility of shootouts and had rave reviews to the format. By the season’s end, the games that were decided by shootout were reduced from just over 64% in 2013-14 to 25% in 2014-15.
Though, the biggest news wouldn’t come until late January when it was announced that the AHL would be moving five teams to California. The NHL’s Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks announced they would move their AHL affiliations to California for a closer proximity when it came to calling up players. This would mean that it would be the last AHL seasons for the Adirondack Flames, Oklahoma City Barons, Manchester Monarchs, Worcester Sharks, and Norfolk Admirals. The new teams coming into the league would be the Stockton Heat, Bakersfield Condors, Ontario Reign, San Jose Barracuda, and San Diego Gulls to form the new Pacific Division, joining the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars. It would be announced afterwords that Adirondack, Manchester, and Norfolk would all move to the ECHL ranks at season’s end.
Scoring was up by a bit, with 23 teams putting up 200 or more goals, which is the most since the 2011-12 season when 24 teams had over 200 goals. The league had four 30-goal scorers with Grand Rapids’ Teemu Pulkkinen leading the way with 34. Others in the 30-goal crew were Paul Thompson (Albany, 33), Shane Harper (Chicago, 32), and Andrew Agozzino (Lake Erie, 30). There was a lot of contribution from the blue line, as well, with Chris Wideman (Binghamton), Colin Miller (Manchester), Brad Hunt (Oklahoma City), and Stefan Elliott (Lake Erie) all putting up 19 goals on the season, while Bridgeport’s Ryan Pulock was able to chalk up 17 goals on his campaign. Wideman not only led Binghamton in points, but was the only defenseman in the top-20 in league scoring with 61 points to his credit.
Though there was plenty of scoring in the AHL, there were a couple of goalies who were able to take headlines away from the amounts of goals out there. From the start of the season, it looked to be a two horse race for top goalie honors with Jacob Markstrom in Utica and Anton Forsberg in Springfield. Markstrom didn’t lose in regulation until late November and only lost twice overall from October to December. Forsberg didn’t lose a game in November and went 18-4-0 in his first 22 games. Despite that, call-ups for both players (and a late-season knee injury to Forsberg) hampered their ability to really dominate the AHL goalie ranks.
However, one of the biggest surprises was Matt Murray of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, who came alive when the calendar turned to 2015. Murray went 14-2-1 from January to April with 10 shutouts in that span. For the year, Murray recorded 12 shutouts, which broke an AHL rookie record for shutouts held by Gordie Bell, who had 10 in 1942-43. On top of that, Murray was able to break Barry Brust’s record for most consecutive shutout minutes by setting the record at 304 minutes and 11 seconds. To the surprise of no one, Murray won the Red Garrett Memorial Award for AHL Rookie of the Year, the Baz Bastien Memorial Award for Top Goaltender, the Harry Holmes Memorial Award for lowest GAA, and was placed on the AHL’s First All-Star and All-Rookie Teams.
When it came to teams, the top one from start to finish was the Manchester Monarchs. With a solid top line of eventual league MVP Brian O’Neill, Michael Mersch, and Jordan Weal producing at a torrid pace for the team and scored over a quarter of the goals for the Monarchs during the season with 64 combined goals out of the 241 total for the Monarchs. Not to be outdone, the Utica Comets, on the back of solid defense and the goaltending of Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson, were able to capture the top spot in the west for the regular season. Despite only having Brandon DeFazio as the only 20-goal scorer, captain Cal O’Reilly added 51 assists with Alexandre Grenier potting 11 power play goals, which put him fifth in the league. It should be no surprise that these two would be meeting in the Calder Cup finals.
Each of those teams had very different paths to the finals. The Monarchs had a bit of trouble in the first round, having to come back from 0-2 against the Portland Pirates. After that hiccups, the Monarchs beat Wilkes-Barre in five games and then swept the Eastern Conference Finals over the Hartford Wolf Pack. The Comets had a more challenging task, also having a first round match-up going to the full five games with the Chicago Wolves, then having to go a full seven-game series with the Oklahoma City Barons. The Comets got a bit of a break by only needing six games to defeat the Grand Rapids Griffins.
When the Calder Cup rolled around, the match-up was as even in the first three games as you could get, all being decided by one goal and two going to overtime. Yet, the Monarchs broke out in Game Four by winning 6-3 and then took Game Five in another one-goal affair. Jordan Weal won Playoff MVP putting up 22 points in 19 games, which tied his teammate Michael Mersch. Those two along with linemate Brian O’Neill held the top three spots in scoring. The victory was bittersweet for the Monarchs. The team got back in Manchester days later, the Monarchs held a small rally inside the Verizon Wireless Arena and raised their Calder Cup championship banner in front of their faithful fans. It signals not only the end of the season, but the end of an era in the AHL with the Monarchs, as the players themselves move onward to Ontario, California under the Ontario Reign name.