WICHITA, Kan. – This week, Matthew Harding and Samantha Hoffmann look at the influx of amateurs into the minor leagues, examine what’s going on with the Utah Grizzlies, plus a few “picks to click” for the upcoming Madness that’s popular this time of the year.

Let’s get after it.

Youthful Reinforcements

It’s that wonderful time of year where minor league hockey fans of all levels find themselves having to learn a horde of names… in March? That’s right, as both the junior and college hockey seasons draw to a close, teams are beginning to sign prospects to Amateur Try Outs (ATOs) for the remainder of the season. While most will likely not get postseason action with their clubs, a few always surprise and play a big part in a postseason run.

Today alone, the Texas Stars have added four players on ATOs – Joseph Cecconi from the University of Michigan (defense, Captain), Diego Cuglietta from Lake Superior State University (left wing), Rhett Gardner from the University of North Dakota (center, 2016 NCAA Champion, two-time alternate captain) and Josh Melnick from Miami University of Ohio (right wing, co-captain) – while also having Ty Dellandrea reassigned from the OHL’s Flint Firebirds.

That’s five additions to a single team in just one day. For teams on the bubble of making playoffs, new faces could be the difference-maker which catapults them over the edge, while first-place teams may get even deeper.

Get your flashcards out hockey fans, because you’re going to need them to learn the slew of new names heading your way.

Our AHL Three Stars of the Week

★ – T.J. Tynan – Chicago Wolves – With the loss of leading scorers Brandon Pirri to Vegas and Daniel Carr to injury, the Wolves have been needing others to step up if they want to continue sitting pretty on top of the Central Division. After scoring just four total goals on a three-game road trip in Texas, there were concerned rumblings about this team’s depth headed into playoffs.

They’ve since rebounded, and are 4-0-1-0 in their past five games. A good amount of this success has stemmed from the performance of Chicago’s leadership group – like Curtis McKenzie and Griffin Reinhart, two of the three ‘A’ wearers – but none showed up more on the scoresheet than alternate captain Tynan who recorded six points (1G, 5A) in two games for the Wolves this past week. Where there was previously a question mark by Chicago’s scoring depth, the Wolves have erased it, led by T.J. Tynan.

★★ – Mitch Callahan and Tyler Benson – Bakersfield Condors – The Condors continue to be the big, bad boys of the Pacific Division with 78 points in 58 games played, which is good for third overall in the AHL by points percentage behind the Charlotte Checkers and  Syracuse Crunch. Both Callahan and Benson each recorded five points (1G, 4A and 2G, 3A, respectively) in Bakersfield’s two wins this past week. What should be even more frightening for the Condors’ Pacific Division opponents is the fact that there was only one scoring play in Bakersfield’s 11-goal week where both players were involved.

★★★ – Jeremy Bracco – Toronto Marlies – Though Bracco is the AHL’s Player of the Week, his seven points in three games is a smidge less impressive than the performances of the previous players, especially considering his two two-assist games came against non-playoff teams. However, seven points in three games – over two points per game! – is still very impressive, especially for a Marlies look to repeat as Calder Cup Finalists. Bracco is a 2015 second-round draft pick, so his impressive performance can only mean great things about his development status.

What’s Up With the Utah Grizzlies?

Once a contender for the Mountain Division title and one of the best teams in the Western Conference, the Utah Grizzlies have fallen on tough times as the end of the regular season draws near. With a hat-tip to ECHL Editor C.C. Hawkley, the Grizzlies have lost 12 of their last 14 games, and five of their last six. When the skid began on February 16, the Grizz were first in the Mountain Division with 69 points, while the Kansas City Mavericks, the team in fourth, had 51 points. Currently, Utah has 74 points (third in the Mountain Division,) while Kansas City has 69 points.

During the skid, the Grizzlies have been outscored 51-32, with the team allowing more than four goals in seven of the 14 contests, including a stretch of six-in-a-row. For their part, the Grizzlies offense has been held to two or fewer goals in eight of the 14 games.

One obvious source to look at why the skid has happened is injuries. Utah had played a majority of the last month without J.T. Henke, Austin Carroll, and Jack Walker. Those players have rejoined the club and may help solve the Grizzlies’ issues.

The Grizzlies will sew up their 11th playoff berth in the last 12 seasons at some point soon (their magic number is 7.) But, the main point of emphasis for Tim Branham‘s bunch has to be about making sure things are tightened up in all phases of the game, or this could be a very underwhelming spring in the Great Salt Lake.

Our ECHL Three Stars of the Week

★ – Ian Keserich – Tulsa Oilers – For the second time in three weeks, the Oilers netminder has won the league’s weekly netminder honor. Keserich went 2-0-0 with one shutout, a 1.00 goals-against average and a save percentage of .957 in two appearances against last week.

The 33-year-old stopped all 21 shots he faced in a 2-0 win at Allen on Tuesday to record his first ECHL shutout since Jan. 9, 2009 before making 23 saves in a 6-2 victory at Kansas City on Saturday. Since coming out of retirement last month, he has seen action in 11 games, going 7-2-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and a save percentage of .934.

★★ – Conor Riley – Adirondack Thunder – The 26-year-old tallied a goal in a 4-1 win against Newfoundland on Friday and had four points (3G, 1A) in a 6-4 victory over the Growlers on Saturday. Riley has posted 35 points (21G, 14A) in 53 games with the Thunder this season while adding one goal in five American Hockey League games with Binghamton and Providence. Overall, he has recorded 72 points (35G, 37A) in 154 career ECHL games with Adirondack.

★★★ – Your pen – With March Madness set to get going in earnest in the next couple of days, your pen will be the third stars simply for all the lines you draw through the teams you thought were going to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. As a life-long KU fan who has seen his share of disappointments *cough* Bucknell in 2005, you eventually learn that your bracket should be written in #2 lead pencil, rather than a pen.

If you’re curious (which I’m sure you’re not), here are my Final Four and Championship game picks:

Final Four: UNC, Duke, Tennessee, and Michigan
Championship Game: Duke and UNC – Duke wins 84-73

If you win with my picks, feel free to make a contribution to this fair website.

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