SPRINGFIELD, Mass – With the American Hockey League season just 72 hours away from opening night, it’s time to take a look at possibly the most lopsided division in the AHL, the Atlantic Division. Yes, you have the reigning Calder Cup Champions in the Toronto Marlies, but you also have the league’s four worst teams in the Belleville Senators, the Binghampton Devils, the Cleveland Monsters and the Laval Rocket.
Belleville had nowhere to go but up this offseason, as the Senators finished third to last in the league with 63 points in 76 games. A big acquisition in goal was Mike McKenna, who backstopped the Texas Stars to a second-place finish in the Calder Cup Playoffs. McKenna has made two consecutive Calder Cup Finals appearances, with his team falling in both series. Filip Chlapik perhaps will benefit the most from the new coaching staff headed by Troy Mann, and the highest-scoring player for the Senators from the 2017-18 season might get a call up as the season wears on. On the back end, not much has changed for the Senators who held the second-worst goals against average at 3.50. The Senators need someone – or a group of someones – to step up and dig this team out of the offensive and defense holes it found itself in this past season.
Another team with a large scoring drop off, the Binghamton Devils had just four players with 35 points or more in the 2017-18 season. The Devils found themselves just above the bottom of the league, sitting at 29th with an average of 2.54 goals for and an unfortunate 3.50 goals against average. It looks like Cam Johnson may eventually challenge Mackenzie Blackwood for the starting job as the former University of North Dakota netminder impressed almost everyone during the preseason. If there’s one easy place of improvement to identify for the Devils, it’s in the crease, as the triplet of Blackwood, Ken Appleby and Eddie Lack, were, aptly, lacking in net. The Devils need Blackwood to be better after going 7-17-6-2 last season, and he may benefit from the challenge of Johnson. It’s still an uphill battle for the Devils who lost a 43-point scorer in Bracken Kearns and a 55-point scorer in Jacob MacDonald, and they look to replace their scoring by committee.
Like the above two teams, there isn’t much good news for Cleveland Monsters fans this season as the AHL’s worst team in the West last year lost three of its top four scorers – Jordan Schroeder and Terry Broadhurst to the Rockford IceHogs, and Carter Camper to the Grand Rapids Griffins – without adding much firepower in return. The one notable improvement for Columbus’ AHL team is in net, with the Blue Jackets signing Jean-Francois Berube who will be backed up in net by Matiss Kivlenieks. In 43 starts, the Latvian netminder posted a 3.21 GAA and .891 SV%, so having someone more solid like Berube to split the net with should help Kivlenieks and the Monsters. One player to keep an eye on is the relatively unknown Kevin Stenlund, who will get the chance to show Blue Jackets fans why he was deserving of being a second round draft pick his first full season in North America. Stenlud played in seven games with the Monsters last spring, but the Swede has now had time to adjust to North American ice and could surprise as a top scorer for the Monsters. This team probably won’t be playoff-bound, but it might benefit from how weak the bottom of the North Division is.
It’s difficult to be optimistic about the AHL’s worst team from 2017-18 as its parent club moved vital pieces without really gaining much back, but the Rocket would have to try to hit just 58 points again. They lost leading scorer Chris Terry and traded away Matt Taormina, but added Kenny Agostino, who is one year removed from being the AHL’s Most Valuable Player, and Michael Chaput. Though it appears the Rocket can only go up, they best finish they can hope for is fifth, as they do not appear to have the depth to overtake any of the top-heavy North Division teams for a playoff spot. Joel Bouchard will certainly provide a depth of fresh air as this team hopes to hit just .500 this season, but he might have his work cut out for him as the Montreal/Laval organization is one of the weakest in professional hockey.
The Amerks come in to the 2018-19 season after a disappointing sweep by the Syracuse Crunch in round one of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Competing in the same division the 2018 champion Toronto Marlies call home, the North Division should be stacked yet again. During the off season, Rochester lost a major component in Colin Blackwell who signed a two-way deal with the Nashville Predators. Despite the loss, he should be replaced well by a trio of Swedes: Rasmus Asplund, Victor Olofsson, and Lawrence Pilut. The Amerks regain who should be a big player in CJ Smith. A 2018 AHL All Star as a rookie, Smith was on pace to be a scoring leader before an injury slowed him down. The biggest question mark for Rochester this season is goaltending. Scott Wedgewood showed signs of being a top goalie, however, similar to Smith, was faced with injury and a corresponding shoulder surgery. If necessary, and quite likely, the Amerks will look down to their ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones, at some point this season for goaltending help, snagging Buffalo-contracted Jonas Johansson and/or Rochester-contracted Michael Houser. For the Amerks, this season is playoffs or bust. Either they’ll be a clear playoff contender all season, or they’ll face plant from the get go – there will be no in between. (Credit to @LetsGoAmerks)
Preseason hockey in Tampa might hurt the Crunch in the long run, as both Daniel Walcott (five to six months) and Kevin Lynch (four to six weeks) were hurt in the preseason. Though Walcott and Lynch were not the biggest goal scorers for the Crunch, both are noted leaders in the locker room. Leading scorer Mathieu Joseph also has made the Tampa Bay Lightning roster out of camp, but Carter Verhaeghe, who had 48 points (17 goals, 31 assists) in 58 games looks to play a larger role in his first full, healthy season as a professional in the AHL. Connor Ingram is also posed to return in net after going 20-11-2-4 in his first season at the AHL level, with Eddie Pasquale once again filling out the team’s goaltending. Make no mistake, Tampa Bay’s, and by extension Syracuse’s, prospect pool is deep, and the Crunch should have no issue once again finishing in the top of their division, but they’ll need some of their leadership guys to step up and get everything moving in the right direction.
The Toronto Marlies are champions! Yes Toronto, has a team that got it done on the ice and took home the Calder Cup! Though the celebrations will probably last into this season, it’s time to look into the future. The Marlies are now defending their throne atop of the AHL and it won’t be easy. With big names moving up and new faces coming in, the challenge to repeat as champions this season will be a tough hill to climb. Moving on from the team will be Garret Sparks, who of course was Goalie of the Year with a league-best 1.79 GAA and .936 save percentage, and Calvin Pickard who was lost to waivers. Joining Sparks in the parent club will be team leaders in Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Travis Dermott. With turnover comes new leaders and new stories, and luckily for Marlies fans, this organization is not short of young talent as it looks to be an early lock for a postseason berth. For an in depth look at the Marlies click here.
Thatcher Demko sustaining a concussion in the preseason may be a blessing in disguise for the Utica Comets, as it means the talented young netminder will surely need to spend some time in Utica before potentially challenging for a job in Vancouver. In 46 games played last season, Demko went 25-13-7-1 with a 2.44 GAA and .922 SV%, stealing at least a point for his team numerous times throughout the season. Utica lost leading scorer Michael Chaput, but they brought in a few scorers to make up, and hopefully surpass, the team’s scoring total from this past season. The addition of Tanner Kero, who brings with him a full body of AHL success, will help the Comets upfront as the Comets were just 19th in goals for in the league, but 10th in goals against thanks to its goaltending tandem. They will need everyone in a Comets jersey to play better in his own zone if the Comets look to top the Crunch and the Marlies for the Eastern Conference throne. Though Utica is poised to be a playoff team, the Comets will need better two-way play from every single one of the players in front of the crease if they look to make a deep playoff run.