SPRINGFIELD, MASS- The Pacific Division has a new look this season, with two squads departing and one coming in. The two Texas teams have moved over to the Central, while AHL newcomer Colorado Eagles come into the division. The Tucson Roadrunners are defending Pacific champs, but Colorado enters the season after closing its ECHL days with back-to-back Kelly Cups.
The Bakersfield Condors are nothing if not consistent, finishing three, then four, and once again three games over .500 in their first three seasons. While they have posted a winning record every year, the Condors have yet to experience Calder Cup Playoff hockey. If that is to change this season, they will need to find a way to score more goals. Bakersfield was 20th in AHL scoring at just 2.76 goals a game, which is a losing recipe when you give up 3.03/game. Bakersfield does return its leading scorer from a season ago in Josh Currie (20G 26A, 46pts), and has brought in some younger talent to put around him. Cooper Marody is back for his first full professional season; he tallied three points in three games (G, 2A) a year ago after completing his college career at the University of Michigan. The Condors will also look to Cameron Hebig to add more offensive firepower. Hebig tallied a total of 90 points (41G, 49A) in 66 games split between the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades and Regina Pats. Bakersfield will also need to keep the puck out of their own net, and brought in veteran NHL netminder Al Montoya to help solidify that position. The Condors should be in the race for the fourth and final playoff spot once again this year, but it will still be a challenge to finally get over the hump.
The Eagles join the AHL for the 2018-19 season after spending the last seven seasons as a member of the ECHL. Colorado made the playoffs in each of those seven campaigns, and won it all the last two years. Now comes a serious step up in competition, but the Eagles look capable of competing right away. Colorado picked up two key forwards from former Pacific teams this summer, bringing in Sheldon Dries from Texas, and Andrew Agozzino from San Antonio. Dries scored 19 regular season and 10 postseason goals for Texas a year ago, while Agozzino led San Antonio with 44 points (23G, 21A). Dries made the Colorado Avalanche roster out of training camp, but, as reported in the Denver Post, is likely to join the Eagles when Sven Andrighetto returns to the NHL from injury. The Eagles will also have a steady hand in net, having signed Czech National Team member Pavel Francouz away from the KHL. Last season, Francouz had a stingy 1.80 goals against average and .946 save percentage in 35 games for the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk, while posting a 2.28 GAA and .906 save% in 16 international appearances for the Czech Republic. The AHL will certainly be a new challenge, but Colorado looks ready to compete for a playoff spot in their first season.
The Ontario Reign have made the playoffs in each of their three AHL seasons, making the 2015 West Final, then falling in round one the last two campaigns. Ontario should once again be a playoff team, but will need to find a go-to-guy offensively if they are to win a series or more. The Reign were middle of the pack in goal scoring last year (2.94/game, 16th), and their leading scorer, Michael Mersch (21G 28A, 49pts), is now with the Texas Stars. Ontario will look to recent signing Emerson Etom to help pick up some of the offensive slack. Etom comes from the Anaheim Ducks organization, and has accumulated 98 points in 136 AHL games (56G, 42A), as well as 46 points in 173 NHL games (24G, 22A) over the course of his career. The strength of this Ontario team will be keeping the puck out of its own net. Ontario finished 11th in the AHL in goals against, allowing 2.85 a game, and brings back stellar goaltender Cal Petersen. Petersen caught fire in the second half of the 2017-18 season, and guided the Reign to the Pacific Division’s third seed. He ended the year 23-14-2 (2.58 GAA, .910 SV%), and will look to improve upon those numbers in his sophomore season. Ontario will be in the playoff hunt once again, and, if they find some offense to go with Petersen, could very well end up winning this division.
SAN DIEGO GULLS
The San Diego Gulls held one of the Pacific’s top four spots for the vast majority of the season a year ago, but hard-charging San Jose stole the final playoff spot by winning six straight to close the campaign. San Diego will look to bounce back and return to the payoffs after a one-year hiatus. Gulls fans should be encouraged, as this may be the best team in the Pacific coming in. San Diego will play from the net out, and will do so by a pair of talented tenders. Kevin Boyle returns for his third season with San Diego, and is coming off a year in which he went 19-13-1 (2.66 GAA, .921 SV%). He will be joined by Jared Coreau, who comes over from the Grand Rapids Griffins. Coreau was 21-10-4 (2.52 GAA, .913 SV%) in 38 games for the Griffins in 2017-18. Having two solid goalies gives head coach Dallas Eakins the luxury of going with the hot hand in net, and will provide stability at the back. San Diego also returns each of its top-four scorers from a year ago, Kalle Kossila (21G 33A, 54pts), Corey Tropp (17G 26A, 43pts), Sam Carrick (13G 28A, 41pts), and Kevin Roy (14G 23A, 37pts). The game is played on a sheet of ice, but, when looking on a sheet of paper, San Diego appears to be a Calder Cup contender.
SAN JOSE BARRACUDA
San Jose looked dead in the water with six games to play in 2017-18, but, needing each and every point, the Barracuda won six straight to gain the four-seed in the Pacific. The Barracuda have yet to miss the playoffs in their brief history, but this may be the year it happens. The San Jose Sharks made a massive trade to acquire Erik Karlsson this summer, but that meant sending several prospects to Ottawa in exchange. The biggest loss is Rudolfs Balcers, who led the Barracuda with 48 points (23G, 25A) a year ago. The Barracuda will look to their incoming rookies to provide goal scoring, and they have one of the best in Jayden Halbgewachs. Halbgewachs comes from the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL, where he scorched the net over the past two seasons. He broke the century mark in 2016-17 by posting 50 goals and 51 assists for 101 points, then shattered that number by tallying 129 points (70G, 59A) last season. The Barracuda do return their staring goalie from a season ago in Antoine Bibeau, who was 23-14-2 (2.37 GAA, .919 SV%) in 2017-18. San Jose will need him to be at his best to keep the pressure off Halbgewachs and the youthful Barracuda attack. If everything goes right a fourth-straight playoff trip is certainly possible, though it does seem like a long shot going in.
The Stockton Heat will take the ice with a new bench boss this season, as Cail MacLean was promoted to head coach after Ryan Huska moved up to Calgary. Stockton fell short of the playoffs last year, finishing with a 34-28-2-4 record which was good for 6th in the Pacific Division. With additions of young explosive talent like Matthew Phillips and Glenn Gawdin, it’s clear the young guns will be key to the success of this team. Goaltending will be a big question mark heading into this season, as it was for much of last season. Jon Gillies (2.53 GAA, .917 SV%) will start the year as the starting goaltender, but right behind him will be Tyler Parsons (4.39 GAA, .856 SV%), who is looking to rebound after a rough start in professional hockey. Defenseman Oliver Kylington will have a key role this season, as Tyler Wotherspoon and Cody Goloubef have moved on to other organizations. With the young talent on this team and the familiar top players, Stockton could be a very interesting team to watch this year as they attempt to return to the postseason after a one year absence.
Tucson comes into the 2018-19 season as defending Pacific Champions, having led the division nearly from start to finish. They were toppled by the second-seeded Texas Stars in round two of the playoffs, however, and will look to take the next step in 2018-19. The Roadrunners appear to be loaded once again, and should compete with San Diego and Ontario for the division title. The biggest strength for Tucson coming into the year is their returning goaltending duo of Adin Hill and Hunter Miska. The two split time evenly last year, with each making 36 appearances. Hill was 19-11-0 (2.28 GAA, .914 SV%), while Miska posted a record of 22-9-0 (2.63 GAA, .901 SV%). Last year’s leading scorer Dylan Strome (22G 31A, 53pts) made NHL Arizona out of camp, but could still see time with the Roadrunners this year. In his absence, Tucson will look to a couple young guns to chip in offensively. Tyler Steenbergen and Kevin Klima each join the Roadrunners after standout junior seasons. Klima 87 points (39G, 47A) in 68 games for Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL. Steenbergen was even better, scoring at nearly a two-point/game clip with 102 points (47G, 55A) over just 56 games for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos in 2017-18. The Roadrunners also brought a veteran Calder Cup Champion in the form of defenseman Robbie Russo. Russo spent the past two years with the Grand Rapids Griffins, where was a plus-21 and chipped in 64 points (16G, 48A) in 133 games. He was a member of the 2017 Champion Griffins, which will provide valuable experience to a young but talented locker room. Tucson has all the pieces in place to not only repeat as division champs, but to also take the next step in the postseason.