? by Patrick Williams
Players, coaches, management, fans — everybody in and around the American Hockey League craved normalcy last season.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented numerous obstacles last season. But the AHL and its teams pulled off the 2020-21 season, made it through, and set themselves up for that hoped-for pay-off of normalcy.
Now they have that reward.
A six-game slate begins the 2021-22 AHL season Friday night as fans return to AHL buildings across the league’s 31-team map. A night later, 13 more contests on the AHL calendar are set. Plenty of change awaits fans with this season featuring a new Canadian club and three other teams taking on brand-new affiliations. Ten clubs have had head-coaching changes. One constant remains as the AHL will feature first- and second-round picks up and down its line-ups in its role as the NHL’s top development league.
What can fans expect after so much change? Here is a team-by-team look at what fans should watch for this season:
Abbotsford Canucks (NHL affiliate: Vancouver Canucks)
What to watch: At long last, Vancouver has a nearby AHL affiliate for the first time in franchise history. Canucks management brought the AHL back to British Columbia, where the NHL club will be able to shuttle prospects just an hour away in Abbotsford. To that end, Vancouver moved aggressively to bring in veteran talent, including Phil Di Giuseppe, Sheldon Dries, Cam Schilling, and more. Head coach Trent Cull is back for his fifth season guiding the organization’s AHL prospects.
Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers)
What to watch: The Condors and head coach Jay Woodcroft return with much of the same talent that took Bakersfield to the Pacific Division title last season. Playmaker Tyler Benson has stuck with Edmonton, but forward Cooper Marody is back after his 21 goals led the AHL last season. Defenseman Philip Broberg, the eighth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, will debut with the Condors. Woodcroft has a deep base of veteran talent, including Adam Cracknell, Seth Griffith, Brad Malone, and newcomer Tim Schaller.
Belleville Senators (Ottawa Senators)
What to watch: The B-Sens are back home in the Friendly City after spending last season playing out of Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre. Top prospect Mads Sogaard offers plenty to watch in net, top prospect Erik Brannstrom joined Belleville on Thursday, and a strong core of young talent fortifies the Belleville roster. Ottawa also brought in proven producers Andrew Agozzino and Pontus Aberg for scoring pop. Troy Mann again leads the B-Sens behind the bench.
Bridgeport Islanders (New York Islanders)
What to watch: Supplied with a new moniker and ongoing renovations to Webster Bank Arena, enthusiasm is high in Bridgeport off the ice. On the ice, Bridgeport will blend a base of youth — including 2020-21 Atlantic Division AHL All-Star defenseman Samuel Bolduc — with long-time AHL offensive talent, as Chris Terry returns to the AHL after one season overseas to join newcomers Andy Andreoff, Austin Czarnik, Paul LaDue, and more.
Charlotte Checkers (Florida Panthers/Seattle Kraken)
What to watch: The Checkers went beyond starting one new affiliation with Florida; they also took on a second NHL affiliation with Seattle, the NHL’s newest club, while Kraken prospects await the debut of the AHL’s 32nd franchise in the Palm Springs area next season. Both NHL parent teams moved aggressively in the offseason as the Checkers compete in the deep Atlantic Division.
Chicago Wolves (Carolina Hurricanes)
What to watch: After adding Nashville Predators prospects to their Carolina affiliation last season, the Wolves are back to a solo parent in the Hurricanes. Forward Andrew Poturalski, MVP of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs as a Hurricanes prospect, rejoined the Carolina organization this summer after leading the AHL in scoring with San Diego last season. Carolina has stocked up talent for the Wolves while rookies Jack Drury and Ryan Suzuki bring the youth.
Cleveland Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets)
What to watch: Goaltender Daniil Tarasov and forward Liam Foudy highlight some of the youth in Cleveland. The Monsters also return a strong core in Dillon Simpson, Justin Scott, and Tyler Sikura, among others. Forward Tyler Angle is back after opening a lot of eyes as a rookie.
Colorado Eagles (Colorado Avalanche)
What to watch: Justus Annunen will get his turn in net after a late-season audition with the Eagles, and rookie Alex Beaucage adds to head coach Greg Cronin’s set of forwards. Martin Kaut is back for further seasoning. The Eagles have added Andreas Englund, Jordan Gross, and Roland McKeown to a heavily revamped blue line along with forward Dylan Sikura from the rival Henderson Silver Knights.
Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings)
What to watch: Several familiar faces moved on from the Griffins, but Grand Rapids again looks dangerous. Leading the way is reigning Eddie Shore Award winner Ryan Murphy. Touted 21-year-old forward Jonatan Berggren will make his North American debut, and forward Joe Veleno is back from Detroit. In net, Victor Brattstrom will join Calvin Pickard.
Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers)
What to watch: One of the most exciting young defense corps in the AHL will feature Zac Jones, Tarmo Reunanen, Matthew Robertson, Braden Schneider, and Hunter Skinner. Head coach Kris Knoblauch indicated that NHL veteran Keith Kinkaid will be his number-one goaltender, but Adam Huska and Tyler Wall can provide plenty of competition for net time. New forward Lauri Pajuniemi made a quick impression with a strong preseason.
Henderson Silver Knights (Vegas Golden Knights)
What to watch: After an impressive debut in which they finished atop the Pacific Division in the 2020-21 regular season, the Silver Knights have set a high bar for themselves. Standout goaltender Logan Thompson is back following his breakthrough campaign. Mix in additions in Sven Bärtschi up front and blueliner Derrick Pouliot to go with a strong returning prospect group.
Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals)
What to watch: Scott Allen takes over in Hershey after Spencer Carbery’s promotion to the Toronto Maple Leafs for the defending Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy winner as the AHL’s top regular-season club. But the demands on the AHL’s oldest franchise are always considerable, and the Washington organization went to work this summer retooling the Hershey roster. Defensively, Cody Franson, Matt Irwin, Michal Kempny, and Dylan McIlrath have arrived, and Alex Alexeyev is knocking on Washington’s door. NHL veteran Matt Moulson heads a stout group of forwards, as the Bears try to bring the Calder Cup back to Chocolatetown.
Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild)
What to watch: Yet another NHL first-round choice will take on the AHL as forward Marco Rossi heads to Iowa; Minnesota took him ninth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. Minnesota overhauled Iowa’s back end, signing Kevin Czuczman, Joe Hicketts, and Doyle Somerby. Defensemen Dakota Mermis and goaltender Andrew Hammond are back from taxi-squad duty for head coach Tim Army.
Laval Rocket (Montreal Canadiens)
What to watch: After the Rocket captured the Canadian Division last season, a hectic offseason commenced. Head coach Joel Bouchard departed for the San Diego Gulls while Bakersfield assistant coach J-F Houle takes over this season in Laval. Danick Martel, Kevin Roy, and Jean-Sebastien Dea are among the forward additions while the Michael McNiven–Cayden Primeau tandem provides quite capable goaltending.
Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers)
What to watch: First-round picks in forwards Morgan Frost and Tyson Foerster along with defenseman Cam York are back with the Phantoms. At 18 years old, forward Samu Tuomaala will face AHL competition after Philadelphia made him a second-round pick this summer. Felix Sandstrom is back for his second AHL season in net and will be joined by Samuel Ersson, a standout in the Swedish Hockey League. But Philadelphia also brought in ample veteran help, including Iowa sniper Gerry Mayhew, plus blueliners Adam Clendening and Cooper Zech. Rounding all it out is new head coach Ian Laperriere, who played 1,083 NHL regular-season games.
Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets)
What to watch: Jets management has long made a draft-and-develop approach a centerpiece of the organization’s philosophy. Head coach Pascal Vincent played a significant role in that strategy, but he left to become an associate coach in Columbus this summer. Ville Heinola, Johnathan Kovacevic, Simon Lundmark, Declan Chisholm, and Leon Gawanke for new head coach Mark Morrison. Winnipeg added forward depth for the Moose as well to put a well-rounded line-up in front of goaltender Mikhail Berdin.
Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators)
What to watch: When the Admirals last took the ice in March 2020, they owned the AHL’s best record. Milwaukee sat out last season, meaning players in the Nashville system mainly spent with their rival Chicago Wolves. Head coach Karl Taylor was part of that group in Chicago, but he and his players are back in Milwaukee once again. Standout shooter Egor Afanasyev is among the deep collection of prospects playing for Taylor. One of the premier NHL-AHL affiliations in the business, Milwaukee is back in business.
Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings)
What to watch: Los Angeles won the competition for T.J. Tynan, the AHL’s most valuable player last season with Colorado. The Kings also brought in Garret Sparks, who has a Baz Bastien Memorial Award (top AHL goaltender) to his name. Los Angeles owns one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, including second-year forward Alex Turcotte. John Wroblewski steered the Reign through a difficult start last season and shaped them into a dangerous opponent. With another of experience for his prospects to go with that infusion of experience, expectations are strong as hockey returns to Toyota Arena.
Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins)
What to watch: Ryan Mougenel will attempt to become the next Providence head coach to take a path to the NHL after Jay Leach left for Seattle. As always, Boston had a busy summer reloading the P-Bruins. Troy Grosenick will take over in net, two-time captain Steven Fogarty is now a P-Bruin, and Aaron Ness and Jack Dougherty reshape Providence’s deep set of young defensemen. Forward Jack Studnicka was a late addition from Boston and will take a top role for Mougenel. The longest-running NHL-AHL affiliation starts its 30th season with strong hopes in this AHL stronghold.
Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres)
What to watch: Another AHL institution is in Rochester, where the Amerks have made hockey a winter tradition since 1956. As the Sabres continue to rebuild, Amerks head coach Seth Appert has reiterated endlessly the massive role that Rochester will play in that project. Top prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen joins NHL veteran Aaron Dell to make up the Rochester net tandem. Another key piece of that rebuild will be forward J.J. Peterka, a 2020 second-round choice undertaking his first North American season.
Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks)
What to watch: Head coach Derek King shepherded a remarkably young team last season. Arvid Soderblom, still another standout Swedish Hockey League netminder entering the AHL this season, will battle for starts with amid a deep set of goaltenders. Defenseman Nicolas Beaudin and forward Lukas Reichel bring first-round pedigrees to King’s line-up.
San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks)
What to watch: When Joel Bouchard became available this summer, bringing him in from the Montreal organization quickly became a top priority for the Anaheim organization. Bouchard had considerable success moving into the pro coaching game with Laval and will try to impart that same experience in San Diego. Goaltender Lukas Dostal had a strong transition to North America last season with the Gulls. Anaheim supplemented an already-strong Gulls roster by bringing in defenseman Brogan Rafferty along with forwards Danny O’Regan and Buddy Robinson. Back home in San Diego to play in front of some of the AHL’s largest and energetic crowds, San Diego is poised for a big season.
San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks)
What to watch: In a league full of transition and change, Roy Sommer has long been a dependable presence in the AHL. Sommer will begin his 24th season leading the Sharks’ AHL prospects, and his list of graduates of a who’s-who collection of long-time NHL names. In net, Alexei Melnichuk will continue his transition to the AHL. Defenseman Ryan Merkley, a 2018 first-round pick, will again be a key piece of Sommer’s coaching portfolio. The Barracuda play their final season at SAP Center before moving to their own facility next season.
Springfield Thunderbirds (St. Louis Blues)
What to watch: Excitement is high in the home of AHL headquarters where the Thunderbirds will welcome their new NHL parent club. With Blues prospects playing in San Antonio in 2019-20 before splitting the Utica Comets with Vancouver last season, head coach Drew Bannister is looking forward to his players settling down in Springfield. To that end, the Blues and Thunderbirds spent part of this summer giving player facilities at MassMutual Center a more Blues-inspired look. In the executive offices, Blues management was busy as well, adding goaltender Charlie Lindgren, defensemen Calle Rosen and Tommy Cross, and forward Matthew Peca to bolster the Springfield line-up further.
Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames)
What to watch: Back in California after a one-year stint in Calgary, the Heat are back in familiar territory once more. Mitch Love is the new head coach, and Calgary turned over some of the AHL blue line, picking up Nick DeSimone, Kevin Gravel, and Andy Welinski. Rookie goaltender Dustin Wolf had an impressive showing early last season before returning to the Western Hockey League; he is back along with newcomer Adam Werner. The Heat faced a very challenging schedule last season, but now they can get back to some home cooking.
Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning)
What to watch: The Lightning will pursue their third consecutive Stanley Cup championship once again using a roster with extensive Syracuse roots. Tampa Bay has long found an answer for the age-old challenge of balancing development and winning in the AHL, and they are putting that formula to the test again. The Lightning went to work this summer on the Syracuse roster and brought back feisty veteran Gabriel Dumont to go with sniper Charles Hudon, and goaltender Maxime Lagace. For the blue line, Darren Raddysh came from Hartford along with KHL product Dmitri Semykin. Head coach Ben Groulx is back for his sixth season.
Texas Stars (Dallas Stars)
What to watch: Jake Oettinger leads a robust group of goaltenders after he played 29 games last season with Dallas. At forward, Riley Damiani is back after a dynamic rookie season and is joined by Ty Dellandrea and Oskar Back to make up a portion of strong, young Dallas talent. Defenseman Thomas Harley is among the key projects in Texas. Calder Cup champion Curtis McKenzie is back for his second turn in Texas.
Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs)
What to watch: Greg Moore took over the Marlies midway through the 2019-20 season. Then came the 2020-21 campaign and its many challenges. Finally Moore can settle in for a more traditional year. Forward Nick Robertson will attract plenty of attention from Leafs as he begins his pro development. Another forward, Josh Ho-Sang, earned a job with the Marlies after a good showing with the Leafs on a tryout deal in training camp. Goaltender Michael Hutchinson gives the Marlies plenty of strength in the crease.
Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona Coyotes)
What to watch: After a one-year stint as a Coyotes assistant coach, Jay Varady is back to head the Roadrunners. Offseason pick-up Josef Korenar comes from San Jose and will join Ivan Prosvetov to set the Tucson goaltending picture. Arizona assigned forward Barrett Hayton, the fifth overall pick in 2018, to Tucson for further development with Varady. Feisty forward Michael Carcone found a home in Tucson while on loan from Nashville last season and impressed enough to land a new contract with the Coyotes.
Utica Comets (New Jersey Devils)
What to watch: Everything is new in Utica, starting with the NHL affiliation. New Jersey is back in Utica for the first time since 1993 and brought plenty of change. Kevin Dineen came in from San Diego along with forward Chase De Leo, who tied for fourth in AHL scoring. Tyler Wotherspoon earned a job with Utica out of New Jersey’s training camp to join newcomer Robbie Russo as veteran help. Nico Daws features as part of an all-new AHL goaltending set-up for the organization The seventh pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, forward Alexander Holtz, will see AHL time.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh Penguins)
What to watch: Louis Domingue will guide head coach J.D. Forrest’s team in net, joined by rookie Filip Lindberg after a standout NCAA career at UMass-Amherst. Former Tucson captain Michael Chaput brings leadership to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Newcomers Filip Hallander and Nathan Legare are two promising forward talents.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.