? by Patrick Williams
It seems that the St. Louis Blues have found their American Hockey League home with the Springfield Thunderbirds.
A variety of circumstances had cycled the Blues through a mix of AHL arrangements for several seasons before they teamed up with the Thunderbirds in March 2020 as part of a new five-year affiliation agreement. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed those plans this season, but St. Louis prospects are playing in the AHL’s capital city this season.
After ambitious offseason work to bulk up the Springfield roster’s experience quotient, the new affiliation has had a successful start. Fans around the AHL can sample the new-look Thunderbirds tonight when the 9-2-2-0 club hosts the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (7 ET/4 PT).
Last season Thunderbirds head coach Drew Bannister and St. Louis’s prospects split the Utica Comets, who were then affiliated with the Vancouver Canucks. Bannister and the Blues have been busy putting a strong organizational stamp on his Springfield team. To that end, St. Louis brought in highly respected defenseman and Springfield-area native Tommy Cross to captain the Thunderbirds. Defensemen Calle Rosen, goaltender Charlie Lindgren, and forwards Sam Anas and Matthew Peca rounded out an offseason of standout veteran additions.
Bannister’s roster underwent a shuffle this week. Rookie defenseman Scott Perunovich, who is tied for the AHL scoring lead with 20 points (two goals, 18 assists) in 12 games, headed off to St. Louis to make his NHL debut. If Perunovich is in the NHL to stay, then he certainly left an impression on his AHL coach.
“I’ve seen the elite talent that he has when he has the puck,” Bannister said earlier this month. “The ability to skate, his escapability when he has the puck, very high-end power-play guy. For him in the last few games, I’ve really seen the concerted effort to defend and use his body a little bit more, which at this level [prospects have] got to improve to get to the NHL.”
In his second pro season, Hofer is one of the organization’s top prospects and has excelled for the Thunderbirds in limited play with a 3-0-1 record in four starts to go with his 1.74 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Rosen is a well-established AHL blueliner with a Calder Cup on his resume, and Joshua has already earned two recalls to St. Louis in the season’s first month.
“For identity of teams at the American League level, it’s tough, because you’re constantly having guys come in and out,” Bannister said. “Just in the short term right now, I think we’re trying to build our identity through our practice habits.
“I know that people like to say that they want to play fast, and that’s something that a lot of coaches use, a lot of players use. And I think for us, it’s just our habits that start in practice and our execution to be able to do that. We want to be highly competitive. We’ve asked our players to compete in practice like they would against their opponents.”
Bannister continued: “I think it brings a level of respect into your dressing room. When guys are willing to compete against each other as they would against their [opponents], I think it really builds a level of trust within your group.”
At 6-6-0-1, the Penguins are also still attempting to forge their identity as they start a season-high four-game road trip. To do so, they are relying on experience like that of forward Michael Chaput, who has won a Calder Cup and been an AHL captain during his 10 seasons as a pro.
“Definitely [I bring] a lot of experience,” Chaput said. “There are a lot of young guys on this team, so hopefully I can help with that.”
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton broke out of a four-game losing streak last weekend against the Charlotte Checkers. Leading scorer Valtteri Puustinen has been a strong addition for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton line-up after three seasons in Finland’s SM-Liiga. A 2019 draft pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 22-year-old forward has nine points (five goals, four assists) through 13 games.
COMETS STREAKING TOWARD HISTORY
If the Utica Comets are going to make history Friday night, they will have to pass a difficult test.
As the Comets seek to establish a new AHL record with their 12th consecutive win to start the season tonight, standing in the way will be the Charlotte Checkers, who bring a three-game winning streak into the contest. A 3-2 road win against the Rochester Americans on Wednesday allowed Utica (11-0-0-0) to tie the league mark that had been set by the 1984-85 Amerks. Goals from Reilly Walsh and Robbie Russo late in the second period turned a 2-1 hole into a 3-2 advantage that the Comets held the rest of the way.
The Comets are doing without forward Fabian Zetterlund, who made his NHL debut with the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, while do-it-all forward and leading scorer Chase De Leo has been out of action for the past four games.
HEAT’S ON FOR THE REIGN
Get ready for a two-game showdown between the Western Conference’s top two clubs.
The Ontario Reign (10-1-0-1, .875) host the Stockton Heat (9-0-2-0, .909) on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening at Toyota Arena. Stockton, the lone club other than Utica to not have a regulation loss this season, is a perfect 4-0-0-0 on the road this season, outscoring their opponents 19-9.
Reign forward Martin Frk, tied for the AHL scoring lead at 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists), has amassed 6-11-17 during his current seven-game scoring streak. The Reign will also have forward Gabe Vilardi back for the first time since February 2020 after the Los Angeles Kings assigned him earlier this week; Vilardi, the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, had 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 54 games for the Kings last season.
After these two games, Ontario and Stockton do not meet again until Jan. 9.
BOLDY TO THE WILD
One of hockey’s top prospects is on his way to the Iowa Wild.
Forward Matt Boldy will report to Iowa after his assignment by the parent Minnesota Wild on Wednesday. The 20-year-old broke his ankle in an NHL preseason game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 7.
The move sends Boldy back to Iowa, where he played 14 games last season after turning pro out of Boston College. Taken 12th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, Boldy settled in very well in the AHL, and posted 18 points (six goals, 12 assists).
That stint capped an eventful season for Boldy that included being named a Hobey Baker Award Top Ten finalist as a sophomore after he piled up 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in only 22 games with BC. He also won a gold medal with the United States at the 2021 World Junior Championship, posting seven points (five goals, two assists) in seven games.
Iowa hosts the Tucson Roadrunners twice this weekend, starting Friday night.
NORTHERN LIFE SUITS THE AMERKS
Though life in the North Division certainly complicates Amerks head coach Seth Appert’s mission, consider him a fan of his team’s place on the AHL map.
Holding down fourth place in the North Division, Rochester sits 7-5-0-0 so far this season and has only ventured out of the North once this season.
“It’s such a benefit for our players and their development that we’re in the North Division,” Appert said, “and every night you’re playing physically demanding hockey.”
Appert’s team does gets a brief break from that divisional play tonight when the Lehigh Valley Phantoms visit the Blue Cross Arena.
AROUND THE AHL
? Severe flooding in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley prompted the AHL to postpone the Abbotsford Canucks’ two home games this weekend against the Bakersfield Condors. The games will be made up Jan. 5 and Jan. 10 when the Condors next visit Abbotsford, which will set up four consecutive meetings between the clubs in a six-day span.
? The Manitoba Moose picked up a big piece of their blue line with the season debut of defenseman Dylan Samberg in Thursday’s 6-2 win over Milwaukee. Samberg, taken in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, played 32 games last season as a Moose rookie. An ankle injury sustained during training camp had kept him out of action.
? The San Jose Barracuda open their new 4,200-seat arena next year, and the facility will host one of the NHL’s most prestigious events. Hosted by the parent San Jose Sharks, the new facility that is part of the Sharks Ice at San Jose complex will welcome the 2022 Rookie Faceoff, a six-team prospects tournament that will also feature the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, and Vegas Golden Knights.
? Three assists for Noah Gregor of the Barracuda extended his point streak in Wednesday’s win to a career-high seven games. He has 12 points (four goals, nine assists) during this run. Long-time AHL playmaking whiz Seth Griffith of Bakersfield tied the team’s franchise record by taking his point streak to 13 games Wednesday.
? The Arizona Coyotes announced Thursday that Tucson forward Liam Kirk is out for the season following knee surgery. Kirk, the first player born and trained in England ever drafted in the NHL, had three points in eight games for Tucson.
? Ontario owns the AHL’s top power play, with 15 goals in 55 chances (27.3 percent). Leading the way on the penalty kill are the Syracuse Crunch at 88.9 percent (40-for-45).
ON THE MOVE
? Cole Caufield returned to the Montreal Canadiens lineup on Thursday after a two-week AHL stint. Caufield registered a goal and nine shots in the Laval Rocket’s come-from-behind 6-5 shootout victory at Toronto on Wednesday, and totaled five points (two goals, three assists) in six outings with the Rocket. Laval received forward Alex Belzile from the Habs on Thursday.
? Bridgeport Islanders blueliner Robin Salo has earned a recall to the parent New York Islanders. Salo, a 2017 second-round pick, has excelled with Bridgeport, playing all 14 of the team’s games and picking up eight points (two goals, six assists). The 23-year-old came to the AHL with parts of seven seasons of high-level European experience in Finland and Sweden. Said Bridgeport head coach Brent Thompson of Salo last month, “He’s poised with the puck. He makes good decisions by moving the puck. Moves his feet well.”
? With New Jersey’s Fabian Zetterlund and Montreal’s Mattias Norlinder skating on Thursday night, a total of 47 AHL players have made their NHL debuts in 2021-22.
? Hershey forward Garrett Pilon was recalled by Washington on Monday and scored his first career NHL goal the next night at Anaheim.
? Seattle Kraken forward Riley Sheahan has been sent to Charlotte. Sheahan, 29, has not played in the AHL since a 31-game stint in 2013-14 with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
? The Chicago Wolves have goaltender Alex Lyon back from the parent Carolina Hurricanes.
? Forward Trey Fix-Wolansky rejoined the Cleveland Monsters this week after his assignment by the Columbus Blue Jackets; the 22-year-old had knee surgery in March after posting nine points in nine games with Cleveland.
? Forward Kyle Clifford will bring 728 regular-season games of NHL experience to the Toronto Marlies after being acquired by the Maple Leafs on Tuesday. A two-time Stanley Cup champion with Los Angeles, Clifford last played in the AHL since two games with Ontario in January 2016.
? Forward Joe Veleno has again been promoted from Grand Rapids to the Detroit Red Wings. Veleno has two goals and an assist in seven NHL games this season.
Charlotte’s six-game road trip winds down this weekend; after tonight’s visit to Utica, the Checkers return to Hershey on Sunday… Hartford (10-3-1-0, .750) is back in Providence against the Bruins tonight before a Saturday visit from the Bears… Lehigh Valley’s two-game weekend swing through the North Division moves to Toronto on Saturday afternoon after a visit to Rochester tonight… Syracuse completes a two-game series at Cleveland tonight after dropping a 2-1 overtime decision to the Monsters on Wednesday… Laval goes from Toronto to Belleville to see the Senators on Saturday… The Milwaukee Admirals and Manitoba Moose complete a three-game set in Winnipeg with games tonight and Sunday… After a week off, the Rockford IceHogs’ home-and-home series with the Wolves begins tonight at BMO Harris Bank Center… Henderson is in Colorado for back-to-back dates with the Eagles… A two-game visit from the San Diego Gulls is on San Jose’s agenda this weekend… Several teams have Hockey Fights Cancer dates this weekend — Iowa (Friday), Texas (Friday and Saturday), Hartford (Saturday), Springfield (Saturday), Bridgeport (Sunday), Hershey (Sunday), and Manitoba (Sunday).
“As an Abbotsford native and on behalf of the Canucks, I just want to thank everybody who has supported the community of Abbotsford so far with the flooding that has gone on as well as to the first responders who have been out all night working to get the city back in shape and cleaned up. Thank you so much.”
— Abbotsford defenseman Noah Juulsen via the team’s YouTube channel, after this week’s flooding.
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.