Nov. 23, 2010
by Kyle Kujawa - griffinshockey.com
It might seem like it was just yesterday that the Abbotsford Heat were in town to kick off the Grand Rapids Griffins’ 15th AHL season in front of a sellout crowd at Van Andel Arena. The “new season smell” still lingers, but the reality is the season is in full swing, marching towards the Calder Cup at a rapid pace.
It may only be Thanksgiving, but the holiday break marks the quarterpole of the season for the Griffins and the AHL’s other 29 franchises. Here are some of the early-season headlines that are gaining the most attention so far.
The story of the season’s first few weeks was the fast start of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Under the leadership of first-year head coach John Hynes and the strong goaltending tandem of John Curry and Brad Thiessen (who have combined to allow a league-low 38 goals), the Penguins rattled off nine straight wins to start the season. They currently sit in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 14-3-0-0 record, but their quick start didn’t earn them much breathing room, as the Atlantic Division’s Portland Pirates trail them by just one point (13-4-1-0) for conference supremacy.
In the Western Conference, the San Antonio Rampage are leading the way with a 14-4-1-0 record for a league best 29 points. High-scoring wingers Mathieu Beaudoin, Mikkel Boedker, Brett MacLean, and Alexandre Picard have paced the offense – one of the best in the league – while Matt Climie and Al Montoya have combined for six consecutive wins, the best active streak in the league.
Individually, familiar names dot the league’s scoring leaders. Leading the way with 27 points (7-20—27) in 19 games is Corey Locke, now with the Binghamton Senators after three consecutive 25-goal, 70-point seasons with Hamilton, Houston, and then Hartford. David Desharnais (Hamilton), Jerome Samson (Charlotte), Alexandre Giroux (Oklahoma City), and Mark Mancari (Portland), who, like Locke, finished in the league’s top ten scorers last year, look to be in good positions to end up there again, currently all sitting in the AHL’s top 20 scorers.
Despite a current fourth place (tied) standing in the East Division, the two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears are the top scoring team in the league, with four players – Andrew Gordon, Brian Willsie, Kyle Greentree, and Keith Aucoin – who are top 20 in scoring. They also have the league’s top scoring defenseman, Lawrence Nycholat, who has 17 points (3-14—17) in 15 games.
It’s bad news for all Western Conference teams that their goaltenders are dominating statistical categories. Nine of the top ten leaders in goals against average hail from the West, as well as eight of the top ten in save percentage. Peoria rookie Jake Allen leads the way in both categories, sporting a 1.35 GAA and a 0.959 save percentage. The Griffins’ Joey MacDonald is among the leaders for both these categories, with a 1.72 GAA and a 0.929 save percentage. His promotion to the Detroit Red Wings has limited him to just four games, though, so his name does not appear with the official AHL leaders.
It may be November, but it looks as if the North Division playoff chase will be the most interesting to watch this season. Currently, the Griffins are at the bottom of the division, tied at 19 points with the Rochester Americans. However, both teams are only seven points out of first place, and only two points separates third place from seventh. This represents the closest race of any division, and it looks like the strongest from top to bottom.
Leading the way at the moment are the Hamilton Bulldogs, sporting a record of 11-3-1-3. They’re returning many members of the team that captured the North Division title last season and made it to the Western Conference Finals. Trailing them in second place are the Abbotsford Heat, a squad with ten rookies who see the regular lineup, including three of their top four scorers (Greg Nemisz, Carter Bancks, and Gaelan Patterson). Goaltender Leland Irving was the first in the AHL to reach ten wins on the season.
Of the three teams currently sitting at 21 points, the Manitoba Moose hold the best record at 10-6-0-1. The Griffins won’t need to worry about the Moose for the rest of the regular season, having taken three of the four contests against them already, including both in Manitoba. The other two clubs, the Lake Erie Monsters and the Toronto Marlies, are two teams the Griffins can make up ground on quickly, as they’ve both played 20 games to the Griffins’ 18. The Marlies face the Griffins on Wednesday, likely without the help of their leading scorer, Nazem Kadri, currently playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Many rookies throughout the league are making an impact for their respective teams. The top rookie so far is also the league’s leading goal scorer, Binghamton’s Bobby Butler, who has 14 goals in 21 games. Butler played four seasons with the University of New Hampshire, and was a top-three finalist last season for the Hobey Baker Award for the top player in college hockey.
Following Butler is the 20-year-old Luke Adam of Portland, recipient of the Reebok/AHL Rookie of the Month for October. Springfield’s Matt Calvert (8-7--15), a teammate of current Griffin Brent Raedeke with the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings last season, and Hartford’s Mats Zuccarello-Aasen (8-5--13), who burst onto the scene after an impressive Olympic performance for Norway, are other rookies who have not had trouble finding the back of the net this season.
The Griffins’ Brendan Smith (5-7—12) has made a quick adjustment as well, sitting first in goals and third in points among rookie defensemen. Smith trails two players with Michigan ties – Providence’s Steven Kampfer (3-11—14), a former Michigan Wolverine, and Adirondack’s Erik Gustafsson (2-11—13), a former Northern Michigan Wildcat.
Ilari Filppula would be among rookie scoring leaders as a first-year player in the AHL, were it not for his previous professional experience in the Finnish Elite League that excludes him from being a rookie. He leads the Griffins with 15 points in 18 games (6-9—15). The same exclusion applies to fellow Scandinavians Linus Klasen (Milwaukee) and Linus Omark (Oklahoma City). Each Linus took home Reebok/AHL Player of the Week honors already this season. Klasen (9-6—15) received the honors for the week ending Oct. 24, after rattling off six points in three games. Omark (10-11—21) captured the award with easily the best individual performance of any AHL player so far this season. He scored five goals against Toronto, erasing a 4-1 second period deficit, and added another in the shootout to cap a 7-6 Oklahoma City win.
FAMILIAR FACES IN DIFFERENT PLACES
A pair of Griffins from last season, Jeremy Williams (11-8—19) and Kris Newbury (1-14—15) have reunited with the Hartford Wolf Pack, which will officially be renamed the Connecticut Whale after the Thanksgiving break. While the Griffins won’t play the Wolf Pack or the Whale in the regular season, they will see a lot of former teammate Pat Rissmiller, who started the season with Chicago but was loaned to Lake Erie on Nov. 20.
Other former Griffins enjoying early season success include Chicago’s Darren Haydar (9-7—16), who signed an AHL contract to return to the team he once posted 122 points for in the off-season. Garrett Stafford is scoring at a point-per-game clip for San Antonio (3-11—14). Both he and Texas’ Aaron Gagnon received some early season NHL time (for Phoenix and Dallas, respectively) before returning to the AHL. After exploding last year for 34 goals, Ryan Keller, who scored just nine goals in 48 games for the Griffins during a two year stint, looks to be off to another strong season with 13 points in 19 games (8-5—13) with Binghamton.