AHL Thoughts 5/21/17

Sunday, May 21, 2017
Is Jakub Vrana's future in the Washington Capitals organization in question? Photo: Amanda Statland/Highland Park Hockey
Editor's Note: Now that the main source of content for this website - the Lehigh Valley Phantoms beat - has entered its off season, there's going to be a different look this spring/summer before our annual AHL Free Agent Big Board starts to get put together leading up to free agency in July.

New content starts with my 'AHL' Thoughts - a new feature I might roll with weekly/bi-weekly if it receives positive feedback. Let me know in the comments below, on our Facebook page or tweet at @TonyAndrock/@H_P_Hockey with your thoughts.

Since the first AHL Thoughts post I wrote at the beginning of the month went over well with the majority of readers, it's back for a second time - new and improved with a full 30 thoughts around the AHL similar to Elliotte Friedman's oh so popular 30 Thoughts for Sportsnet.

After the jump, my 30 thoughts with news around the AHL. This edition focuses on the AHL's Conference Finals, coaching/management changes around the league and more!

1. The AHL's final four is set with the Syracuse Crunch and Providence Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals and the San Jose Barracuda and Grand Rapids Griffins in the Western Conference Finals.

2. As a mainly Eastern Conference writer, I think many of those unfamiliar with the West don't realize how talented to two Western Conference finalists really are. San Jose, despite only playing 68 regular season games, finished with a .699 points percentage - just missing out on the AHL's MacGregor Kilpatrick trophy awarded to the league's regular season champion. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (.704 PCT) took home the honors.

3. Grand Rapids was an offensive juggernaut in the Central Division, tied for the most goals scored (251) in the Western Conference while also leading the entire AHL in power play goals. The Detroit Red Wings' affiliate is three wins away from a berth to the Calder Cup Finals after a 3-1 win over San Jose in Game One Saturday night.

4. While all the talk in the Atlantic Division heading into the postseason was centered around the three Pennsylvania teams - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Lehigh Valley and Hershey - it was the Providence Bruins coming out of the league's most challenging division and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

5. Call the PBruins clutch, as they came back and defeated the Penguins in the first round behind a 51-save Game Five performance from Zane McIntyre. In the second round against Hershey, they trailed the series 3-2 and trailed Game Six 2-0 after the first period. They again turned things around, scoring four unanswered goals to force Game Seven before taking the series in Hershey to get to the Conference Finals.

6. While widely considered a less competitive division in the Eastern Conference, the Syracuse Crunch find themselves three games from the Calder Cup Finals after a Game One win in Providence. Adding veteran goaltender Mike McKenna at the trade deadline gave the Crunch much-needed stability in net heading down the stretch, and McKenna hasn't let his new teammates down so far.

7.  The Crunch's 44 goals this postseason are by far the most of the remaining teams. Erik Condra (4G-8A), Matthew Peca (4G-8A) and Matt Taormina (2G-9A) are all in the top five in the AHL in postseason scoring.

8. The Las Vegas Golden Knights announced Tuesday a multi-year partnership with the Chicago Wolves as their AHL affiliate for the 2017-18 season and beyond. The move was expected, but the surprise came when the Wolves' current NHL affiliate St. Louis Blues released a statement stating they are no longer in an affiliation agreement with Chicago, but will house some of their prospects in Chicago next season.

9. With St. Louis sharing with Las Vegas instead of the other way around, which many reported was going to happen, it certainly appears that the AHL's 31st team - which will begin play in 2018-19 - will be a St. Louis Blues affiliate. During the AHL's State of the League Address back in January, President/CEO David Andrews spoke on Vegas' potential AHL affiliate - dismissing reports that Kansas City was in play to become the AHL's 31st team. I wonder if today's affiliation news brings back the AHL to Kansas City rumors.
"There have been a lot of media reports that are not accurate. I can tell you Kansas City is not accurate. We are not going to Kansas City unless something happens that I don't know about yet. That one is not in play." - AHL President/CEO David Andrews on January 29th, 2017
10.  Andrews confirmed to The Hockey News last Wednesday that St. Louis is involved in the process to have their new AHL affiliate in 2018-19 as the AHL's 31st team.
“I expect by the time we get into the summer, or at least by the fall, we will have determined a 31stfranchise for our league, which will then give everyone a home,” AHL president Dave Andrews told THN Wednesday. “There are a lot of people involved in working through that over the next little while, and St. Louis is part of that process.”
11.  More on the AHL affiliation front, there are plenty of rumblings in Texas that the NBA's San Antonio Spurs are 'extremely unhappy' with the Colorado Avalanche's current AHL team San Antonio Rampage sharing their venue - the AT&T Center. There's still three years left on the affiliation agreement between the Avalanche and Rampage, but the belief is that agreement won't be fulfilled - similar to the early ending of the agreement between the now defunct Albany Devils and their previous tenant - Times Union Center in downtown Albany, NY.

12.  A recent report by Adrian Dater for BSN Denver suggests that the Avalanche's ECHL affiliate Colorado Eagles in Loveland, CO - just 46 miles North of the Avalanche's home rink at the Pepsi Center in Denver - is taking steps to become more attractive as an AHL option in the very near future. Might an Eagles (ECHL Colorado) and Avalanche AHL-NHL affiliation become possible in time for the 2018-19 season? ECHL Colorado part-owner and CEO Martin Lind certainly hopes so.

13.  The Hartford WolfPack's staff will be different heading into the 2017-18 season. Their NHL affiliate New York Rangers announced Tuesday afternoon that WolfPack head coach Ken Gernander has been relieved of his coaching duties. Gernander had been in the Rangers organization for the past 23 years, as a player from 1994 to 2005 and then behind the bench for 12 years as an assistant coach (2005-07) and then as head coach from 2007-2017.

14.  In a separate move, the Rangers appointed former assistant general manager Chris Drury as Hartford's AHL GM moving forward after Rangers senior vice president and assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld relinquished his duties as GM of the Wolf Pack.

15.  I don't believe Hartford's recent struggles can be attributed to poor coaching from Gernander, who leaves Hartford as the sixth winningest coach in AHL history (388 wins). The New York Rangers haven't held a first round pick in the NHL Entry Draft since 2012 when they selected defenseman Brady Skjei, and have only drafted in the second round twice in that same time span. Having just one top-50 draft pick in the past four years is certainly showing its effects at the AHL level in recent years for the Rangers.

16.  The Rockford IceHogs have their coach for the 2017-18 season after relieving Ted Dent of his duties last month shortly after the IceHogs' regular season ended. Former Bridgeport Sound Tigers forward and head coach of Sweden's IK Mora, Jeremy Colliton, was named the next head coach of the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate last week. Colliton coached IK Mora in Sweden's second tier league Allsvenskan the past four years, but a league-best 35-4-13 this past season earned them a promotion to the top-tier league SHL. Former Phantoms forward Kevin Goumas is a member of IK Mora.

17.  Tucson will have a new general manger in 2017-18 as the Arizona Coyotes hired Steve Sullivan to a multi-year contract as the organization's assistant general manager that will oversee the AHL club. Sullivan was previously in the front office staff as the organization's development coach. Chris O'Hearn, previously Tucson' AHL overseer, will continue to be in the organization as an assistant GM with a focus on hockey operations.

18.  The Buffalo Sabres named former Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill their new general manager earlier this month. Rochester Americans fans should rejoice at this news as Botterill was a key cog in the development of the AHL Penguins depth and talented rosters in the last decade. In his first press conference as Sabres' GM, Botterill specifically mentioned Rochester and the need to build up the AHL roster as well as the NHL roster.

19.  More on the AHL coaching/staff changes, might the Lehigh Valley Phantoms see one of their coaches plucked to fill the void on the Philadelphia Flyers' staff? My latest for Highland Park Hockey takes a look at the Flyers' in-house options and how there might be a fit with Phantoms' current head coach Scott Gordon.

20. The AHL's division alignment for 2017-18 held few surprises. The Charlotte Checkers moved from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference and will play in the ever-challenging Atlantic Division next season.

21.  New AHL franchises Belleville Senators, Binghamton Devils and Laval Rocket will all be in the Eastern Conference's North Division - creating an unbalanced conference with eight teams in the Atlantic Division and seven teams in the North Division.

22.  The format for the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs will be finalized by the Board of Governors at its Annual Meeting in Hilton Head Island, S.C., July 2-6, and the complete playing schedule for the 2017-18 regular season, which begins Oct. 6, will be announced this summer.

23.  Nothing confirmed yet, but the widespread speculation around the league is that the crossover rule will be back into effect for next season, meaning if the 5th place finisher in the Atlantic Division has a better points percentage than the 4th place finisher in the North Division then the 5th place team in Atlantic Division will cross over into North Division and make the playoffs as the fourth seed in the North. One year too late for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, right?

24.  Many AHL teams released their schedule matrix with a breakdown of how often they will play their opponents in 2017-18. The cry for more diversity in the AHL is an annual thing, and fans of the Providence Bruins, San Antonio Rampage, Springfield Thunderbirds and Texas Stars should be at the head of that debate.

25.  The Thunderbirds and Bruins are scheduled to play each other a league-high 14 times next season. Same goes for the Rampage and Stars in 2017-18. Is 14 meetings too many?

26.  The AHL will have some inter-conference play that the league hasn't seen in about 10 years. The East's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Hershey Bears will see a pair of games against three Western Conference teams in 2017-18: Grand Rapids Griffins, Milwaukee Admirals and Rockford IceHogs. Might this be a test for future East vs West matchups in the future, with rotating teams participating in inter-conference play?

27.  In case you missed it, Highland Park Hockey has the full schedule matrix for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. I haven't seen this reported by any other media outlets claiming they have coverage of the Phantoms.

28.  In our first edition of AHL Thoughts, I mentioned the turmoil between the Washington Captials organization and 1st round pick Jakub Vrana - benched as a healthy scratch for several postseason games as an off-the-record source told Highland Park Hockey there were off-ice maturity issues stemming behind the benching.

29.  Hershey Bears head coach Troy Mann didn't shy away from throwing Vrana under the bus for his play on the ice either, leaving much doubt to Vrana's standing in the organization heading into the off-season. Should teams approach the Captials about Vrana, a change of scenery type trade could still be possible.

30.  The player thinks he's an NHL talent, and while he might be right he still needs to be a team player and prove it consistently at the AHL level. Kyle Mace of Chocolate Hockey - a Hershey Bears blog that provides extensive coverage of the team - spoke to Vrana during the Bears' exit interviews and judging from his responses, the Caps' 1st round pick still needs to work on things over the summer.


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