December 27, 2012

AHL Journal: Looking back at preseason predictions

By Jesse Connolly

With the season nearing its midway point, we take a look back at how we thought the seven AHL squads in New England would fare in 2012-13, recap their season to date, break down what's gone right, what's gone wrong and where they currently rank -- based on winning percentage -- among their fellow farm teams in the region.

BRIDGEPORT SOUND TIGERS

Preseason rank: 1st

What we said: New head coach Scott Pellerin takes over a squad that won the Northeast Division last season but was swept out of the playoffs in the first round. Rhett Rakhshani’s departure hurts, but Casey Cizikas, Brock Nelson, Calvin de Haan and plenty of other former first-rounders are ready to blossom. The Poulin-Nilsson tandem is rock solid and proven NHLer Travis Hamonic’s presence on the blue line will be a big boost.

Current record: 15-12-1-2, 33 points (6th in East)

Recap: Our preseason prediction was looking good early on, as the Sound Tigers started the year with eight victories in their first 11 contests. Since then, things haven't been as smooth, as Bridgeport's gone 6-9-1-2 since storming out of the gate. They endured an eight-game skid from Nov. 21 to Dec. 8. 

What's gone right: Nino Niederreiter has been the shining star for Bridgeport. The highly-touted prospect, who struggled mightily at the NHL level in 2011-12, has 15 goals and 29 points through 29 games. Brock Nelson's close behind with 11 goals. Johan Sundstrom (20 points) and David Ullstrom are a combined plus-19.

What's gone wrong: After a strong start to the campaign, the duo of Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson has been underwhelming. Poulin has a 2.94 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, both of which trump Nilsson's numbers (3.03, .895). Casey Cizikas has been OK offensively (16 points in 24 games), but he owns a team-worst rating of minus-12.

Current rank: 4th (off by three spots)

SPRINGFIELD FALCONS

 Preseason rank: 2nd

What we said: First-year head coach Brad Larsen will have a lot of fairly inexperienced youngsters to tutor, but Cam Atkinson (29 goals in 51 games in 2011-12), Tomas Kubalik (Falcons’ top point-getter in 2010-11) and Matt Calvert should lead the way offensively, while blue-chip blueliner Tim Erixon (acquired in the Rick Nash deal) could be in for a huge season. Allen York, who performed well in stints with Columbus, should be reliable in goal.

Current record: 16-7-2-3, 37 points (2nd in East)

Recap: The Falcons have been arguably the most consistent club in the league. They rank second in the conference with 91 goals, first with 65 goals against and have played extremely disciplined hockey. Through 28 games, they've yet to have back-to-back tilts in which they didn't earn a point in the standings.

What's gone right: Journeyman Curtis McElhinney has been the Falcons' MVP thus far. He has a league-leading six shutouts, an AHL-best 15 wins and a spectacular .933 save percentage. Offensively, Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, Conn.) is leading the way with 30 points, which places him sixth in the AHL scoring race. Tim Erixon leads Springfield blueliners with 18 points.

What's gone wrong: The Falcons don't have a whole lot to complain about, other than the fact that their other two netminders -- Paul Dainton and Allen York -- have just one win between them in seven appearances. Still, Dainton's been the tough-luck loser (.930 save percentage, 1-3-1 record) on most nights he's gotten the nod.

Current rank: 1st (off by one spot)


PROVIDENCE BRUINS

Preseason rank: 3rd

What we said: The arrival of prized prospects Ryan Spooner and Jared Knight — and the return of Jordan Caron — should pay big dividends for a squad in need of top-flight talent up front. Providence’s ‘D’ also should improve thanks to the continued development of David Warsofsky, and the additions of Torey Krug and Tommy Cross. Swedish newcomer Niklas Svedberg and Michael Hutchinson should form a strong tandem in goal.

Current record: 15-10-0-2, 32 points (7th in East)

Recap: Following a rocky, 2-5-0 start to the campaign, it was looking like the P-Bruins were once again a non-playoff club. Since then, they've gone on a 13-5-0-2 run, surging to within two points of first place (Portland) in the Atlantic Division. Providence has been superb on the road, going 8-4-0-0 away from the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

What's gone right: Rookie Niklas Svedberg has been a rock in his first year of North American hockey. The Swedish netminder is 11-5-1 on the year with a solid .916 save percentage. Up front, veteran Jamie Tardif leads the way with 15 goals, while reigning AHL scoring champ Chris Bourque (Boxford, Mass.) has a team-best 23 points in 27 contests.

What's gone wrong: Former first-round pick Jordan Caron has been a major disappointment. The 22-year-old winger has 5-2-7 totals in 27 games and a minus-7 rating on the year. Three of his five goals came in one game. Fellow prospect Jared Knight has been limited to just two games due to injury. 

Current rank: 3rd (nailed it!)

MANCHESTER MONARCHS

Preseason rank: 4th

What we said: You’d be hard-pressed to find a team with better balance. Linden Vey and Brandon Kozun should be good for 25-plus goals, defenseman Thomas Hickey is coming off a trip to the All-Star Game, the underrated Martin Jones will take the reins in net and three key players from the Cup-winning Kings (Andrei Loktionov, Slava Voynov, Jordan Nolan) also will be suiting up for the Monarchs.

Current record: 14-12-2-2, 32 points (8th in East)

Recap: The Monarchs were looking like the cream of the crop out of the gate with five wins in their first six games. Since then, they've treaded water, going 9-11-2-2. The Monarchs have been blanked three times this season and just put together their first winning streak since the end of October, qtopping the Pirates (Dec. 22) and Sharks (Dec. 26) on home ice to get back to .500 in their own barn (8-8-2-1).

What's gone right: Rookie Tyler Toffoli has been a godsend with 13 goals in 29 contests. The former second-round pick is tied with Brandon Kozun for the team lead with 22 points. Peter Mannino has taken the reins in goal and owns a 7-2-0-0 record on the year and a magnificent 2.00 goals-against average. Former P-Bruin defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk has also been solid (12 points, team-best plus-9 rating).

What's gone wrong: Martin Jones absolutely fell apart after looking like a brick wall early on (three shutouts in first 10 games). The netminder is winless in his last eight starts, during which he's given up three-or-more goals six times. 

Current rank: 6th (off by two)

PORTLAND PIRATES

Preseason rank: 5th

What we said: Allowing a league-high 254 goals last season ultimately killed their playoff chances. The Pirates should be able to trim that number down considerably in 2012-13. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, one of the best young defensemen in the NHL, will lead a back end that features promising rearguards David Rundblad, Michael Stone and Brandon Gormley. Veteran goalie Chad Johnson will mentor rookies Louis Domingue and Mark Visentin.

Current record: 16-11-1-1, 34 points (3rd in East)

Recap: Portland's woeful defensive play made for a glum start, as the Pirates surrendered 24 goals in their first four games of the season. Thankfully, they've stabilized things in their own end and have vaulted their way up the standings because of it.

What's gone right: Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been, as predicted, a stud. The potent rearguard has 21 points and a plus-5 rating in 20 games. Fellow blueliner David Rundblad has 18 points in 26 tilts. Up front, Alex Bolduc leads the team in goals (14) and points (28). Rob Klinkhammer has a solid line of 8-15-23 in 29 games and leads the squad at plus-10. Veteran Chad Johnson is also in a groove. The goaltender is 5-1-0-0 in his last six decisions.

What's gone wrong: The Pirates don't have a lot to complain about, other than wanting a little more out of a pair of rookies. First-year pro Mark Visentin has been so-so with five wins and six losses. Jordan Martinook, picked 58th overall this past June after a 40-goal season in the WHL, has just one tally and two points in 19 games for the Pirates.

Current rank: 2nd (whoops, off by three)

CONNECTICUT WHALE

Preseason rank: 6th

What we said: The Whale suffered a boatload of big losses. Co-leading scorer Jonathan Audy-Marchessault is now in Columbus’ organization, as is the aforementioned Erixon. Goalie Chad Johnson and point-per-game forward Mats Zuccarello also are gone. The saving grace for Connecticut is the arrival of Chris Kreider, who will begin the season in the AHL after lighting it up for the Rangers during the playoffs.

Current record: 12-16-2-0, 26 points (15th in East)

Recap: It's been a Jekyll and Hyde season for the Whale, who constantly seem to take one step forward and follow it up with two steps back. Undisciplined, inconsistent play, poor goaltending and a lack of production from a few players they were counting on has led to the Whale slipping to last place in the conference through 30 games.

What's gone right: Kris Newbury and Chad Kolarik have led the way offensively with 26 and 24 points, respectively. Sam Klassen has somehow managed to go 29 games without recording a point, but the blueliner deserves props for being the only Connecticut player with a positive plus-minus rating (plus-4).

What's gone wrong: Cam Talbot stepped between the pipes in late October and was looking like the Whale's savior initially, going 7-4-0 in his first 11 games. Since then, he's struggled mightily, going 3-9-0, allowing four goals or more on five occasions. Meanwhile, Matt Gilroy has been great in the offensive zone with six goals, but the blueliner owns a horrendous minus-16 rating. Prized prospect Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) has just five goals through 29 games.

Current rank: 7th (one spot worse than we thought)

WORCESTER SHARKS

Preseason rank: 7th

What we said: The Sharks were just about the only team to not announce AHL assignments prior to the lockout, making it hard to peg how they’ll fare. Void of high-end talent (no one topped 50 points), Worcester will need former Northeastern forward Brodie Reid and undrafted defenseman Sena Acolatse to step up, former UMass blueliner Matt Irwin to keep the points coming and goalie Alex Stalock to bounce back after an injury-plagued season.

Current record: 14-11-1-2, 31 points (9th in East)

Recap: At one point, it was starting to look like we really underestimated the Sharks. Worcester went on an 8-2-1 run from Oct. 28 to Nov. 24 to climb their way up the standings, but they've won just five times in the 11 games since then. During that stretch, they're 0-3 at home.

What's gone right: Tim Kennedy, a perennial high-scorer at the AHL level, leads the way with 12 goals, 16 assists and 28 points -- all team-highs. James Sheppard has been solid in his first full season since 2009-10, notching 16 points through 28 games. Alex Stalock led the way during Worcester's hot streak, as the netminder won seven-straight decisions from Oct. 26 to Nov. 14.

What's gone wrong: After scoring 20 goals in 65 games last season, captain John McCarthy (Andover, Mass.) has just four tallies through 26 contests. Brandon Mashinter, who had 52 goals in the last three seasons for Worcester, has just one goal through 24 games and a team-worst rating of minus-9.

Current rank: 5th (two spots better than predicted)

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseNEHJ.