The American Hockey League heads into the 2019-20 season on Friday, so contributors from across the SB Nation Hockey community collaborated to create a four-part series to preview each team. As per AHL rules, the top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, so this preview aims to explore the competitiveness within the division, while highlighting changes to the team from last season as well as what to expect this season.
The North Division is comprised of eight teams: Belleville Senators (Ottawa Senators), Binghamton Devils (New Jersey Devils), Cleveland Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets), Laval Rocket (Montreal Canadiens), Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres), Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning), Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs), and Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks). The division has produced a Calder Cup finalist three times in the past five years, including a championship win by the Marlies in 2018.
Belleville Senators (Ottawa Senators)
Spencer Blake (@spencerdjblake), Silver Seven
Last season: 37-31-3-5, 82 points, 5th place in the North, missed the playoffs by 2 points
Key losses: Drake Batherson, Rudolfs Balcers, Erik Brannstrom, Cody Goloubef (NHL promotion), Stefan Elliott (KHL)
Key additions: Alex Formenton, Josh Norris, Jonathan Davidsson, Jordan Szwarz, Max Veronneau, Michael Carcone
One player to watch: Alex Formenton, LW
Alex Formenton’s first official pro year comes after making the Ottawa Senators out of camp - for short stints - two years in a row before returning to the London Knights. This season, the Senators have done the right thing in sending him to Belleville where he can gradually move up to the NHL level.
After putting up a modest point per game as an older player during the regular season, Formenton exploded for 18 points in 11 games in the OHL playoffs.
What Formenton brings to the Belleville Senators is almost unmatched speed. He’s been known to burn defenders and attack on the forecheck at the OHL, World Junior and NHL levels. The big question, and the reason he’s the player to watch, is whether he finds his offensive game at the pro level. This season in Belleville will be an indicator as to where Formenton is destined at the NHL level - top six speedy scorer or bottom six speedy forechecker and penalty killer. Either way, his elite speed will get him to the NHL one day soon.
Why people should care/tune in to your team: Last season Belleville went on a tear from January to the end of the year - falling short of a playoff spot in their very last game of the season. People should be tuning into this BSens team because, even with the losses of Batherson, Balcers and Brannstom to the NHL group to start the season, this might be a more skilled group from top to bottom than the 2018-19 roster.
With Marcus Hogberg solidifying himself as a top tier goalie in the AHL last year, introducing the skill and speed of AHL rookies like Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Jonathan Davidsson and Max Veronneau and the additions of proven AHL scorers like Jordan Szwarz and Michael Carcone, I think this team is going to punch a ticket to the big dance for the first time in Belleville’s history.
Binghamton Devils (New Jersey Devils)
Chris Wassel (@ChrisWasselDFS), All About The Jersey
Last season: 28-41-7-0, 63 points, last place.
Key losses: MacKenzie Blackwood staying with the New Jersey Devils is arguably the biggest loss for Binghamton this off-season. Why? This leaves the goaltending to Evan Cormier and Gilles Senn. Blackwood found his game last year, even in spite of what was in front of him. Binghamton provided him with little support but his experience is serving him well in New Jersey.
Eric Tangradi is probably the other key loss. There were a few others but Tangradi provided a spark of sorts even when he did not score. John Quenneville’s offence will be missed but there was little for him to prove in Binghamton. The same could be said for Blake Speers eventually plus Nick Lappin and Blake Pietela.
Julian Melchiori and Matt Tennyson are significant considering Binghamton lost its top three scorers from the 2018-19 season. Ben Street and Chris Connor were brought in strictly for veteran leadership and little else. They have combined for over 1100 AHL appearances and 200+ NHL contests.
Gilles Senn getting his first North American exposure is important. There will be much in the way of growing pains but at least he will be just the backup.
One player to watch: Fabian Zetterlund
Fabian Zetterlund is definitely a player to keep an eye on. His shattered knee caused many concerns last year but so far, he has shown no effects at all. The progress he shows this year will be vital to his development going forward. Zetterlund’s speed could be a game changer going forward.
Why people should care/tune in to your team: Simply, this team is not the moribund mess it was last year. It may not translate into many more wins but Binghamton should make some improvement even record wise. There are also enough prospects developing that will keep fans of the AHL tuned in for most, if not all, of the 2019-20 season.
Cleveland Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets)
Elaine Shircliff (@imaraindancer), The Cannon
Last season: 37-29-8-2, 84 points, 4th place, lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Toronto Marlies
Key losses: From a defensive perspective, losing Tommy Cross to the Florida Panthers organization at the start of free agency was a pretty big loss. He brought an abundance of skill and leadership to the team.
Sonny Milano made the opening night roster for the Columbus Blue Jackets leaving the Monsters without one of their more skilled players. However, with the way Milano played towards the end of preseason, he might not be as big of a loss as I thought.
Head coach Mike Eaves is the number one key addition to the Cleveland Monsters. The energy surrounding the team is incredibly different than years past. The players have been practicing with a lot more energy and passion. When asked about Eaves, many players have made note of his positive attitude and the amount of patience he has while teaching the game to players.
Markus Hannikainen was sent down to the Monsters to start the season. From his attitude to his willingness to do whatever coach wants of him, Hannikainen is someone you want on your team. I don’t forsee him staying in Cleveland for long. It’s going to be fun to see what he brings to the team while he’s there.
One player to watch: Nathan Gerbe
After a lengthy injury, Nathan Gerbe is back in action. Gerbe’s maturity, skill, and ability to rally the troops makes him a joy to watch. The hunt to get back to succeed at the AHL level and get back to the NHL often propels him to do great things. If Gerbe has a breakout year, I could see him getting called up towards the end of the season to help the Jackets make a playoff push.
Why people should care/tune in to your team: As I said earlier, the energy surrounding the team is completely different. Winning and getting back to the playoffs are not their only goals this season. The Monsters want to grow as both players and humans. When you put all of that together magic is going to happen. It’s going to be a fun year.
Laval Rocket (Montreal Canadiens)
Scott Matla (@scottmatla), Eyes on the Prize
Last season: 30-34-6-6, 72 points, 7th place in Division, Did not qualify for playoffs
Key losses: Cale Fleury (60 GP, nine goals, 14 assists) (NHL promotion)
Key additions: Riley Barber, Phil Varone, Charles Hudon, Matthew Peca, Josh Brook, Ryan Poehling, Cayden Primeau
One player to watch: Jake Evans
It’s hard to be Evans right now, there has been a massive influx of prospects at the AHL (and now NHL) level, and he’s kind of been forgotten by fans. He put together a strong preseason showing, and due to waiver status and numbers he was the odd man out, but clearly made a case for why he should see some NHL time this year.
He put together a very strong rookie season last year on a Rocket team that was missing a ton of talent due to injuries and call ups by the end of the year. Looking at the team this year he has the chance to continue his partnership with Alex Belzile, but has the benefit of getting AHL stars like Varone and Barber as potential linemates as well. It should be a big step forward for Evans, especially as Ryan Poehling seems destined for the NHL sooner rather than later, leaving Evans as Joël Bouchard’s top option again.
Why people should care/tune in to your team: Youth, youth, youth. The Rocket are absolutely loaded up with top prospects and should make a lot of noise in the AHL this year. The addition of players like Josh Brook and Ryan Poehling to a solid core of veterans like Barber, Varone, and Xavier Ouellet creates a very deep lineup for the Rocket to tinker with all year, and something that many teams should be hard pressed to match.
Beyond that the team also added a number of vets from the NHL through waivers, including Charles Hudon and Matthew Peca who have both shown they can put up big numbers at the AHL level, and Dale Weise in brief AHL stints has proven to be a solid producer as well. Now all three are looking to get back to the NHL, and the first step to doing that is being leaders on the young Rocket team.
Finally there’s Cayden Primeau in net, tapped to be the heir apparent to Carey Price, it’s always worth keeping an eye on how his first professional season goes.
Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres)
Ryan Wolfe, Die By the Blade
Last season: 46-23-5-2, 99 points - lost in first round to Toronto
Key losses: Alexander Nylander (12 goals, 19 assists), Matt Tennyson (4 goals, 17 assists), Danny O’Regan (20 goals, 28 assists)
Key additions: Andrew Hammond, Jean-Sebastian Dea
One player to watch: Rasmus Asplund
This year is one of growth for the Rochester Americans - can Rasmus Asplund take the next step? Is Lawrence Pilut ready for the NHL full-time? Is C.J. Smith ready to prove the doubters wrong that he is indeed a NHL player and not a lifer in the AHL?
Why people should care/tune in to your team: Last season was another disappointing end to a promising season that saw the Rochester Americans make the Calder Cup Playoffs for the second-straight season. Head coach Chris Taylor will not begin the regular season with the Americans after being recalled to the Buffalo Sabres staff to replace Don Granato who is on temporary medical leave, which could cause some growing pains early on. Taylor is expected to return behind the bench when the Sabres staffer is healthy.
These represent a handful of storylines to watch for, with more certainly to develop, as the season begins.
Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Justin Godfrey, Raw Charge
Last season: 47-21-4-4, 102 points, 1st place, lost in the first round to Cleveland
Key losses: Carter Verhaeghe (34 goals, 82 points), Eddie Pasquale (45 games, 27 wins, 2.35 GAA, .916 SV%), Andy Andreoff (26 goals, 55 points)
Key additions: Chris Mueller, Scott Wedgewood, Danick Martel
One player to watch: Alex Barre-Boulet
As an undrafted free agent, Barre-Boulet surprised everyone by scoring 34 goals and taking Rookie of the Year honors. He’s a creative playmaker who might see some more time at his natural position, centre, this year. Teams now have a scouting report on him and it will be interesting to see if he can continue his offensive output.
Why people should care/tune in to your team: After putting up 102 points in the regular season and leading the league in goals scored, the Crunch couldn’t find their groove in the playoffs and were unceremoniously bounced in the first round by Cleveland.
They completed revamped their goaltending with Scott Wedgewood and Mike Condon replacing Eddie Pasquale and Connor Ingram, but the biggest question will be if they can replace the offence they lost with Carter Verhaeghe finding a spot in the NHL, Andy Andreoff going to Lehigh Valley and Gabriel Dumont to Iowa. Bringing in Chris Mueller should help, as should the maturation of second year players like Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk.
Coach Ben Groulx has his team play an aggressive style of hockey that focuses on creating turnovers and counter attacking with speed. It often leads to a lot of offence on both sides of the ice. There are very few dull games involving the Crunch.
Toronto Marlies (Maple Leafs)
Hardev Lad (@hardevlad), Pension Plan Puppets
Last season: 39-24-9-4, 91 points, 3rd place, lost in Eastern Conference Final to Charlotte Checkers
Key losses: Chris Mueller, Michael Carcone, Trevor Moore*, Dmytro Timashov*, Colin Greening, Calle Rosen, Vincent LoVerde, Andreas Borgman, Steve Oleksy, Rasmus Sandin*, Timothy Liljegren*, Michael Hutchinson*
*Still in organization
Key additions: Egor Korshkov, Kenny Agostino, Nic Petan, Kalle Kossila, Pontus Aberg, Garrett Wilson, Tyler Gaudet, Matt Read*, Darren Archibald*, Teemu Kivihalme, Jordan Schmaltz, Kevin Gravel, Ben Harpur, Ryan Johnston*, Michael Kapla*, Joseph Woll, Ian Scott
One player to watch: Jeremy Bracco
For pure entertainment factors, it’s hard to say ignore Jeremy Bracco. Problematic in his own zone, a video game in the offensive zone. Loads of fun for the chaotic hockey lovers, loads of aneurysms for coaches.
Why people should care/tune in to your team:
The Marlies seemingly have completely changed up how they want to operate this season. Previously, the Marlies were one of the youngest teams in the league and were a team run by the kids for the kids. This season, the Maple Leafs signed a hoard of NHL/AHL tweeners who can act as competent depth for the big club. As a result, the roster is filled to the brim with high-end AHL players while the younger prospects have been sent off to the countryside (Newfoundland) to develop in the ECHL. For Leafs fans, the Marlies will be a nonstop audition for a contending NHL team with spots on the roster in still open. For non-Leafs fans, the Marlies play an exciting brand of hockey aimed at out-shooting their opponent in every way. It’s not exactly firewagon hockey, but Sheldon Keefe’s team is talented and designed for precision.
Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks)
Kent Basky (@BOMBlogger), Nucks Misconduct
Last season: 34-34-6-2, 76 points, 6th place, missed playoffs.
Key losses: Thatcher Demko (8-5-1-0, 2.59 GAA, .911 SV%), Brendan Gaunce (16G 22A 38 PTS), Jonathan Dahlen (14G 15A 29 PTS), Evan McEneny (8G 23A 31 PTS)
Key additions: Sven Baertschi, Nikolay Goldobin, Alex Biega, Tyler Graovac, Justin Bailey, Brogan Rafferty, Micheal DiPietro
One player to watch: Olli Juolevi
Why people should care/tune in to your team: If you wanted to see a season where the AHL club’s fortunes were impacted by issues with the parent team, the Utica Comets were a fascinating study last season. Head coach Trent Lott had his hands full with a revolving door roster thanks to trades and numerous call-ups due to a massive amount of injuries on the Canucks, and then a late season spate of Comets players getting hurt, effectively sealing the team’s fate last season.
There is reason for optimism this season for the Comets though. They have a number of prospects looking to build on progress made last season, like forwards Kole Lind, Lukas Jacek and Zack MacEwan, as well as defencemen Ashton Sautner, Jalen Chatfield and Canucks 2016 1st rounder Olli Juolevi. If he can stay healthy, many feel he could make the jump to Vancouver before the year’s end. Replacing Thatcher Demko will fall on the trio of Richard Bachman, Zane McIntyre and rookie Micheal DiPietro.
With the addition of NHL vets Sven Baertschi, Nikolay Goldobin and Alex Biega, the Comets should be able to battle their way back into contention after last season’s set back, and much like the Canucks, continue to become a team that’s fun to watch.