Dec. 6, 2011
by Logan Buckley - griffinshockey.com
The 2011-12 AHL season nosed passed the quarter mark last weekend. Despite beginning play a mere two months ago, fans and teams are already trying to eyeball the crunch match-ups that could break up the logjam in each conference’s standings and determine which clubs ultimately contend in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
With Thanksgiving in the rearview, and the rest of the holiday season looming, we pause for a moment to highlight the early developing trends, statistical anomalies and talking points from around the AHL.
The AHL, a long-time breeding ground of quality head coaches, has had five bench bosses prized from its teams by NHL clubs since the beginning of June. Milwaukee Admirals former head man, Kirk Muller is the most recent head coach of an AHL team to be given a shot at leading a NHL club. He became the Carolina Hurricanes head coach on Nov. 28, following the offseason departures of Claude No¸l (Winnipeg from Manitoba on June 24), Mike Yeo (Minnesota from Houston on June 17), Glen Gulutzan (Dallas from Texas on June 17), and Kevin Dineen (Florida from Portland on June 1) as AHL coaching products to be handed the reins at the top level.
After a six-year absence, the AHL returned to St. John’s, Newfoundland, this season when the Manitoba Moose were relocated to make way for the return of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets. Rebranded the IceCaps, St. John’s latest AHL franchise sold out each of its first 12 home games – attracting an average of 6,306 fans, well above the 6,247-seat capacity of the Mile One Centre – an achievement that places the team fourth in AHL attendance. The Griffins check in at sixth in AHL attendance, averaging 6,257 fans a night, while the Hershey Bears head the class with an average attendance of 9,518, nearly 2,500 more than second-place San Antonio (7,021).
The IceCaps (14-4-4-0) have translated the early attention into heady play, as the team is perched atop the Eastern Conference with 32 points. Rookie head coach Keith McCambridge has seen eight of his players earn ice time with the parent Jets. Connecticut (14-6-1-2) lurks just off the pace with 31 points (14-6-1-2), followed closely by a quartet of teams regularly near the top of the conference: Hershey (12-6-3-2), Norfolk (14-9-0-1), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (12-7-1-4) and Manchester (14-10-0-1), who have all amassed 29 points.
In the Western Conference, Oklahoma City (16-6-0-1) and Abbotsford (16-8-1-0) find themselves tied for first in the AHL with 33 points. Joining the two West Division powers on top of the conference are Midwest Division leading Charlotte (15-7-1-1, 32 points) and North Division-leading Toronto (13-7-3-1, 30 points). Houston trails its West Division rivals by one point, with a 13-4-2-4 record on the season.
THE ROAD HOME
The Milwaukee Admirals, owners of the longest road points streak in AHL history, finally ended their run at 23 games (16-0-4-3) on Nov. 26 when they dropped a 3-2 decision to Charlotte at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Admirals’ previous regulation loss on the road had been 317 days earlier, a 3-0 defeat to the Manitoba Moose on Jan. 13. Not included in the streak, but still worth noting, were Milwaukee’s six road games during the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs – three wins and three overtime losses.
The Admirals were not the only team to travel well this season; 18 of 30 AHL teams, including the Griffins (0.500 on the road, 0.458 at home), posted better win percentages in opponent’s buildings as opposed to their own.
The Griffins have battled to a 7-2 mark against North Division opponents so far this term, with the only two losses coming on the road against Rochester. The success Grand Rapids has had against its division has kept the team within touching distance of the playoff logjam that has formed in the Western Conference. With a 10-11-1-0 record and 21 points, the Griffins sit a mere three points out of a playoff position and nine back of a division-leading Toronto squad the Griffins have beaten three times this season.
Facing eight of their next 12 games on the road, only three of which are against a division rival (Lake Erie Monsters), the Griffins aim to continue making up ground in the race for playoff positioning.
IT’S A (YOUNG) MAN’S WORLD
There has been no sophomore slump for the AHL’s top five goal-getters; four of whom are in their second AHL season. Philippe Cornet (Oklahoma City) leads the way, having lit the lamp 15 times in 22 games. Nipping at his heels with 13 tallies apiece are second-year forwards Kyle Palmieri (Syracuse) and Phil McRae (Peoria) and rookie Carter Ashton (Norfolk). Rounding out the top five is a three-way tie between sophomore goal-scorer David Ullstrom (Bridgeport), veteran Brett Sterling (Peoria) and rookie Cory Conacher (Norfolk) with 12. With 11 tallies on the season, Griffins forward Jamie Johnson is tied for eighth in league goal scoring.
Norfolk’s Conacher (12-13–25) and Grand Rapids’ Gustav Nyquist (7-17–24) lead a group of four rookies who find themselves in the top 20 of the AHL scoring charts. Nyquist, a Hobey Baker Award nominee when playing collegiate hockey for the Maine Black Bears, heads the Griffins with 17 assists and has recorded a team-leading seven multi-point games in his first pro season. They are joined by Connecticut’s Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (T13th with 10-12—22 in 22 games) and Norfolk’s Carter Ashton (T20th with 13-8—21 in 24 games).
Veteran Griffins defenseman Doug Janik has seen no decline in his offensive capabilities, as he is tied for fifth with Milwaukee rookie Ryan Ellis (4-11–15) in league scoring among blue liners. Janik (4-11–15) is on pace to have a career season; the third-year Griffin recorded his best statistical AHL season in his first year with the team when he posted six goals and 31 assists in 2009-10.
Youth has not been nearly as dominant between the pipes, as only two rookies, Toronto’s Mark Owuya (1.78 GAA, 0.936 save percentage) and Worcester’s Tyson Sexsmith (1.80 GAA, 0.931 save percentage), find themselves in the top 15, compared to seven at the end of last season. Griffins goaltender Joey MacDonald’s hot start sees him tied for sixth in GAA (2.17) and fifth in save percentage (0.930) after being limited to only nine games due to a concussion that has kept him out of action since Nov. 5.
CHANGES IN LATITTUDES, CHANGES IN ATITTUDES
Peoria’s Danny Syvret (2-15–17) is the only former Griffins defenseman to have put up more points than Doug Janik. In the 2006-07 season, his second in the AHL, Syvret posted four goals and 16 assists for the Griffins.
Another name from the Griffins 2006-07 line-up, Krys Kolanos (11-11–22) currently tops the scoring charts for the Abbotsford Heat. Kolanos tallied six goals and six assists in 17 games in his abbreviated season in Grand Rapids.
Heading up point production for the Chicago Wolves has been Darren Haydar (7-17 –24). A Griffins forward for 79 contests in 2008-09 regular season, Haydar was an asset for Grand Rapids to the tune of 31 goals and 49 assists with a further four goals and seven assists in 10 playoff appearances.
The Griffins will welcome Syvret back to Hockeytown West twice this season when the Peoria Rivermen come to town Dec. 30 and Feb. 18. Kolanos and Haydar have been back to Van Andel Arena once this season with their respective teams; Kolanos on Oct. 28 when he scored a hat trick in a 5-1 Abbotsford win, and Haydar when he recorded three assists in a 5-4 overtime loss to Grand Rapids on Dec. 3. Both will return for one more contest with Kolanos being the first returnee on Dec. 21. Fans will have to wait longer to see Haydar, as the Wolves won’t be back to Grand Rapids until the final home game of the regular season on April 13, by which time the Griffins will most likely know their Calder Cup playoff fate.