The American Hockey League is a training ground for future stars, but the amount of young talent available to AHL clubs when the league begins play this weekend has expanded because of the NHL lockout.
Not only will there be players who have had NHL success, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but many of the top prospects for the 30 NHL clubs will be playing for their AHL affiliates when the regular season opens Friday.
Several top prospects will be making their professional debuts, while a handful of European phenoms will get their first taste of pro hockey on the smaller North American rinks.
Here's a look at some of the prospects who will make their North American professional debuts. There are plenty of other exciting young talents who already have made cameos in the AHL or NHL who will be playing this weekend, and a list of those players can be found here.
AHL rookies in name onlyBy Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer
Many of the top prospects for the 30 NHL clubs will be playing for their AHL affiliates when the regular season opens Friday. READ MORE ›
The Houston guys: While the Oklahoma City Barons will boast the likes of Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and a high-profile defenseman to be mentioned shortly, the most exciting collection of young talent in the AHL could be in Houston.
There might be a handful of future NHL All-Stars on the Aeros' opening-night roster. Four first-round NHL draft picks will make their AHL debuts; three of Houston's rookies already have been successful in professional leagues in Europe; and two played for the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which essentially had a pro-level roster the past two seasons.
Mikael Granlund: The No. 9 pick in 2010, is one of the NHL's top prospects, and scoring four goals in an AHL exhibition game isn't going to lower expectations. The Minnesota Wild's first pick in 2011, at No. 10, was Jonas Brodin, and the Swedish defenseman dominated at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
The No. 28 pick in 2010 was Charlie Coyle, and he joined Minnesota's burgeoning collection of prospects in a trade from the San Jose Sharks. Coyle had 34 points in 17 postseason games for the Sea Dogs, which was two more than 2011 first-round pick Zack Phillips.
After scoring 36 points in 49 games as a 19-year-old in Sweden's top league, Johan Larsson would be a top-two or -three prospect for most organizations, but he might not crack the top five for some pundits on Minnesota's list. However, he might be the most NHL-ready of this bunch.
The Hamilton guys: Minnesota isn't the only team with a deep, talented collection of AHL rookies. Six of NHL.com's top 10 prospects for the Montreal Canadiens are expected to be in the lineup for the Bulldogs this weekend, and all of them will be competing at this level for the first time.
Leading the group are a pair of first-round picks on the blue line -- Nathan Beaulieu, a teammate of Coyle and Phillips with Saint John last season, was Montreal's first pick in 2011, and Jarred Tinordi, taken by the Canadiens with the No. 22 pick in 2010.
Two other members of Montreal's draft class of 2010 will also make their AHL debuts for the Bulldogs. Defenseman Morgan Ellis, who helped Shawinigan derail the Saint John juggernaut in a Memorial Cup semifinal, was a fourth-round pick, and Brendan Gallagher, who boasts three 40-goal seasons in the Western Hockey League, was a fifth-round pick.
One of Ellis' teammates with the Cataractes, Michal Bournival, who was acquired by Montreal in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche in 2010, will help bolster Hamilton's forward corps, along with Patrick Holland, another prospect added in a trade (from the Calgary Flames). Holland led the WHL with 84 assists last season.
Victor Rask, Charlotte: Rask had 33 goals and 63 points in 64 games after joining the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL last season. A second-round pick in 2011, he and first-round choice Ryan Murphy are the Carolina Hurricanes' top two prospects. Murphy is back in the OHL, but Rask, a Sweden native, is eligible to play for the Checkers.
Tomas Jurco, Grand Rapids: Another former member of the Saint John Sea Dogs, Jurco joins a nice collection of Detroit Red Wings prospects with the Griffins. Jurco had 68 points in 48 regular-season games for Saint John before joining a few teammates with video-game numbers in the QMJHL playoffs (29 points in 16 games). He also had eight points in five games for Slovakia in the WJC.
Stanislav Galiev, Hershey: Galiev starred for -- wait for it -- Saint John in the postseason after losing much of the season to a wrist injury. He led the Sea Dogs with 16 goals and tied for the team lead with 34 points in 17 postseason games (they went 16-1 to win the league title). He was the second Russian taken by the Washington Capitals in 2010, but while Evgeny Kuznetsov continues to develop at home, Galiev has been in North America for four years (one with Indiana in the United States Hockey League prior to spending three with Saint John).
Hampus Lindholm, Norfolk: The Anaheim Ducks made Lindholm the sixth selection in the 2012 draft, and he'll be the youngest player in the AHL, beating another 2012 first-round pick on this list by 15 days; he won't turn 19 years old until January. Lindholm played for Rogle in HockeyAllsvenskan, the Swedish second division, last season.
Justin Schultz, Oklahoma City: One of the most sought-after NHL free agents this summer will make his professional debut this weekend for the Barons. Schultz starred at the University of Wisconsin before opting not to sign with Anaheim, the team that drafted him in the second round of the 2008 draft. Schultz had 34 goals and 91 points in 88 games the past two seasons for the Badgers; now he joins the collection of phenoms the Edmonton Oilers have been amassing.
Zemgus Girgensons/Mark Pysyk, Rochester: Girgensons is the other 2012 first-round pick expected to play in the AHL, and like Lindholm, will also not turn 19 until early 2013. He played the past two seasons for Dubuque in the USHL, and the Latvia native had committed to the University of Vermont before signing with the Buffalo Sabres. Pysyk, a defenseman who was the Sabres' first-round selection in 2010, had six goals and 38 points in 57 games for the Edmonton Oil Kings to help them to the WHL title.
Vladislav Namestnikov, Syracuse: A first-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011, Namestnikov spent the past two seasons with London in the OHL. He had 89 points (18 in 19 postseason contests) in 82 combined regular-season and playoff games while helping the Knights to the league title. Namestnikov's father, Jevgeny, played 43 games in the NHL for the Vancouver Canucks, the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators, and Vladislav could become the first second-generation Russian in the NHL. There's another NHL veteran in the family, as well -- Vyacheslav Kozlov is his uncle.
Jamie Oleksiak, Texas: There will be a new contender for biggest player in the AHL when Oleksiak debuts for the Stars. Oleksiak weighed in at 254 pounds at the start of training camp, so the 19-year-old has begun filling out his 6-foot-7 frame since being drafted in the first round by the Dallas Stars in 2011. He played in 79 combined regular-season and playoff games in the OHL last season, helping Niagara to the league finals, and represented Canada in the WJC.
Joseph Morrow/Brian Dumoulin/Beau Bennett, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: Morrow and Dumoulin are going to be part of a prospect-laden defense corps -- seven defensemen on the Pittsburgh Penguins' roster were drafted in the first three rounds. Dumoulin, a second-round pick in 2009 by Carolina, joined the organization in a trade this summer, and will begin his professional career after three seasons at Boston College. The other six were drafted by Pittsburgh, including Morrow in the first round in 2011. He had 81 points in 84 combined regular-season and playoff games (including 17 in 22 playoff contests) for Portland in the WHL last season. Bennett was a first-round pick in 2010 and is Pittsburgh's top forward prospect. A wrist injury limited him to 10 games for Denver University in his sophomore season, but the California native signed with the Penguins in April.
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