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What to watch for at AHL All-Star Classic

Tucson rookie Strome, goal-scoring leaders McKenzie, Zykov among forwards to have impact this season

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

The AHL All-Star Classic will be in Utica, New York, on Jan. 28-29. Each of the four divisions (Atlantic, North, Central, Pacific) will compete in the 3-on-3 round-robin tournament on Monday (7 p.m. NHLN, SN). The teams with the two best records after round-robin competition will play a six-minute championship game.

Here are four things to keep an eye on during the two-day event:


Rookie presence

Tucson forward Dylan Strome leads all rookies with 39 points (17 goals, 22 assists). His teammate and fellow rookie forward Nick Merkley has been out of the lineup since Jan. 12, but has 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists) in 28 games.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Daniel Sprong, who was returned to the AHL by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, has 18 goals as does Rockford forward Matthew Highmore.

Other rookie forwards include Luke Kunin (Iowa), Oskar Lindblom (Lehigh Valley), and C.J. Smith (Rochester). Smith has helped Rochester become an elite team in the AHL and has 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists), second-most among rookies.

Bridgeport defenseman Sebastian Aho is on recall to the New York Islanders, but has nine goals in 30 games as part of a talented collection of defensive prospects for Sound Tigers coach Brent Thompson.

Video: NJD@NYI: Aho scores first NHL goal on power play



Three workhorse goaltenders highlight the rosters. Anders Lindback (Milwaukee) leads the AHL in minutes and is followed by Linus Ullmark (Rochester), and Thatcher Demko (Utica). Demko has become a dominant goaltender in his second pro season and is capable of taking over games.

The fourth is Providence goaltender Jordan Binnington, a St. Louis Blues prospect on loan to the Boston Bruins affiliate, who has thrived in pushing Boston prospect Zane McIntyre for playing time. He ranks second in the AHL goals-against average (1.89) and is tied for fourth in save percentage (.929).



Behind the bench

Sheldon Keefe of the league-leading Toronto Marlies will lead the North Division. Keefe, 37, has helped send an abundance of young talent on to the parent Toronto Maple Leafs in his two-plus seasons.

That youth has thrived amid a winning AHL environment that included 114 points in 2015-16, his rookie season. Keefe continues to win; Toronto leads the league in wins (30) and points (61) and set a franchise record with an eight-game winning streak that ended Sunday.

Western Conference leader Manitoba will be represented by Pascal Vincent, who is in his second AHL season after five seasons as an assistant coach for the parent Winnipeg Jets. Playing in the competitive Central Division, he has led prospect-packed Manitoba to the top of the Western Conference (57 points).

Jay Leach of Providence will represent the Atlantic Division as a rookie coach. The former pro defenseman has led a tight-knit group, which ranks among the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Tucson coach Mike Van Ryn will head the Pacific Division. With a group of exciting prospects and a strong veteran core, Van Ryn has his team with the second-best points percentage (.635) in the Western Conference.


More offense

Curtis McKenzie (Texas) and Valentin Zykov (Charlotte), who lead the AHL with 21 goals, headline an impressive group of forwards.

Kasperi Kapanen had 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) in 27 games for the Marlies before his recall to the Maple Leafs on Tuesday.

Others include Chris Bourque (Hershey), who is tied for the lead with 42 points (12 goals, 30 assists) and Chris Terry (Laval), who has 19 goals and 41 points in 36 games.

Reid Boucher will represent the hometown fans in Utica. His 20 goals tie him for second in the league. A 24-year-old veteran of 115 NHL games with the New Jersey Devils, Nashville Predators, and Vancouver Canucks, Boucher has a hat trick and five two-goal games with Utica this season.

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