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AHL teams prioritizing player evaluation even with playoffs out of reach

Formenton, Gustavsson, McLeod among highly regarded NHL prospects who need to learn pro game

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

Player evaluation never stops in the American Hockey League, even after qualification for the Calder Cup Playoffs no longer is a possibility.

"For us, somehow, some way, we just want to get the most out of the season," Belleville coach Kurt Kleinendorst said. "We've got to take it until the very end."

Here is a look at some of the AHL teams that will miss the postseason but remain very busy in identifying and developing players:

 

Belleville (Ottawa Senators)

Belleville added forward prospect Alex Formenton from London of the Ontario Hockey League on Tuesday.

After Ottawa selected Formenton (6-foot-2, 165 pounds), 18, in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft (No. 47), he played one NHL game before being returned to London in October. He had 48 points (29 goals, 19 assists) for London in 48 regular-season games and then had seven points (five goals, two assists) in four OHL playoff games.

Also in Belleville is another key prospect, goaltender Filip Gustavsson. Ottawa acquired Gustavsson, 19, as part of the Derick Brassard trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 23. Gustavsson (6-2, 184) has acclimated well, going 1-1-0 with a 2.60 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in three games.

 

Binghamton (New Jersey Devils)

Devils general manager Ray Shero was on hand for the construction of two perennially strong farm systems when he was part of the front office with the Penguins and the Nashville Predators.

He's continued his farm system work with the Devils. Binghamton is battling to stay out of last place in the Eastern Conference, but the team has shown signs of second-half growth and is 9-9-1-1 since Feb. 17.

Forward Michael McLeod, 20, will get a late-season taste of the pro game after New Jersey assigned him to Binghamton on Tuesday. McLeod (6-foot-2, 188) was selected No. 12 in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Devils. He had 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists) as captain of Mississauga of the OHL. He won a gold medal with Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship after winning a silver medal at the 2017 WJC.

 

Cleveland (Columbus Blue Jackets)

Cleveland, the 2016 Calder Cup champion, might be a victim of its own success in churning out prospects bound for Columbus.

Eight players from the 2016 championship team have graduated to the Blue Jackets and Columbus needs to replenish its reserve of prospects.

Part of that process can involve finding overlooked young talent, much in the same way the Tampa Bay Lightning discovered forward Yanni Gourde. Syracuse brought in Gourde from the ECHL in 2014 and started him on his way.

In Cleveland, forward Grant Besse (5-10, 174), 23, is one player trying to give management something to ponder. He had 62 points (30 goals, 32 assists) in 62 ECHL games for Norfolk as a rookie after four NCAA seasons at the University of Wisconsin. He has one goal in five AHL games.

 

Laval (Montreal Canadiens)

Laval has lost seven consecutive games (0-6-1-0) and 10 of its past 11 games (1-9-1-0), allowed 27 goals in its past five games, and is 29th in the AHL standings. This will be the fifth time in the past six seasons that Montreal's AHL affiliate will miss the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Struggles at the AHL level, paired with the Canadiens missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, has the possibility of change in the air. Laval has added eight players on tryouts since March 20.

"Evaluation is based on individuals right now," coach Sylvain Lefebvre said. "Guys are auditioning right now.

"We had guys coming in. We'll have more guys coming in. They're all fighting for a spot next season. It doesn't matter if you have a contract or not. That's the way it is in this league."

 

Hartford (New York Rangers)

As the Rangers exhibit a younger look, they will lean heavily on Hartford to prepare the next wave of talent.

"The biggest thing when you come to the rink is it's not just a matter of punching the clock and going through the motions," coach Keith McCambridge said. "It's a matter of making sure that we're here for a reason."

McCambridge oversaw the development of several young prospects in his five seasons as an AHL coach for the Winnipeg Jets, including goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and defenseman Josh Morrissey.

In his first season in Hartford, McCambridge has sent forwards Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil and Vinni Lettieri to the Rangers, as well as defensemen Tony DeAngelo, John Gilmour, Neal Pionk and Ryan Sproul.

Defenseman Ryan Lindgren (6-0, 198), 20, has continued the move toward youth. The Rangers acquired him Feb. 25 from the Boston Bruins in the Rick Nash trade. Boston had selected him in the second round (No. 49) of the 2016 NHL Draft, and he turned pro after two college seasons at the University of Minnesota. He has two points (one goal, one assist) in five games for Hartford.

Video: NHL Tonight profiles Ryan Lindgren

 

Calder Cup Playoff picture

Rockford (Chicago Blackhawks) has taken a firm hold on fourth place in the Central Division thanks to a run of 11 wins in 15 games. Fifth-place Milwaukee (Nashville Predators) is five points behind Rockford. Each team has six games remaining.

A nine-game losing streak has stranded sixth-place Iowa (Minnesota Wild) seven points behind Rockford with five games remaining.

In the Pacific Division, Tucson (Arizona Coyotes) is the first Western Conference team to clinch a playoff berth.

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