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Talent influx leads to intrigue for AHL Eastern Conference stretch drive

Frederic, Hughes, Koppanen bolster Providence, Lipanov joins Syracuse

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

Boston Bruins prospect Trent Frederic headlines the annual spring migration of young talent to the American Hockey League.

Frederic (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), a 20-year-old forward, left the University of Wisconsin after two seasons and signed with Boston on March 13. Boston selected him 29th in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Frederic will have more company as Canadian Hockey League and NCAA teams conclude their seasons. Players from those teams are eligible for assignment to the AHL.

Carey Price, Jeff Carter, and Zach Werenski have taken that route, each going on a long run to a Calder Cup championship before embarking on an NHL career.

Boston did not waste any time in assigning Frederic to Providence and dropping him into the middle of an AHL playoff race. Here is a look at what faces Eastern Conference teams as the stretch drive intensifies. A look at the Western Conference will follow next week.

 

Atlantic Division

AHL-leading Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia Flyers) has built an 11-point lead in the division, but Providence is trying to fend off Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pittsburgh Penguins) for second place, holding a one-point lead but having played two more games than Wilkes Barre-Scranton.

Frederic joined one of the deepest group of forwards in the AHL and is the latest addition to one of the most productive farm systems in recent seasons.

Providence possesses an offense that ranks No. 16 in goals per game (2.94) but is well-balanced. Frederic could provide a boost without needing to be a savior. He had 32 points (a team-leading 17 goals, 15 assists) in 36 games at Wisconsin. He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2016-17 when he had 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in 33 games.

Frederic has a familiar face from Wisconsin with him in Providence. Forward Cameron Hughes (6-0, 175), a Bruins sixth-round pick (No. 165) in the 2015 NHL Draft, joined Providence after signing an entry-level contract with Boston on March 10. The Wisconsin captain had 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in 37 games.

Joining Frederic and Hughes will be another forward. Boston reassigned Joona Koppanen, 20, to Providence from Ilves Tampere (Finland) on March 13. Koppanen (6-4, 195) was selected by the Bruins in the fifth round (No. 135) in 2016. He got an immediate taste of the AHL schedule as coach Jay Leach dressed him for three games in three days this past weekend.

Bridgeport has managed to stay near the playoff line despite injuries and recalls to the parent New York Islanders. Bridgeport trails Charlotte (Carolina Hurricanes) by seven points for fourth place but holds two games in hand.

 

North Division

The playoff field here has remained firm for some time. Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Syracuse (Tampa Bay Lightning) each has clinched a playoff berth.

Third-place Rochester (Buffalo Sabres) is attempting to hold off Utica (Vancouver Canucks).

Toronto remains in first place; five consecutive wins offset most of the damage done by a stretch of six losses in the eight games that preceded it. With leading scorer Andreas Johnsson on recall with the Maple Leafs, Toronto has signed several NCAA free agents to supplement its roster. The organization has a history of utilizing a setup that acts as something of an AHL taxi squad, along with its ECHL affiliate Orlando, as an incubator for undrafted talent.

Forward Alexey Lipanov (6-0, 169) is eligible to head to Syracuse at age 18. He had 39 points (14 goals, 25 assists) in 55 games in the Ontario Hockey League for Barrie and Sudbury while also participating in the 2018 World Junior Championship with Russia. Tampa Bay selected him in the third round (No. 76) of the 2017 NHL Draft and signed him to an entry-level contract in September.

The task for Rochester and Utica in the final four weeks of the regular season will be to reverse stubborn slumps.

Leading scorer C.J. Smith returned to the Rochester lineup this past week after missing a month because of a lower-body injury. The rookie forward had a hat trick in a 6-4 loss at Hartford on Sunday. He has 42 points (17 goals, 25 assists) in 53 games, and Rochester can use his help after having lost five of its past six games and struggling for much of the past two months.

One challenge for Rochester coach Chris Taylor will be to deal with recalls as the Sabres, eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoffs, audition prospects for the future. Goaltender Linus Ullmark is the latest to earn a call-up, joining forwards Justin Bailey, Kyle Criscuolo, Seth Griffith, and Nicholas Baptiste along with defensemen Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson from the Rochester roster. However, Rochester can expect those players to return for the playoffs.

Utica has lost nine of its past 11 games and is without leading scorer Reid Boucher (46 points) and forward Nikolay Goldobin (30 points), who are with the Canucks.

However, those personnel losses mean job openings and expanded roles for other prospects in Rochester and Utica.

"I've got to play young guys and put them in tough situations," Taylor said.

Said Utica coach Trent Cull, "[Opportunity] is what we've been selling. It's not about who's not here. It's about the guys that are here and trying to do the job for us."

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