The latest wave of young prospects is sweeping its way into the American Hockey League as the Calder Cup Playoffs approach.
One of the major wrinkles of AHL playoff races involves the potential for late-season additions from college hockey, the Canadian Hockey League and European leagues. A player is eligible to join the AHL after his season in one of those leagues ends, something that can reshape the look of an AHL roster with a few weeks to go in the regular season.
These moves provide top prospects with a head start as they move into the pro game. Five players from the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft are on an AHL roster with more additions possible.
One of the most notable examples in the past decade was Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. Montreal assigned him to the AHL late in the 2006-07 season before he went on to win the Calder Cup and was named the most valuable player in the playoffs.
More recently, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski joined the then Lake Erie Monsters late last season from the University of Michigan. He quickly emerged as Lake Erie's top defenseman at age 18 and was an anchor on the way to a Calder Cup championship and his subsequent emergence as one of the top NHL rookies this season.
Last season Wilkes-Barre/Scranton added forward Jake Guentzel, who played a major role in their push deep into the second round of the playoffs. Guentzel had 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 10 playoff games. Forward Daniel Sprong, a second-round pick (No. 46) of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2015 NHL Draft, had seven points (five goals, two assists) in 10 AHL playoff games after his CHL season ended.
The pattern continues this season.
Northeastern forward Zach Aston-Reese has made an immediate impact for Eastern Conference-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after signing with Pittsburgh. The 22-year-old free agent led college hockey with 31 goals and tied for the NCAA lead with 63 points in 38 games this season. Since heading to the AHL, he has six points (two goals, four assists) in four games and could pick up further high-level experience in a potentially long playoff run.
Providence received a major boost when Boston Bruins prospect Charlie McAvoy signed an amateur tryout contract Wednesday. Boston chose the 19-year-old defenseman with the No. 14 pick in the 2016 draft. He had 26 points (five goals, 21 assists) in 38 games at Boston University this season and won a gold medal with the United States at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
For much of the season the Hershey Bears had a lack of defensive depth. The addition of NHL veteran Tom Gilbert via trade from the Los Angeles Kings, the return of top prospect Madison Bowey from an ankle injury and the acquisition of dependable Mattias Backman from the Texas Stars had already strengthened Hershey's roster.
More help arrived last week when Washington Capitals prospect Jonas Siegenthaler headed to Hershey after completing his season with Zurich of the Swiss National League. Siegenthaler, 20, Washington's second-round selection (No. 57) in 2015, already has three seasons of high-level European experience.
Three points out of first place in the Central Division, the Chicago Wolves have been a force since a slow start. But the St. Louis Blues have supplemented a legitimate Calder Cup contender with the college additions of forward Tage Thompson and defenseman Jake Walman. St. Louis chose Thompson with the No. 26 pick in 2016. He had 19 goals in 34 games with the University of Connecticut as a sophomore this season.
Thompson, 19, has one assist in eight games with Chicago. Walman, 21, was a third-round pick (No. 82) by the Blues in 2014, completed three seasons with Providence College and should be a strong addition to what is already one of the best collection of defensemen in the AHL.
Iowa is locked in a tough Central Division playoff race and three points out of a playoff spot. It lost several forwards in moves near the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline, but University of Wisconsin forward Luke Kunin could be a significant boost. The No. 15 pick by the Minnesota Wild in the 2015 draft had a hat trick in his third AHL game for Iowa in a 4-0 win against the Rockford IceHogs on Tuesday. He had 22 goals in 35 games this season before turning pro.
The Wild signed University of Minnesota captain Justin Kloos, 23, to an NHL contract Wednesday. Kloos had 18 goals in 38 games as a senior this season and is expected to report to Iowa.
Even a team out of the AHL playoff race can look forward to the infusion of top-end talent.
Binghamton is last in the North Division but added center Colin White. Chosen by the Ottawa Senators with the No. 21 pick in the 2015 draft, White, 20, had 35 goals in 72 games in two seasons for Boston College.
The AHL selected Cleveland Monsters goaltender Anton Forsberg as its CCM/AHL Player of the Week award winner for the period ending last Sunday. With Cleveland competing for a playoff spot, Forsberg went 3-0-0 with an 0.67 goals-against average and .982 save percentage. Cleveland has won six consecutive games.
Chicago forward Kenny Agostino continues to lead the AHL in scoring with 76 points (21 goals, 55 assists). … Chicago teammate Wade Megan leads the AHL with 29 goals. … Providence goalie Zane McIntyre is first in GAA (1.99) and save percentage (.932).
ON THE MOVE
Forward Aleksi Saarela, a major piece of the Carolina Hurricanes trade that sent center Eric Staal to the New York Rangers on Feb. 28, 2016, has joined the Charlotte Checkers. He had 15 goals in 49 games as a 20-year-old for Lukko Rauma in Finland's Liiga this season. … Ontario Reign forward Jonny Brodzinski and Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Dan Renouf each made his NHL debut. Through Tuesday, 97 AHL players have played their first NHL game this season.