The American Hockey League schedule has reached the halfway point.
Here is a look at some potential award-winners as the AHL season moves into the second half:
Les Cunningham Award (most valuable player)
Defenseman T.J. Brennan has the inside track for the AHL's MVP with the first-place Toronto Marlies. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Toronto Marlies sit atop the AHL standings with 64 points in 41 games, seven points ahead of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Toronto leads the AHL in goals per game (3.85) and are fifth in goals-against per game (2.44). Defenseman TJ Brennan, a puck-mover who can anchor the power play, has played a major role. Brennan has stood out on Toronto's blue line, which also features captain Andrew Campbell and prospect Stuart Percy. Brennan is tied for the AHL scoring lead with 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 41 games.
Eddie Shore Award (top defenseman)
Past winners of this honor include Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings and Johnny Boychuk of the New York Islanders. Brennan previously won this award in 2013-14 with the Marlies. If Brennan wins again, he would be the first AHL defenseman to do so since Curtis Murphy in 2003-04.
Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award (top goaltender)
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins goaltender Matt Murray is making an excellent case to become the first player to win the award in back-to-back seasons. Past winners include: Jake Allen, Cory Schneider and Ryan Miller. His .938 save percentage leads the AHL, and he has four shutouts in 22 games. A tandem of Murray and rookie Tristan Jarry, who is 10-1, with a 1.79 goals-against average and 934 save percentage, makes the Penguins a dangerous Calder Cup contender.
Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award (best rookie)
First-year AHL defensemen usually encounter a transition to a more pro-style game, which makes San Diego Gulls defenseman Brandon Montour's rise all the more remarkable. A second-round pick (No. 55) in the 2014 NHL Draft, Montour split last season between the United States Hockey League and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before playing 14 AHL games. The 21-year-old has made the full-time jump this season, and leads all AHL defensemen with 24 assists. He ranks second to Brennan in scoring among defensemen with 30 points in 35 games.
Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award (top coach)
In his first year as Marlies coach, Sheldon Keefe, 35, has made a smooth transition from the Ontario Hockey League after being hired in July 2015; he was previously named the 2014-15 OHL and Canadian Hockey League coach of the year. Keefe's teams are prepared with balanced lineups. With coach Mike Babcock firmly planted behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench, it seems to be only a matter of time before other NHL teams are seeking Keefe's services.
One is a much-touted top prospect who admitted that he required an attitude adjustment, the other is a backup NHL goaltender who needed playing time.
At 19 years old, Nashville Predators forward Kevin Fiala is in his first full professional season in North America after being selected with the 11th pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. He failed to make the Predators roster coming out of training camp and was assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals. He scored one goal and five assists with 24 penalty minutes in his first 15 AHL games this season.
Fiala admitted that his time in the AHL provided an attitude adjustment.
"It was a rough start for me," Fiala said. "I had a bad attitude. I [have] just tried to change [everything about me]. I tried to be a [different] person, give 100 percent each day … and it [has] helped."
Fiala blossomed in December with five goals and seven assists in 14 games, setting set him up as a strong recall option for the Predators.
"I am very grateful for [Milwaukee coach Dean Evason] and [assistant coaches Stan Drulia and Scott Ford]," Fiala said. "They were hard on me, but I'm very thankful, very grateful. I knew they cared about me."
Nashville recalled Fiala from Milwaukee on Jan. 14 in a roster shakeup that sent forwards Viktor Arvidsson and Cody Hodgson to the AHL. Playing on a line with center Ryan Johansen and right wing James Neal, Fiala scored on his first shift in a 5-4 overtime loss against Winnipeg.
"Evason did a great job of just getting him in transition to the North American game and moving his feet," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "That's the best I've seen him."
And then there is 29-year-old San Jose Sharks goaltender Alex Stalock, who is decidedly at a different stage in his career than Fiala.
Stalock was limited to 10 games (four starts) this season behind Sharks starter Martin Jones before he reported to the San Jose Barracuda for a two-game conditioning stint on Jan. 3. Stalock lost two starts in December before being sent down. The move did not require Stalock to go far because the Barracuda share SAP Center with the Sharks this season after the AHL's move to California this past offseason.
Stalock won two games for the Barracuda and had a 1.96 GAA and .930 save percentage before being recalled on Jan. 7. In his fifth start of the season, Stalock stopped 21 of 22 shots in a 4-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 12.
"That's the nice thing about having [the Barracuda] in the same building," Stalock said. "Go down, play a couple of games, play 120 minutes of hockey start to finish, feel good again, get back up here and make an impact."
Sharks coach Peter DeBoer praised the move.
"Personally I think it was critical," DeBoer said. "He hadn't played in a long time. He played two full games down there, won [each] game, played well. This is a game of confidence, particularly for goalies. I think it played a big role in how he looked [once back in the NHL]."
ON THE MOVE
St. Louis Blues injuries have hit the Chicago Wolves lineup hard, with defenseman Andre Benoit being the latest departure. St. Louis recalled Benoit this past Sunday; he leads all Wolves defensemen in scoring with 25 points (four goals, 21 assists) in 37 games. Benoit joined fellow Wolves defensemen Chris Butler and Konrad Abeltshauser with the Blues, as well as goaltender Jordan Binnington and forward Ty Rattie. The Wolves are sixth in the Central Division, battling to stay in playoff contention.
Several shakeups have impacted Milwaukee, whose 52 points lead the Western Conference. Along with Fiala heading to Nashville and Arvidsson and Hodgson going to Milwaukee, forward Cody Bass was recalled. The Admirals dealt with two changes on their blue line in as many days; they lost Victor Bartley in a trade to the Montreal Canadiens, but gained defenseman Stefan Elliott from the Arizona Coyotes. Milwaukee and the Binghamton Senators swapped defensemen, with Conor Allen heading to the Senators and veteran Patrick Mullen joining the Admirals.
AHL GAME OF THE WEEK
Two of the AHL's hottest teams play when Atlantic Division-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton visits the Portland Pirates on Friday to start a two-game series. At 57 points, the Penguins are second in the Eastern Conference and had a seven-game winning streak until a 4-2 loss against the Syracuse Crunch this past Saturday. The Pirates have rebounded from a slow early-season start to move to third place in the Atlantic Division with 47 points. Portland is two points behind the second-place Hershey Bears, but have four games in hand. Portland has a five-game winning streak and is 8-2-0-0 in the past 10 games.
The AHL named Chicago captain Pat Cannone its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending this past Sunday. He had seven points (five goals, two assists), including a hat trick in a 4-3 win against the Grand Rapids Griffins this past Sunday, in four games.
Brennan has moved into a three-way tie with Hershey Bears forward Chris Bourque and Texas Stars captain Travis Morin for the AHL scoring lead with 38 points. …Wilkes-Barre/Scranton left wing Scott Wilson has a league-leading 19 goals…Ontario Reign veteran Peter Budaj's 1.73 GAA leads the AHL. He started 19 consecutive games before resting this past Sunday. His 19 wins match him with Jared Coreau of Grand Rapids and Rockford IceHogs veteran Michael Leighton for most in the AHL.
AROUND THE AHL
San Jose coach Roy Sommer is within one win of Bun Cook's AHL-record 636 coaching wins. Sommer has led Sharks affiliates since 1998-99. … Chicago ended the Grand Rapids Griffins' team-record 14-game home winning streak this past Sunday in a 4-3 overtime victory. … The Bridgeport Sound Tigers have lost six consecutive games. … San Jose is on a 7-0-2-0 run. … Lehigh Valley Phantoms coach Scott Gordon will be an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. … Leighton moved to within two shutouts of Johnny Bower for the AHL record. He has 43 career AHL shutouts after a 3-0 home win against the Stockton Heat this past Saturday. … Lake Erie wrapped up a 10-game road trip on Monday at Rockford; the Monsters play 14 of their next 18 games at Quicken Loans Arena. … The Iowa Wild and Lehigh Valley each set franchise attendance records this past Saturday. Last in the AHL with 25 points (4-14-2-2), the Wild drew 12,445 for a 2-1 overtime win against San Jose. Lehigh Valley is seventh in the Atlantic Division, but 9,046 fans watched a 2-1 loss against the Hartford Wolf Pack. The Phantoms have 10 sellouts this season. Chicago attracted 14,607 in a 4-2 loss against Lake Erie on the same night.