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AHL notebook: Western Conference affiliates to watch

San Antonio's direct pipeline to Blues, Tolvanen's growth in Milwaukee among key storylines

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

The push by NHL teams in recent seasons toward geographically proximate affiliations has re-made the American Hockey League map.

The Western Conference looks a lot different from the traditional AHL bus life for NHL prospects. With teams spread across three time zones, players can experience some of the travel demands that might await in the NHL.

Here are four Western Conference teams with intriguing development storylines to watch during the 2018-19 season:

 

San Antonio (St. Louis Blues)

The Blues have their own AHL affiliate this season after they had to scatter prospects among several teams last season.

San Antonio should benefit from a strong pipeline of players on the cusp of the NHL.

The intrigue starts with Drew Bannister, the newly hired coach and former NHL defenseman. He was the Canadian Hockey League coach of the year last season with Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League.

Forward Klim Kostin endured the growing pains expected for an 18-year-old AHL rookie last season. Chosen in the first round (No. 31) of the 2017 NHL Draft, Klostin (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) already has NHL-ready size. He will have an opportunity to build on his 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 67 regular-season games last season.

Forward Zach Sanford (6-foot-4, 207) faces a critical season in his development curve. The Blues acquired him as a key piece in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade with the Washington Capitals on Feb. 27, 2017. The Capitals selected Sanford, 23, in the second round (No. 61) of the 2013 NHL Draft. A shoulder injury last season limited him to 20 AHL games with San Antonio. He was called up by the Blues on Tuesday to replace Chris Thorburn.

Defenseman Jake Walman (6-1, 170) is in his third pro season at age 22 after the Blues took him in the third round (No. 82) of the 2014 NHL Draft. The lack of a sole AHL affiliation last season meant that Walman had to divide his rookie season between Chicago and Binghamton after playing seven regular-season games and eight Calder Cup games with Chicago in 2016-17.

Top goalie prospect Ville Husso (6-3, 205) was selected by St. Louis in the fourth round (No. 94) of the 2014 draft. The 23-year-old was 15-14-5 in 38 games with a 2.42 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in San Antonio last season, a performance that put him on the AHL All-Rookie Team.

 

Milwaukee (Nashville Predators)

Eeli Tolvanen, the top prospect for the Predators, headlines a dramatically altered roster in Milwaukee, a place that has consistently developed Nashville-bound talent.

The 19-year-old forward (5-10, 191), chosen No. 30 in the 2017 draft, is adjusting to the North American game. With jobs in Nashville difficult to come by, Tolvanen should receive ample ice time. He has three points (one goal, two assists) in his first four AHL games.

Karl Taylor is the new coach in Milwaukee. He was an assistant with Texas and went to the Calder Cup final last season. 

Forward Anthony Richard, 21, and defenseman Frederic Allard, 20, are other prospects to watch.

 

Chicago (Vegas Golden Knights)

The Golden Knights find themselves in a unique situation because it generally takes two years for a player drafted at 18 to be eligible for the AHL. As a result, the second-year Golden Knights have yet to cycle a full crop of draft picks into their AHL system.

Erik Brannstrom (5-10, 173) is one of the exceptions and faces the challenge of being a 19-year-old defenseman in a league populated by older players. Vegas chose him with the No. 15 pick in the 2017 draft. He scored twice in his AHL debut but has not played since being injured in Chicago's second game.

Rocky Thompson, one of the top coaching prospects in the AHL, guided Chicago to a 95-point season as a rookie coach in 2017-18. He won the Memorial Cup with Windsor of the OHL in 2017.

 

Stockton (Calgary Flames)

The Flames have started to see some gains from their AHL affiliate.

Forward Mark Jankowski and goalie David Rittich are two Stockton graduates in Calgary, and defenseman Rasmus Anderson could stick there as well.

There should be more talent on the way.

Goalie Jon Gillies, 24, in his fourth pro season, has come back from hip surgery that limited him to seven games in 2015-16, his rookie season. Calgary selected Gillies (6-6, 223) in the third round (No. 75) of the 2012 NHL Draft. 

Forward Spencer Foo (6-0, 190), a highly pursued free agent after leaving Union College in 2018, had 39 points (20 goals, 19 assists) as a 23-year-old rookie last season. Forward Andrew Mangiapane (5-10, 180) continues to look like a draft bargain. The Flames chose Mangiapane, 22, in the sixth round (No. 166) of the 2014 draft and he had 46 points (21 goals, 25 assists) in 39 AHL games last season. He has three assists in four games this season.

Defenseman Oliver Kylington (6-0, 183) brings three years of AHL experience. The Flames selected the 21-year-old in the second round (No. 60) of the 2015 NHL Draft.

Stockton is coached by Cail MacLean, who took over after the Flames hired Ryan Huska as an assistant.

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