The second half of the American Hockey League schedule has arrived, and with it comes the perfect testing ground for prospects.
Travel miles can pile up, especially in the Western Conference that spans two-thirds of North America, the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26 can dramatically reshape AHL rosters and lines, and team identities and systems that can be difficult to solidify early in the season have been put in place.
Here are four of the top AHL rookies in the Western Conference who will aim to continue their first-half success under more testing circumstances:
Dylan Strome - Tucson (Arizona Coyotes)
There has been no letdown for Strome since he returned to Tucson on Dec. 20 after an 11-game tenure with the Coyotes.
Strome (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) is a 20-year-old center who has dominated for one of the most exciting offenses in the league. He has 13 points (nine goals, four assists) in 11 games since his return. Tucson has gone on a 7-3-0-0 run and leads the Pacific Division with a 20-11-2-1 record.
Strome, who the Coyotes selected in the first round (No. 3) of the 2015 NHL Draft, has 39 points (17 goals, 22 assists) in 25 games, putting him in third in league scoring and first among rookies. Tucson has averaged 3.38 goals per game, sixth-best in the AHL.
Tucson also thrives off its third-ranked power play (21.8 percent) and is on an 8-for-27 run in its past six games; Strome has eight power-play goals, and he has a team-best 20 power-play points.
He will head to the AHL All-Star Classic in Utica, New York on Jan. 28-29.
Video: NJD@ARI: Strome goes five-hole for first NHL goal
Nick Merkley - Tucson
Strome is not the only 2015 first-round pick on the Tucson roster.
Arizona selected Merkley in the first round (No. 30). Merkley (5-11, 192) has been out of the lineup after absorbing a heavy hit against Ontario this past Friday, according to the Tucson website. However, his 18 goals tie him for fourth in the league, and his 35 points place him in a tie for seventh in scoring.
Much like Strome, Merkley, 20, has been a critical part of a dominant power play. His 11 power-play goals tie him with Valentin Zykov (Charlotte) for the AHL lead.
He will join Strome in representing Tucson at the AHL All-Star Classic.
Mason Appleton - Manitoba (Winnipeg Jets)
While Merkley and Strome have first-round pedigrees, the Jets may have found an excellent sleeper in Appleton, a 22-year-old forward from Michigan State.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has preached a draft-and-development philosophy as he rebuilt the organization from the ground up after his arrival in 2011. First-round selections dot the Winnipeg lineup, but the Jets have found their share of talent in later rounds as well.
One of those prospects is Appleton (6-2, 201), who was selected in the sixth round (No. 168) of the 2015 draft.
Part of an AHL-leading offense (3.77 goals per game), Appleton has handled the first half of his first pro season well. His 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) puts him in tie for seventh in league scoring.
Appleton played 72 games dfuring two seasons at Michigan State, but he could be looking at a lengthy rookie pro season. Manitoba is first in the AHL in points (57) and points percentage (.731). The challenge for Appleton will be to continue his excellent performance and help Manitoba to continue to position itself as a Calder Cup contender.
Ville Husso - San Antonio (St. Louis Blues)
Husso finds himself as a St. Louis prospect on loan playing alongside Colorado Avalanche prospects.
St. Louis does not have its own AHL affiliate and has scattered its prospects around the league. That can be a difficult position for a young goaltender in the battle for playing time.
San Antonio is the AHL affiliate for Avalanche; however, San Antonio had a goaltending need, and a spot was open to pair Husso with Avalanche prospect Spencer Martin.
Husso (6-2, 205) a 2014 fourth-round draft pick (No. 94), had a strong training camp and has shown considerable promise at 22. Although he has prior experience in the AHL and in the top league in Finland, he is classified by the AHL as a rookie.
Husso has managed to find enough work with a contending San Antonio team, and the arrangement has paid off for all sides. He is 8-6-0 in 16 games with a 2.55 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
A 12-game February road trip stretching 25 days looms on the schedule. It is an annual road trip that has stymied San Antonio in past seasons. Opportunities for playing time should be ample for each goaltender, and that bodes well for Husso.