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AHL Notebook: Six teams with compelling storylines

by Patrick Williams

American Hockey League teams are nearly a third of the way through the regular season. As usual, preseason predictions have withered away in a league where lineups change daily, breakthrough seasons are the norm for still-developing prospects and the fortunes of NHL parent teams filter down to the AHL level.

Here are six teams with intriguing storylines that have emerged:

Albany Devils: The surprising Devils have used a six-game winning streak and an 8-1-1-0 record in their past 10 games to ascend to a second-place tie in the AHL with 33 points. The New Jersey Devils' AHL affiliate has reached the Calder Cup Playoffs twice since 2000, with each visit ending in a first-round loss. However, this Albany team could be the strongest edition of a New Jersey affiliate since the 1990s, when Albany helped to fuel three Stanley Cup championships for New Jersey.

Ontario Reign: In a league where a compact schedule means a stumble can rapidly snowball into a losing streak, the defending Calder Cup champion has managed to avoid any major slumps. Ontario was swept in a three-game weekend Oct. 30-Nov. 1 and then proceeded win seven of its next eight games. The AHL schedule also heavily emphasizes divisional play, and Ontario has gone 9-4-2-0 against the Pacific Division. The Reign's .737 winning percentage leads the Western Conference.

Portland Pirates: More could be expected from a team ranked seventh in the AHL with 3.05 goals per game. Forward Rob Schremp leads the Pirates with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists), but there is a balanced offensive mix that has powered coach Tom Rowe's team. However, the Pirates have not been able to keep the puck out of their own net, even though their 26.8 shots-against per game is fifth-best in the AHL. Veteran goaltender Mike McKenna has the starting job, but he has struggled with a .886 save percentage. In all, the Pirates' 19 points rank them last in the Atlantic Division.

Rockford forward Ryan Hartman has 10 goals in 21 games. (Photo: Todd Riecher/Rockford IceHogs)

Rockford IceHogs: Rockford has teamed winning with producing talent for the Chicago Blackhawks; the IceHogs lead the Western Conference with 33 points. A vital part in producing key parts of the Blackhawks' three Stanley Cup championships since 2010, the Chicago-Rockford pipeline has also helped to replenish the NHL roster after salary-cap needs have ravaged it. Stationed in the tough Central Division, the IceHogs have won six of their past seven games. Their goaltending is a blend of a proven AHL veteran in Michael Leighton and an interesting reclamation project in Mark Visentin, a first-round pick (No. 27, Arizona Coyotes) in the 2010 NHL Draft. Another first-round pick, forward Ryan Hartman, has 10 goals in 21 games. Defenseman Ville Pokka, a key piece in the Nick Leddy trade with the New York Islanders, could be in Chicago before long.

San Diego Gulls: A 2-7-0-1 slide has left the Gulls fourth in the Pacific Division and trying to fend off the San Jose Barracuda and Bakersfield Condors. Part of the skid can be explained by goaltender John Gibson's recall to the Anaheim Ducks, but Gibson has not been a dominant AHL goaltender this season, managing a .917 save percentage. Gibson's absence has left the No. 1 job to Matt Hackett, but he has a .892 save percentage and a 3.20 goals-against average. However, the Gulls have a blend of veterans (center Chris Mueller, plus defensemen Stu Bickel and Joe Piskula) with several top-notch rookies including defenseman Shea Theodore. Rookie Brandon Montour has emerged on the San Diego blue line and leads all AHL defenseman with 22 points (five goals, 17 assists).

Toronto Marlies: The Toronto Maple Leafs have stressed that their lengthy rebuilding project will involve the Marlies significantly. Management has also made it clear that a prospect will not be rushed to the NHL after one good weekend in the AHL, and the AHL will not simply be a quick stop in the development process for young prospects. A legitimate Calder Cup contender, the Marlies are proving that player development and winning can co-exist. Their 37 points lead the AHL, and they feature a lineup packed with heralded prospects and interesting projects, all of it young. At 19 years old, forward William Nylander leads the AHL in scoring with 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 22 games.

International duty: The AHL could have a few of its prominent young scorers in Finland later this month for the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. Toronto's Kasperi Kapanen and Mikko Rantanen of San Antonio could join the Finnish team. Kapanen has five goals and four assists in nine AHL games, and Rantanen has 19 points in 15 games (six goals, 13 assists) with the Rampage. Nylander and Ontario's Adrian Kempe were invited to Sweden's training camp, and Lake Erie's Sonny Milano will take part in the United States' evaluation camp.

Forward Jakub Vrana of the Hershey Bears would have been a likely candidate to represent the Czech Republic, but he has been limited to three games because of a wrist injury that will keep him out until the second half of the season.

Changes in net: The goaltending picture for the Stockton Heat continues to change. Rookie Jon Gillies will have hip surgery Wednesday in Nashville and miss the rest of the season. The surgery is expect to keep him out of action for 4-6 months.

The 21-year-old, who is 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, started his first pro season with Stockton after three seasons with Providence College of Hockey East. A third-round pick (No. 75, Calgary Flames) in the 2012 NHL Draft, Gillies played seven games with the Heat, going 2-3-1. He has a 2.31 GAA and a .920 save percentage.

Last in the Pacific Division, the Heat have already used six goaltenders, including Joni Ortio and Karri Ramo. Calgary acquired Kevin Poulin from the Tampa Bay Lightning after Gillies was sidelined, but he has not played for Stockton since Nov. 21 because of an injury.

For now, Stockton will be going with Ortio and Kent Simpson. Ortio has a 3.75 GAA and a .860 save percentage in four games. Simpson's five games rank him second among Stockton goaltenders, but he has a 1-4-0-1 record to go with his 3.63 GAA and .857 save percentage.

AHL Game of the Week: Albany continues to surprise while the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have hit their first rough patch. The Penguins lost each of their three games last weekend. With games against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Syracuse Crunch this week before Albany visits Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza on Saturday, the schedule will not ease up at all on the Penguins. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won the first game of season series 5-3 on Nov. 21 at Albany.

Around the AHL: Texas Stars rookie Devin Shore holds the AHL lead in goals with 15…Ontario Reign goaltender Peter Budaj's 1.56 GAA leads the AHL, and he is in a three-way tie for a league-best .938 save percentage. After going 0-9-6-0 last season with the St. John's IceCaps, Budaj's 12 wins rank third in the league…The Lake Erie Monsters signed veteran center Manny Malhotra. The 35-year-old, who played eight games with the Charlotte Checkers in 2013-14, has an assist in his first three games with the Monsters… Lake Erie also signed defenseman Jan Hejda to an AHL tryout contract Monday. Hejda, 37, has 25 goals, 135 points and 317 penalty minutes in 627 NHL games with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche… Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier has two shutouts in two games. He is with the Marlies on a conditioning assignment from the Maple Leafs and is expected to play two more games this weekend before his assignment ends… Albany will have goaltender Scott Wedgewood back in the lineup after he sustained an ankle injury that sidelined him for nearly two months…Four more AHL players played their first NHL game last week, taking the season total to 56 players.

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