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Strome, Demko, Grundstrom in Calder Cup Spotlight

Highmore, Ullmark, Sprong also ready to sparkle during AHL playoffs

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

The Calder Cup Playoffs begin Thursday, with 16 teams battling for the American Hockey League championship.

Though they all won't win the title, several prospects will get to experience the postseason grind, a lesson that will no doubt help them should they reach the NHL.

"I think [playoff hockey is] vital to the development of the player," said Hershey (Washington Capitals) coach Troy Mann, whose team did not qualify for the postseason but reached the Calder Cup final in 2016.

Here is a look at AHL prospects to watch in this year's Calder Cup Playoffs: 


Dylan Strome, C, Tucson (Arizona Coyotes)

Strome has done everything to justify the Coyotes making him the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

The 21-year-old was tied for fourth in AHL rookie scoring with 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 50 games. Tuscon will face San Jose (San Jose Sharks), in a first-round best-of-5 series.

Tucson was the Western Conference regular-season champion and had the third-best point percentage (.662) in the league. It was the first time since 1997-98 a Coyotes affiliate was an AHL regular-season conference champion; that season, their then-Springfield affiliate featured the likes of center Daniel Briere and forward Shane Doan.

Video: ARI@VAN: Strome sends home loose puck, extends lead


Thatcher Demko, G, Utica (Vancouver Canucks)

Demko, one of the most dominant goaltenders in the AHL this season, was 25-13-4 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.

Demko, 22, selected in the second round (No. 36) of the 2014 NHL Draft, is more than capable of stealing a series, even against Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs), which won the regular-season championship. 

Demko won his NHL debut with the Canucks, when he made 26 saves in a 5-4 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 31.e


Carl Grundstrom, F, Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs)

The Maple Leafs have used their AHL affiliate to fuel their rebirth, and Grundstrom is a scoring threat for the Marlies, who averaged 3.34 goals per game, third-best in the AHL.

Grundstrom, 20, headed to the AHL for the final weekend of the regular season after a standout performance with Flolunda of the Swedish Hockey League. A second-round pick (No. 57) by Toronto in the 2016 NHL Draft, he had 24 points (17 goals, seven assists) in 35 games with Frolunda.


Matthew Highmore, F, Rockford (Chicago Blackhawks)

Highmore, 22, established himself as a tenacious net-front center despite his modest size (5-foot-10, 187 pounds). He had 43 points, including a team-leading 24 goals. Highmore, who was not drafted, should be in strong contention for a job with the Blackhawks next season; he had two goals in 13 NHL games this season.

Highmore and Rockford will face Central Division champion Chicago (Vegas Golden Knights) in the first round.


Linus Ullmark, G, Rochester (Buffalo Sabres)

Starting with a first-round series against Syracuse, this spring figures to be Ullmark's final swing through the AHL. Sabres general manager Jason Botterill confirmed the 24-year-old goaltender will be in Buffalo next season.

Ullmark has been a success story amid an organizational overhaul. A sixth-round pick (No. 163) in the 2012 NHL Draft, Ullmark was his usual workhorse self for Rochester; in 44 games, he went 21-12-10 with a 2.44 GAA and .922 save percentage. 

He was 1-2-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .935 save percentage in five games with the Sabres (three starts).

Rochester will face Syracuse in the first round. 


Daniel Sprong, F, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pittsburgh Penguins) 

Pittsburgh's second-round pick (No. 46) in the 2015 draft, Sprong is in the AHL to round out his two-way game. There is no doubting the 21-year-old forward's offensive prowess; his 32 goals were second in the AHL, and he placed fifth in scoring with 65 points in 65 games.

Sprong has five points (four goals, one assist) in 26 games over two seasons with the Penguins.

Video: PIT@NYI: Sprong labels top corner for his second goal

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