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AHL Notebook: Rookies making playoff impact

Lake Erie's Werenski, San Diego's Theodore among leading scorers

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

Age and experience traditionally have carried teams to Calder Cup championships, but that continues to change in the American Hockey League.

Just as youth takes on an increasingly larger role in the NHL with each season, fresh young talent, some coming from the Canadian Hockey League and the NCAA, is playing a larger role in the league.

In the past decade, winners of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy, given to the most valuable player of the AHL playoffs, have included Carey Price, Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Tatar. Previously, the award had been the province of AHL veterans. 

Two of the best-known examples have been Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. They went from junior hockey to the Philadelphia Phantoms, the AHL affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, and helped the Phantoms win the Calder Cup in 2005. 

This season, two rookies rank in the top-five in playoff scoring among AHL defensemen.

Lake Erie's Zach Werenski, selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets with the eighth pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, moved into the pro game after two seasons at the University of Michigan. He's tied for second among AHL defensemen with six points (three goals, three assists) in six games. Still 18 years old, Werenski has fit in on a strong Lake Erie blue line alongside established veterans Jamie Sifers, Justin Falk and Dean Kukan. Lake Erie has a 3-0 lead in its second-round Central Division series against Grand Rapids.

Shea Theodore played six Stanley Cup Playoff games for the Anaheim Ducks before he was returned to San Diego, when he immediately solidified their defense corps. He has five points (one goal, four assists) in five games, tied for fourth among defensemen. Theodore is joined by fellow rookie Brandon Montour, who had 12 goals and 57 points in 68 regular-season games. Montour, 22, is tied for seventh in defensive playoff scoring with four points in seven games. San Diego trails 2-1 in its second-round series against Ontario.

Rookie AHL goaltenders also have excelled. Lake Erie's Joonas Korpisalo has a .930 save percentage. Casey DeSmith of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, who had played six regular-season AHL games before the playoffs, took over the No. 1 job before ceding it to fellow rookie Tristan Jarry. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey are tied 2-2 in their playoff series.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton rookie forward Jake Guentzel is tied for the league scoring lead with 10 points. He had six points in 11 regular-season games after leaving the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Guentzel's teammate, Daniel Sprong, is tied for the league lead with five goals and tied for 10th with six points. Sprong, 19, was a second-round pick (No. 46) of the Penguins in the 2015 NHL Draft and had two goals in 18 NHL games. 

Video: OTT@PIT: Sprong goes top-shelf for first NHL goal

Two other rookie forwards are in the top 10 in scoring. Hershey's Jakub Vrana, the 13th pick in the 2014 draft, is tied for fourth with seven points (three goals, four assists) in nine games. Lake Erie's Oliver Bjorkstrand is tied for 10th with six points (three goals, three assists) in six games. 

ON THE AGENDA
The AHL will hold its spring Board of Governor meetings this week. Among the issues will be the Arizona Coyotes' conditional purchase of the Springfield franchise with the intent of relocating it to Tucson, Ariz. If approved, the move would add another western team to the AHL map and provide the Coyotes an affiliate two hours away.

The status of the Florida Panthers' AHL affiliation for next season remains unclear after Portland signed a letter of intent to be relocated to a new city that is rumored to be Springfield, Mass. The Florida-Portland affiliation had just completed its first season. Portland finished fourth in the Atlantic Division with a 41-27-6-2 record before being eliminated in five games by Hershey in the first round.

AROUND THE AHL
Charlotte coach Mark Morris left to become coach at St. Lawrence University. His departure leaves four AHL coaching vacancies. Morris went 36-32-4-5 in 2015-16, his only season in Charlotte. His 374 coaching victories rank seventh in AHL history. … Hershey's Chris Bourque became the seventh AHL player to reach 100 playoff points. Bourque also won the Les Cunningham Award as the league's most valuable player. He led the league during the regular season with 80 points (30 goals, 50 assists). … The Ottawa Senators announced that new associate coach Marc Crawford will act as a "liaison" with Binghamton. Binghamton is among the AHL coaching vacancies after Luke Richardson resigned in April.

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