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AHL Notebook: Five players helping their NHL hopes

Zykov, Smith among those showing they could be ready for promotion soon

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

There are no predictable timelines for player development in the American Hockey League, and there are many different roads to an NHL job.

Age, depth charts experience, organizational needs, and size are among the many factors that can accelerate or slow down a player as he attempts to stick on an NHL roster. Sometimes those players were notable selections at the NHL Draft. Other players go undrafted and have to take a longer path.

A third of the way through the AHL season, here are five AHL players who have accelerated their individual developmental journeys:


Valentin Zykov: Charlotte (Carolina Hurricanes)

The third pro season for a player in the AHL can be make-or-break time for many prospects.

Working in favor for Zykov (6-feet, 207 pounds) was his pedigree as a second-round (No. 37) pick in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings. The Hurricanes acquired the sturdy forward with a fifth-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft for veteran forward Kris Versteeg on Feb. 28, 2016.

Video: NYR@CAR: Zykov scores in his NHL debut

However, Zykov, 22, also found himself among a deep cache of Hurricanes forward prospects.

Moving into his third pro season, Zykov has found chemistry with veteran playmaker Andrew Miller and forward prospect Lucas Wallmark.

He has seven goals in his past five games, and his 17 goals are tied with Danick Martel of Lehigh Valley for the AHL lead. His 11 power-play goals lead the AHL and have accounted for a third of the goals by the second-ranked power play in the league (23.2 percent).


C.J. Smith: Rochester (Buffalo Sabres)

Teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins have made a habit of finding less-heralded college players, patiently developing them and turning into NHL contributors.

Sabres general manager Jason Botterill learned that method while in the Penguins organization as an assistant general manager. He oversaw their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL affiliate that produced the likes of forwards Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Smith, 24, signed with the Sabres as a free agent March 30 and was in place before Botterill arrived. But rather than rush Smith (5-11, 185) into the NHL, the Sabres have let him take his time with Rochester.

The move has paid off for all sides. After three NCAA seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Smith has 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 28 games at Rochester, placing him fourth in AHL scoring (two points off the league lead).

He's also learning the pro game under Rochester coach Chris Taylor, who spent last season as an assistant with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.


Sam Anas: Iowa (Minnesota Wild)

As the old scouting adage goes, some players have to prove that they cannot play; others have to show that they can. Size has long been a factor in those sorts of evaluations, and Anas, 24, is handling the physical rigors that the AHL offers.

Anas (5-8, 165) is in his second season and is displaying the same offensive creativity that he showed in the NCAA at Quinnipiac University. His 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 23 games are second in scoring for Iowa.

He is part of an intriguing group of rookies that includes forwards Luke Kunin, Justin Kloos, and defenseman Brennan Menell to complement a strong mix of veterans. Iowa is firmly in contention in the Central Division in a bid to become the first Minnesota affiliate to reach the Calder Cup playoffs since 2013.


Warren Foegele: Charlotte

While putting Charlotte on the power play has been a dangerous move, the Hurricanes' affiliate can hurt opponents in other ways.

Charlotte's penalty kill ranks 14th at 83.1 percent; however, Charlotte also has seven shorthanded goals, second-most in the AHL, and Foegele (6-2, 190) has four of them. Those four shorthanded goals tie the rookie forward with Kevin Rooney of Binghamton for the AHL lead and set a single-season Charlotte franchise record.

A third-round pick (No. 67) by Carolina in the 2014 NHL Draft, Foegele, 21, has adapted quickly to the pro game and been able to find the difficult balance for rookies between defensively responsible play and offensive production.

He ranks fifth in AHL rookie scoring with 23 points (14 goals, nine assists) and is tied for fifth in the league in goals.


Jacob MacDonald: Binghamton (New Jersey Devils)

Though Binghamton has struggled, MacDonald is showing he might be a bargain.

Undrafted after four NCAA seasons at Cornell University, MacDonald, 24, is playing on a two-year AHL contract he signed with New Jersey last season.

MacDonald (6-0, 208) has climbed his way through pro hockey. He started in the ECHL and had 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists) in 2015-16, his rookie season. That earned him an AHL opportunity, and he has delivered.

His 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) are second among AHL defenseman, and he's No. 1 in goals. That production has come as part of an offense that struggles to score and is tied for 27th at 2.63 goals per game.

With time to round out the rest of his game, MacDonald is a prospect who bears watching.

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