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California’s AHL teams provide Calder Cup playoff intrigue

 

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While the Calder Cup playoffs may be something new for the Bakersfield Condors, the Edmonton Oilers’ top developmental affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL), it’s old hat for eight-year pro Mitch Callahan.

A Whittier native and former Los Angeles Jr. King, Callahan won two Calder Cup championships with the Grand Rapids Griffins during a six-year stint in the Detroit Red Wings organization.

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Callahan is returning to the Calder Cup playoffs this season after helping mentor a cast of top NHL prospects in Bakersfield to a 42-31-3-2 regular season record, the best record among the seven AHL Pacific Division teams and the top winning percentage (.654) among the AHL’s 15 Western Conference teams.

The Condors reeled off a club-record 17-game winning streak at midseason, finishing the month of February undefeated to soar to the top of the division standings to tie Philadelphia Phantoms (2004-05) for the second-longest winning streak in AHL history.

Bakersfield would like to think it’s not yet finished making history.

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Is a third Calder Cup championship on the radar for Callahan? The Condors will hold home ice advantage in the opening three rounds of the playoffs, should they advance that far.

“Couldn’t be happier with the way he’s playing right now, at the most important time of the year,” first-year Bakersfield coach Jay Woodcroft told Bakersfield.com in regard to the 27-year-old Southern California native.

“He’s won two Calder Cup championships. That doesn’t happen by accident. He’s been through the battles and understands what it takes to go on long playoff runs. His experience will be invaluable for us.”

Callahan, a sixth-round (180th overall) pick by Detroit in 2009, has definitely made the most of his pro career, all but five games with the Red Wings spent in the AHL.

He signed a two-year contract with Edmonton in 2017-18 and, while his first season with the Condors was not especially memorable with just two goals and nine points in 45 games, Callahan has made up lost ground this season by collecting 15 goals and 19 assists for 34 points with a plus-4 player rating in 61 on-ice appearances.

He turned up the competitive fire during the month of March with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 11 games, including a six-game point streak in which he collected 11 points.

Callahan was a key contributor with the Griffins with 39 goals and 90 points during the team’s two AHL championship seasons in 2012-13 and 2016-17.

Overall, he logged 94 goals and 186 points in 365 regular season AHL games while with the Griffins.

Condors players affectionately refer to Callahan as a “junkyard dog” for his blue-collar playing style; he has clearly redeemed himself in 2018-19 by helping lead the Condors into exciting uncharted territory.

He’s done so with an attitude of doing anything possible to help the team.
“I’m a hard-working guy that gets in people’s face,” Callahan told the Bakersfield.com website. “I’m not afraid to go to the dirty areas and get people off their game a little bit. Never really shied away from the bigger opponents. Don’t think I ever will.”

Young guns

Bakersfield is 26-6-1-1 since Jan. 12 (.818 winning percentage). Top prospects have driven most of the Condors’ success in 2018-19.

The parent Oilers have taken the stance of slow player development rather than rushing young players to the Big Show. Keeping the talented core of future Oilers together has obviously paid dividends for the Condors, and has created a solid base for the future.

“The culture and work ethic of this team has been outstanding,” Woodcroft expressed in the AHL On The Beat column. “Their care for each other runs marrow-deep. All the credit goes to these players who are rally working their tails off.”

Developing in a winning environment has been key, according to Woodcroft, who maintains an eye for detail.

“At the end of the day, winning is important,” the Bakersfield coach said. “Everyone wants winners. We’re ingrained that in these players right from our opening meeting of training camp and so far our players have really bought in.”

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Edmonton interim general manager Keith Gretzky said that when he came on board three years ago the organization did not have one drafted forward in Bakersfield.

“Now we’ve started to fill the cupboards,” he told a group of Condors season ticket holders at a recent meeting.

Gretzky, a younger brother of The Great One, isn’t kidding.

Left wing Tyler Benson (15 goals, 66 points) and center Cooper Marody (19 goals, 64 points) finished second and third, respectively, in the AHL’s rookie scoring race.

Benson, 21, is a second-round pick (32nd overall) by the Oilers in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft while Marody, 22, was a sixth-round (158th overall) draft pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015.

Marody earned the AHL’s Rookie of the Month award for January after collecting 13 points in 13 games during the month while Benson earned the same honor for March with 18 points in 11 games.

A free agent signee by the Oilers two years ago, goaltender Shane Starrett, 24, has been a revelation after winning back-to-back team MVP awards in two seasons at the Air Force Academy.

He finished second among AHL rookie goaltenders with a 27-7-5 record, 2.33 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 2018-19. He finished 14-0-0 during the Condors’ record winning streak en route to earning honors as the league’s Goaltender of the Month for February.

Starrett posted an 8-0-0 record, 1.75 GAA and .936 save percentage as the Condors went 9-0 during the month.

Starrett and Benson each were named to the 2918-19 AHL All-Rookie Team as well as Second Team AHL All-Stars.

Others contributing to the Condors’ record season include Joe Gambardella, 25, an undrafted second-year pro, who led the AHL in shooting percentage (29.9), and six-year pro Josh Currie, 26, who topped the 20-goal mark for the third consecutive season with 27 goals and 41 points in 53 games with Bakersfield in 2018-19 while also appearing in 21 games for the Oilers.

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Gambardella and Marody represented the Condors at the midseason AHL All-Star Classic in Springfield, Mass.

Ethan Bear, a fifth-round pick (124th overall) in the 2015 draft, represent’s Canada’s First Nation hopefuls on the roster. He’s being groomed for the NHL, appearing in 18 games for the Oilers this season and 52 in Bakersfield (with 31 points).

Former Jr. King Kailer Yamamoto, a first-round pick (22nd overall) by Edmonton in the 2017 draft, remains in the mix with the Condors. The small (5-8, 154) but speedy Yamamoto started the 2018-19 season with the Oilers but was assigned to the Condors after playing in 17 NHL games with one goal and one assist to go with a minus-6 rating.

His numbers – and, more importantly, his confidence level – are back up after logging 27 games in Bakersfield with 10 goals, 18 points and a plus-12 player rating despite missing ice time with an injury.

Gretzky said part of Yamamoto’s demotion had to do with “getting his scoring back.”

“It’s important to have that at the next level,” Gretzky said at the gathering of Bakersfield season ticket-holders. “You have to bring more than one thing when you’re in the NHL.”

Playoff bound

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Overall, three of the five California-based AHL teams qualified for the Calder Cup Pacific Division playoffs. The San Jose Barracuda (39-22-3-4, .625 winning percentage) finished in second place behind Bakersfield while the San Diego Gulls (36-24-5-3, .588 winning percentage) finished in third place.

The Barracuda finished with the third best winning percentage in the Western Conference while the Gulls recorded the fourth best winning percentage among conference teams to underscore the strength of this season’s Pacific Division teams.

The top-seeded Condors will meet the fourth-seeded Colorado Eagles in the opening best-of-five semifinals while the Barracuda will meet the Gulls.

Winners of the two semifinal series will meet in the Pacific Division Finals, which is a best-of-seven series, as are the final two rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs (the conference finals and league championship series).

Sixteen of the AHL’s 31 teams qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs, with the top four teams in each of the league’s four divisions advancing to postseason play.

The playoffs will provide the top prospects of the respective teams with a valuable learning experience as part of their ongoing development on the way to the NHL.

The 2018-19 AHL season proved to be especially competitive in the Pacific Division.It proved to be a mad dash to the finish for three teams battling for the two final playoff berths.

After San Jose defeated host San Diego, 4-3, on April 10 to secure home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Barracuda did the Gulls a favor by handing host Colorado a 3-1 setback on April 12 to allow San Diego to clinch a playoff berth.

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That meant either defending division champion Tucson or AHL newcomer Colorado would be the final team to get in as each team played its final regular season game on April 13.

It went down to the final period of the final game as the visiting Gulls held off a late rally by the Roadrunners to prevail, 4-3, in regulation while the host Eagles (36-27-4-1, .566 winning percentage) edged San Jose, 3-2, to finish ahead of Tucson (34-26-5-3, .559 winning percentage) by one point in the division standings.

In a stunning reversal of fortune, the Gulls eliminated the Roadrunners after Tucson had eliminated San Diego from last year’s playoffs.

“It’s amazing how that works out,” San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins said after the April 13 contest in Arizona. “I don’t know if it it’s a karma thing or what that is. Coming into this arena at this time of the season and quietly, myself, reliving what went on here last year, and now leaving here … I know what they’re feeling over there on that side (the Roadrunners). That team is very well coached (by Jay Varady) and it’s certainly not fun what they’re going through. We’re ecstatic to be here.”

Cuda country

San Jose held the lead in the Pacific Division standings before being passed by Bakersfield late in the season. The Condors eventually finished four standings points in the clear to win the division title.

The Barracuda rewarded veteran head coach Roy Sommer, an Oakland native, with his 764th career win en route to posting a runner-up finish in the division standings. Sommer remains the all-time leader among all AHL coaches in regular season wins and games coached.

San Jose has qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs now in each of its four seasons in the Pacific Division. Sommer feels his team is approaching the post-season on a good note.

“It’s just kind of like we’re winning games by committee, it’s kind of huge,” Sommer said. “We’re getting contributions from a lot of different guys. I think that’s what makes us so dangerous.”

San Jose featured a total of 22 rookies on its 2018-19 roster, with 12 in the group receiving significant playing time over the course of the season.

Former University of Denver standout Dylan Gambrell topped the list of first-year Cuda players in scoring with 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) in 51 games. A second-round (60th overall) pick by the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the 22-year-old Pacific Northwest native also appeared eight games for the NHL parent club this season.

“I enjoy it – it’s a lot of fun,” Gambrell said of his several call-ups this season. “Hopefully I’ll get back there soon enough.”

Gambrell, who collected 43 goals and 89 points in 120 regular season games while playing three seasons for the Pioneers, finished fourth in overall team scoring on the Cuda behind Alexander True (24 goals, 55 points), Francis Perron (18 goals, 47 points) and Nick DeSimone (14 goals, 32 points). Gambrell’s 20 goals ranked second among Cuda players.

“It’s been a good season,” Gambrell said in regard to his first AHL campaign. “We’ve got a good team. We’re looking forward to the playoffs. We’re playing with confidence now. Everyone is starting to contribute right now. That’s what you need to have heading into the playoffs.”

Overall, 16 players, including seven rookies, totaled at least 20 points during the AHL season and 11 scored at least 10 goals, among them five rookies.

Rookie goaltender Josef Korenar represented the Barracuda at the midseason AHL All-Star Classic. He’s been a steadying force between the pipes with a 23-8-2 record, 2.54 goals-against average, four shutouts and .911 save percentage in 34 appearances.

Late season pick-up T.J. Hensick could be the team’s wildcard after logging 20 points in 23 games since joining the AHL club from the ECHL Toledo Walleye (where he had posted a league-leading 58 points and 41 assists in 47 games).

Kyle Wood, a pick-up from Tucson last season, leads San Jose defensemen in scoring with 35 points in 68 games.

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Sommer counts El Segundo native Evan Weinger, the lone Californian on this season’s Cuda roster, among the team’s contributors this season. Weinger finished his first AHL season with 11 goals and 22 points while appearing in 60 of the team’s 68 regular season games.

“I’m still playing and I’m still contributing,” Weinger said with an obvious air of pride. “Everything is going well.”

Sommer calls Weinger “fast.”

“He’s been a great penalty killer for us,” the Cuda coach explained. “He’s still learning the game but he’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Weinger, who turns 22 on April 18, spent two seasons with the Jr. Kings organization, recording 33 goals and 65 points in 75 games from 2012-14, before signing an AHL contact with the Barracuda as a free agent on March 3, 2018.

Weinger said his two-year stint with the Jr. Kings helped prepare him for four years of play in the Western Hockey League (with Portland and Brandon) and now as a pro.

“Skate hard, get on the forecheck, play a little physical game and try to score some goals,” he checked off his personal to-do list. “My work ethic and skating ability are probably my biggest attributes. I just use those two as best I can.”

He admitted playing against stronger players in the AHL has been a challenge to overcome.

“I’m playing against men now, but I’m loving it,” he said I’m looking forward to it. It’s a challenge. I wanted to get 10 goals this season and I did that. I want to do more.”

Protect the nest

With the parent Anaheim Ducks not qualifying for this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, it is hoped that the Ducks’ top NHL prospect will help the Gulls make a deep run into the Calder Cup playoffs.

The San Diego-Anaheim player exchange in 2018-19 featured more than 20 players suiting up for both teams. The Gulls used 53 players during their AHL campaign.

Notables coming down from Anaheim to assist the Gulls in their playoff run include forwards Max Jones, Sam Steel and Kiefer Sherwood along with defensemen Jaycob Megna, Andy Welinski, Jacob Larsson and Jake Dotchin.

They bring a total of 16 goals and 42 points in 225 combined NHL games in 2018-19 to the Gulls line-up.

Jones (24th overall in 2016), Steel (30th overall in 2016) and Larssson (27th in 20915) are all first-round draft picks by the Ducks.

Sherwood appeared in 50 games with Anaheim this season, collecting 12 points, while chalking up 18 points in 29 games with San Diego; Steel accumulated 11 points in 22 games with the Ducks and 20 goals and 41 points in 53 games with the Gulls.

In 43 games with San Diego this season, Jones has 14 goals and 29 points.

 

The Gulls reeled off a club-record 15-game point streak ending on Jan. 19 using 38 different players, many of whom were later slated to join the parent club for the second half of the season.

“We should be very proud of it — that’s an extremely hard thing to pull off,” Eakins underscored.

Despite the roster turnover, the Ducks’ affiliate has kept above water.

Forwards Adam Cracknell (38 points in 46 AHL games) and Justin Kloos (45 points in 59 AHL games) have both produced in San Diego since being acquired in trades.

On the home front, center Sam Carrick led the Gulls in regular season scoring while La Mirada native Chase De Leo catapulted into second place with an explosive second half performance.

Carrick, 27, became the first Gull to score 30 goals in a season while also setting a new single-season club record with 61 points (32 goals, 29 assists). He picked up his 100th career AHL goal in the team’s April 13 win in Tucson. He finished the season fifth among AHL goal scorers – tops in the Western Conference.

Carrick appeared in six games with Anaheim this season with one assist. He was the Gulls’ recipient of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his outstanding contributions to the San Diego community during the 2018-19 season.

De Leo, 23, racked up 20 goals and 55 points with the Gulls. Both numbers are season bests as a pro. He led San Diego with 35 assists and recorded a plus-16 player rating (also a pro best and tied for first on the team).

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He received sporadic call-ups to Anaheim during the season but appeared in just one NHL game. Originally a fourth-round pick (99th overall) by the Winnipeg Jets in 2014, he skated in two NHL games with the Jets in 2015-16.

Goaltender Kevin Boyle finished the season with a 24-15-0 record in 43 appearances with the Gulls, notching a 2.90 GAA and .907 save percentage. He received his long anticipated call-up to the NHL in a relief role on Feb. 9 and recorded his first NHL win – a 1-0 shutout against visiting Vancouver — in his first NHL start on Feb. 13.

Overall, Boyle played in five games for the Ducks this season, compiling a 1-3-0 record with a 2.17 GAA and .928 save percentage, the latter two numbers noteworthy.

The Gulls led the AHL in attendance for the second straight season in 2018-19 with an average of 9,021 fans per game. San Diego led the AHL in attendance last season with an average of 9,305 per game, becoming the first team other than Hershey to lead the AHL in attendance dating to Hershey’s 10 straight seasons leading the league from 2007-17.

The Gulls welcomed their one-millionth fan this season since the club landed in San Diego in 2015-16.

Hot seat

The Stockton Heat (31-31-4-2, .500 winning percentage) was among 10 teams posting a .500 or better regular season record that did not make the Calder Cup playoff cut. Stockton, the top development affiliate of the Calgary Flames, finished sixth in the AHL’s Pacific Division standings – eight points behind fifth place Tucson.

Two prominent Stockton players made the jump to the NHL this season – left wing Andrew Mangiapane (a sixth-round pick in 2015) and defenseman Oliver Kylington (a second-round pick in 2015).

Mangiapane appeared in 15 games for the Heat in 2018-19 with nine goals and 17 points while Kylington appeared on 18 games with seven goals and 14 points.

Mangiapane appeared in 44 regular season games with the Flames in 2018-19 with eight goals and 13 points while Kylington netted eight goals and eight points in 38 regular season games in helping the Flames top the NHL’s Pacific Division standings.

Most inspirational

Ontario captain Brett Sutter received this year’s Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award, emblematic of the AHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey.

In his 12th AHL season, the 31-year-old Sutter reached the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career in 2018-19 with 21 goals and 45 points in 67 games for the Reign. Sutter became just the 39th player in AHL history to appear in 800 career regular-season contests.

Originally drafted by Calgary in 2005, Sutter is one of nine members of his family to play in the NHL, along with his father Darryl, five uncles and two cousins.

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Over his long playing career, the Reign captain has totaled 153 goals and 212 assists for 365 points in 811 AHL games in Ontario, Iowa, Charlotte, Abbotsford and Quad City, along with two goals and eight assists in 60 NHL contests with Minnesota, Carolina and Calgary.

Sutter’s award was a bright spot on the Reign’s season as Ontario finished in the basement of this season’s Pacific Division standings with a 25-33-6-4 record (.441 winning percentage) – eight standings points behind Stockton.

Both the NHL parent L.A. Kings and Reign finished in last place in their divisions in their respective leagues.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(April 16, 2019)