Player pipeline cements AHL-NHL ties with California squads
With the American Hockey League (AHL) serving as a development league for the National Hockey League, it would make sense that players making the transition both to and from the NHL parent club should experience a sense of continuity.
Players in the AHL are, in fact, seen as an extension of the parent club’s roster. Thus, teams play similar systems to allow a seamless as possible transition between levels.
Right wing Nick Sorenson can testify to that.
Sorenson made his NHL debut with the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 13 and picked up one assist in his first five NHL games before being assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls, on Oct. 22. He suited up in a San Diego uniform that night and picked up his first AHL assist in the Gulls’ 5-4 win over the Texas Stars.
“I had a long flight home from Philadelphia (where the Ducks had played Oct. 20) and then came down here for the morning skate with the guys, and jumped right into the game – it was a lot of fun, fun to get the win,” explained Sorenson, a second-round pick by Anaheim in the 2013 NHL Draft.
It was a whirlwind 24 hours for Sorenson and defenseman Jacob Larsson, who joined the 22-year-old Dane in San Diego also on assignment. That both the AHL Gulls and NHL Ducks play similar systems was highly beneficial in the transition process for both players in their ability to contribute immediately for their new team.
“The teams are trying to play similar styles so we can have players go up and down all the time,” explained Sorenson, who had chalked up a goal and a pair of assists in five games with the Gulls. “It’s a little different style of game (in the NHL) – it’s more structured up there. Here (in the AHL) there’s more open space. I like it. You skate a lot. I try to do the same things up there. I contribute with my speed and size and work hard.”
Larsson, a member of Team Sweden at the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, picked up an assist in each of his first two games in San Diego this season.
Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins emphasized how important it is for players to be on the same page in both the AHL and NHL as call-ups often transpire at unexpected times. In the first month of this season alone, eight players have played in games for both Gulls and the Ducks.
“There’s very little difference between us and the system the Ducks are playing, so when guys go up and down it’s easy for them to just come in and play,” Eakins explained. “That being said, we do have a few differences, details on the face-off, but I think the guys played well who were thrown into the fire.”
Stockton Heat head coach Ryan Huska echoed Eakins’ comments.
“Our job down here is to make sure our guys are ready to when they get called up and get that opportunity,” Huska explained. “If they have an understanding of what’s expected of them, it makes their transition significantly easier.
“That’s what it’s all about. We want our guys to know that what’s expected of them here is that which is expected of them once they get up to Calgary. It’s best for the players that everybody is on the same page of how we play and the language we use.”
Another avenue of continuity that teams stress occurs with the transition of young prospects from rookie development camp to AHL rosters. The head coach of the parent club’s AHL affiliate often leads rookie camp, as this provides an opportunity for him to get to know many of the players he will be coaching after cuts are made and prospects are assigned to the AHL team.
“It gives us an opportunity to see these young guys for the first time and it gives us an opportunity for us to see a lot of the players we had last year and how they progressed over the summer … where they are,” Huska explained. “We have that opportunity to be hands-on and the great part of the coaching staff up in Calgary is that we’re included in everything. Even in training camp they make you feel you’re really a part of things even though we’re a distance away from them. It’s good to have a great relationship with your development team.”
“That’s your pipeline – that’s the chance for these young guys to start their professional careers,” Huska said.
Making the grade
Bakersfield right wing Taylor Beck earned recognition as the AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Nov. 6. He is the first Condors player to receive the award.
Beck, 25, collected eight points (three goals, five assists) in a three-game span. He tied a career high with four points (one goal, three assists) in the Condors’ 5-3 win over the Texas Stars on Nov. 5. Beck then received a call-up to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 6 and met the team in Detroit, arriving in time to play eight minutes in Edmonton’s 2-1 NHL victory against the Red Wings.
Beck, who ranked sixth in the AHL in scoring at the time with 12 points (three goals, nine assists), became the 20th Bakersfield player in the past 13 months to play in the NHL. The Condors led the AHL in NHL man games in 2015-16.
Bakersfield (5-5-0, .500 points-percentage) is currently in the midst of an eight-game home stand that ` faced off with a 7-1 win over the San Antonio Rampage on Nov. 2 – a game that marked the largest margin of victory in the Condors’ AHL history.
Tucson defenseman Kyle Wood received recognition as the AHL Rookie of the Month for October after recording points in all five of the team’s games during the month (two goals, six assists) to help lead his team to the top of the Pacific Division standings.
Playing in his first pro season, Wood, 20, tallied a goal and two assists in the Roadrunners’ season opening loss in San Diego on Oct. 14. He then notched an assist on the deciding goal as Tucson scored its first-ever win with a 2-1 overtime victory at Stockton on Oct. 21 and added a goal and assist in the Roadrunners’ 4-3 come-from-behind home ice victory over Stockton on Oct. 30.
Through Tucson’s opening eight games of the season, Wood had collected nine points (two goals, seven assists) to lead his team in scoring.
The Roadrunners’ 6-1-1 start to the season did not go unnoticed by the Arizona Coyotes as the NHL parent club recalled Tucson forward Tyler Gaudet and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo on Nov. 7. It was the first NHL call-up for DeAngelo, 21, and the third stint with the Coyotes for Gaudet, who appeared in 14 games for Arizona last season with one goal and two assists.
DeAngelo had collected seven points (one goal, seven assists) in eight games in Tucson to start the season, while Gaudet, 23, had collected five points (two goals, three assists).
Roadrunners assistant coach Mark Hardy called DeAngelo “offensively gifted” for a blue-liner. It didn’t take long for the NHL rookie to make an impression. DeAngelo scored his first NHL goal in his Coyotes’ debut on Nov. 8 in a 4-2 win at Colorado.
Tucson takes a Pacific Division leading 7-1-2 record (.800 points-percentage) into a five-game home stand starting Nov. 18. The Roadrunners have picked up points in their last nine games (7-0-2).
Former San Jose Barracuda goaltender Aaron Dell picked up his first NHL victory when the San Jose Sharks tipped the host New York Islanders, 3-2, on Oct. 18. Dell stopped 21 of 23 shots to record the personal milestone. He made his final save as time expired.
“It took right to the very last second to make it real there,” Dell told reporters after the game. “I didn’t really realize it until I got off (the ice). It was crazy.”
In his first 100 minutes in the NHL, Dell, 27, had recorded a 2.41 goals-against average and .902 save percentage to go with his 1-0 record. He appeared in 40 games for the Barracuda in 2015-16 with a 2.42 GAA and a .922 save percentage.
A pair of former Gulls played a big part in Anaheim’s 4-2 home opening win over the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 23. Goaltender John Gibson stopped 17 shots, while forward Nick Ritchie scored the go-ahead goal. Forward Joseph Cramarossa, on a call-up assignment from the Gulls, was the third player in the pipeline from San Diego to appear in the Ducks’ line-up in a single game.
The game marked Cramarossa’s NHL debut.
“The opening ceremony was pretty crazy. Seeing all those lights, I was just sitting there thinking about how long I’ve waited for this,” he told NHL.com after the game. “It was amazing. Everyone back home watching was sharing that with me. I’ve been waiting so long, and I knew when I got the chance I’d be ready. I was lucky enough to make the team out of camp, but it was a numbers game, so I got sent back down. I did what I had to do to get back. It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
Cramarossa, 24, appeared in 61 games for San Diego last season while Ritchie played in 38 games for the Gulls and 33 games for the Ducks. Gibson anchored the net during San Diego’s debut season with 13 appearances for the Gulls and logged 40 games with the Ducks in 2015-16.
In 11 games with Anaheim this season, Cramarossa had tallied a goal and assist while Ritchie, 20, had collected three goals and four points in 14 NHL games. Gibson, 23, had accumulated a 2.68 GAA and .902 save percentage in 13 games this season with Anaheim.
San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins recorded his 200th career AHL victory as the Gulls defeated the Manitoba Moose, 6-3, Nov. 12 at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego.
“The most rewarding part of coaching for me is the relationships you build with these players along the way,” explained Eakins, who picked up his 43rd regular season victory with the Gulls after recording 157 regular season wins with the Toronto Marlies from 2009-13, including a 44-win regular season record when he led the Marlies to the 2012 Calder Cup Finals.
“It’s always interesting that guys you coached five, six, eight years ago that are still in contact with you. That’s always the biggest thing for me – you want to develop hockey players but the most important things for me is to develop good young men.”
The Gulls improved to 4-5-1 (.450 points-percentage) with the victory, their second over the Moose (6-5-0) in as many nights.
San Diego finished 0-3-1 on its first road swing of the season after posting a 2-2 mark during a season opening four-game home. The Gulls picked up a point in a 3-2 overtime loss to the host Moose on Oct. 28 but suffered a 5-4 setback the next night in their first-ever trip to Canada. San Diego ended the road swing with consecutive losses in Stockton – 6-1 and 7-3.
The Heat’s home ice sweep of the Gulls raised Stockton’s record to 3-0 over San Diego this season.
Stockton, which failed to qualify for last season’s Pacific Division playoffs, shut out visiting San Antonio, 3-0, on Nov. 12 behind the 20-save performance by goaltender David Rittich to raise its season record to 6-3-1 (.650 points-percentage) to solidify a runner-up position in the Pacific Division standings behind Tucson.
San Jose won its home opener, 4-0, over Bakersfield on Oct. 28 to hand head coach (and Oakland native) Roy Sommer his 650th career AHL coaching victory. The Barracuda swept all three stars in the game – Kevin Labanc (first star, three points), goaltender Troy Grosenick (second star, 28 saves) and Nikolay Goldobin (two assists).
The Barracuda defeated host Texas, 8-5, on Nov. 12 to improve to 4-3-0-1 (.563 points-percentage) as six teams are crowded within .148 percentage points of one another in the division standings.
Former Ontario teammates Jeff Schultz and Jordan Samuels-Thomas started on the same line in San Diego’s Nov. 11 home game against Manitoba. Samuels-Thomas (wearing No. 42 in honor of baseball’s Jackie Robinson) scored a goal in his Gulls’ debut while Schultz, wearing an assistant captain patch, earned third star honors in San Diego’s 3-2 victory.
“It’s great,” Samuels-Thomas expressed about being reunited with Schultz. “Because we played together before, I know what to expect. He’s a veteran strong player. I know when I’m around him, I can count on him.”
Samuels-Thomas scored his second goal with the Gulls in the Nov. 12 win over the Moose.
As the Goaltender Turns
The Ontario Reign’s unsettled goaltending situation, precipitated after regular season starter Peter Budaj and backup Jack Campbell had both been called up to the parent Kings because of injuries at the NHL level, manifested itself during its recent season-high five-game road swing through the American Southwest.
Jonah Imoo, who attended the Reign’s preseason training camp, signed a PTO following Budaj’s initial call-up. However, when Campbell was later called up to the Kings, that created an emergency situation in which Imoo’s father, 46-year-old father, Dusty Imoo, the team’s goaltending development coach, signed a PTO as his son’s back-up in a history-making game on Oct. 22.
Prior to departing for Texas, there was some understandable last-minute scrambling.
Veteran roller hockey netminder Troy Redmann signed a PTO with the Reign on Oct. 24 but was released when the AHL team signed former Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres netminider Anders Lindback on a PTO on Oct. 26.
Upon signing Redmann, a Brea native, Ontario released Dusty Imoo from his initial PTO.
Jonah Imoo remained with the team to face off the road trip and was joined by Jack Flinn, who had been recalled from the Kings’ ECHL affiliate in Manchester, N.H. Flinn got the start in Ontario’s Oct. 28 gameagainst the Stars in Cedar Park, Tex. (a 5-4 loss), with Imoo serving as back-up.
The younger Imoo started for the Reign in its Oct. 29 game in Texas but was replaced by Flinn after Imoo suffered an injury late in the game (a 2-1 overtime loss).
That created another emergency situation that placed Dusty Imoo in backup duty once more in the Reign’s Oct. 30 game in San Antonio. Flinn started that game and picked up his first professional victory in a 4-2 decision over the host Rampage.
Redmann was signed to a PTO on Nov. 1 when the elder Imoo was released from his PTO.
Ontario closed out its road swing 1-2-2 with two games in Tucson on Nov. 4-5. Lindback, after his visa cleared, got the start in both games ( a 3-2 loss and 5-4 overtime setback) with Flinn serving as back-up.
The musical chair game was far from over, however.
The Kings reassigned Campbell to Ontario on Nov. 7, which bumped Flinn back to Manchester. Campbell returned to the Reign for its Nov. 9 home game against San Antonio, with Lindback serving as back-up this time.
However, Campbell was recalled by the Kings on Nov. 12, which resulted in Flinn being recalled from Manchester the same day.
Lindback was back between the pipes, with Flinn serving as back-up, when the Reign opened a two-game Midwest road swing Nov. 12-13 with games in Iowa (6-5 shootout victory) and Rockford (3-1 win). Ontario improved to 5-3-3 (.591 points-percentage) with the much needed victories.
Lindback had compiled a 3.40 GAA and .870 save percentage in four game appearances with a 2-1-1 record as the frequent flyer miles keep adding up for the team’s goaltending group.
Obviously, stay tuned.
Beck led Pacific Division players in scoring with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in games tabulated through Nov. 13. San Antonio’s A.J. Greer followed with 14 points (five goals, nine assists), while San Diego’s Corey Tropp and San Antonio’s Rocco Grimaldi (Anaheim) were next with 13 points on four goals and nine assists each.
San Diego’s Brandon Montour (four goals, eight assists) and Stockton’s Mark Jankowski each had collected 12 points and T.J. Hensick led Ontario with 11 points (five goals, six assists).
Bakersfield’s Laurent Brossoit led Pacific Division goaltenders with a 2.11 GAA and .929 save percentage, followed by San Antonio’s Spencer Martin (2.45 GAA, .916 save percentage), Bakersfield’s Nick Ellis (2.58 GAA, .928 save percentage), Tucson’s Adin Hill (2.70 GAA, .917 save percentage), Texas’ Philippe Desrosiers (2.86 GAA, .901 save percentage), Stockton’s Jon Gillies (2.98 GAA, .901 save percentage) and Grosenick (3.33 GAA, .883 save percentage) followed.
Hill led the group with a 6-0-2 record while Gillies sported a 4-1-1 record.
By the numbers
Tucson welcomed a sellout crowd of 6,521 to its inaugural AHL home game on Oct. 28 against Stockton at the Tucson Arena (a 6-5 win). The Roadrunners generated much success during a five-game home stand to introduce fans to the AHL. Tucson went 4-0-1 in the five games and averaged 3,770 fans.
San Diego and Ontario continue to be the big draws among the Pacific Division’s five California teams. San Diego (8,806) held a slight edge on Ontario (7,653) in the attendance derby through the opening month of the season. Bakersfield (4,323), San Jose (4,124) and Stockton (4,023) followed among the remaining California teams.
The Gulls drew their largest home crowd of the season – 11,024 – in a Salute to Heroes Night on Nov. 12.
San Diego wore new special desert camouflage jerseys to honor the United States Armed Forces during the team’s Tribute to Military Weekend. Eakins said he reminded his players the significance of wearing camouflage before they hit the ice to the two-game set against Manitoba, the first-ever Canadian team to visit the Gulls’ roost.
“It is a privilege and honor to wear these jerseys,” Eakins commented. “We always preach commitment and discipline. Our military takes those ideals to a different level. We wanted to show that type of commitment.”
The two games (Nov. 11-12) for military weekend attracted a total of 21,068 fans, including 10,044 on Nov. 11.
The Kings and Reign teamed up to donate $1 million to Ronald McDonald House Inland Empire to help double the facility’s amount of guest rooms and create new team-themed family and children’s recreation rooms.
“The Kings and the Reign are partners on and off the ice,” Kings president, business operations Luc Robitaille explained. “Since the Reign began play in the AHL last season one of our cumulative goals was to be very active in the community. We feel this is a great example of that commitment while benefiting a group, the Ronald McDonald House, that is very close to our hearts.”
The $1 million community gift expands the facility to 54 guest rooms with a grand reopening scheduled for Dec. 12. The expansion includes Kings and Reign-themed family and children’s recreation rooms complete with new TVs, furniture and bubble hockey.
– Story & photos/Phillip Brents