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Preseason winds down for AHL’s five California teams

 

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The American Hockey League’s Pacific Division teams will face off the 2016-17 season the weekend of Oct. 14-15.

It will be the AHL’s 81st season of operation and the second season for the Pacific Division, which will be buttressed once again by five teams in California.

The division has grown in membership to eight teams this season with the addition of the Tucson Roadrunners, a franchise formerly based in Springfield, Mass., that was relocated to southeastern Arizona to better suit the needs of the NHL parent club Arizona Coyotes.

NHL affiliations remain the same for the seven returning Pacific Division members: Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings), San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks), San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks), Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers), Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames), San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche) and Texas Stars (Dallas Stars).

Ontario, San Diego, Texas and San Jose qualified for the inaugural Pacific Division playoffs. Ontario defeated San Jose and San Diego in successive rounds to win the division championship before falling to the eventual Calder Cup champion Lake Erie Monsters in the Western Conference finals.

Top storylines

Can the Reign, which finished with a 44-19-4-1 regular season record in 2015-16, repeat as division champions? Can Ontario reclaim the Calder Cup trophy it won two seasons ago?

Can the Gulls, retooled with a new veteran defensive core and fresh recruit of NHL draft picks, improve on their runner-up perch last season?

Can the Barracuda, guided by head coach Roy Sommer, the AHL’s all-time winningest coach with 648 career regular season wins (and counting), duplicate what its NHL parent club did last season by reaching the Stanley Cup Finals by contending for a Pacific Division and Calder Cup championship?

Will Bakersfield and Stockton – non-Calder Cup playoff qualifiers last season – find a niche in postseason play this season?

Rookie showcases

NHL training camps traditionally face off with rookie camps that highlight the teams’ recent draft picks and minor league prospect pools.

San Jose and Anaheim competed in the Colorado Avalanche Rookie Showcase Sept. 17-19 in Westminster, Colo. The host Avs went 2-0 while the Ducks rookies defeated the Sharks rookies in the tournament finale. The showcase featured some of the top players in the respective teams’ farm systems.

Nick Ritchie led the Anaheim rookies with two goals, while Nic Kerdiles, Julius Nattinen, Kevin Roy, Max Jones (above) and Keaton Thompson each scored single goals. Ritchie and Kerdiles both saw significant action with the Gulls last season. Roy and Thompson were subsequently assigned to San Diego this season along with goaltender Kevin Boyle.

Jaycob Megna (67 games with San Diego last season) wore the captain’s insignia for the Ducks in the first game (a 3-2 loss to the Colorado rookies), while Shea Theodore (50 games in San Diego and 19 games in Anaheim last season) wore the captain’s ‘C’ in the game against the San Jose rookies (a 5-3 win).

San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins served as coach of the Anaheim rookies. He said players were understandably nervous in the first game, especially in the first period. That statement applies to players on all teams, of course.

“For some guys, it’s their first shot at an NHL training camp,” the Gulls coach noted. “There are other guys (who) want to show well because they have a chance to make the big club. There are other guys (who) are looking to reclaim their careers.”

Ritchie saw action in 33 games with the Ducks and 38 games with San Diego last season. He compiled 16 goals and 30 points in 38 games his rookie season with the Gulls and two goals and four points with Anaheim.

Jermaine Lowen, Jason Fram, Tyler Nother and Jeremy Roy each notched goals for the San Jose rookies in the two-game set. Fram was subsequently assigned to the Barracuda.

Sommer coached the Sharks rookies in the showcase.

San Jose outshot the Colorado rookies 36-23 and trailed 2-1 until the final 4:50 of the opening game in the showcase before falling 4-1. “For the majority of the game, I thought we took the play to them – they had a couple of opportunistic goals,” Sommer said.

The Kings and Coyotes’ rookies got together for a pair of games Sept. 20-21 at Gila Bend Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

The Kings won the preseason opener 3-1 but dropped the second game by a score of 2-1. Matt Luff, Sam Herr and Jonny Brodzinski scored for the Kings in the opener, while Quentin Shore scored the lone goal for the Kings in the finale.

Meanwhile, the Flames and Oilers competed alongside prospects from the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets in the Young Stars Classic Sept. 16-19 in Penticton, British Columbia. The Oilers Young Stars, coached by Bakersfield head coach Gerry Fleming, finished with a 3-0 sweep to win the championship.

Forward Joey Benik, who was subsequently assigned to Bakersfield, wrapped up the series with seven points (four goals, three assists). Jaedon Descheneau, also assigned to Bakersfield, scored the overtime winner over Calgary.

Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, could see some time with the Condors this season. Puljujarvi finished the Young Stars Classic with six points (two goals, four assists).

Former University of Maine forward Ryan Lomberg, who signed an AHL contract with Stockton, tallied three goals in the Young Star Classic for the Flames, including the overtime game-winner against the Canucks.

King me

The Kings’ training camp roster featured 22 players off last season’s AHL Pacific Division championship Ontario squad, including six players who skated with both the Kings and Reign: forwards Michael Mersch, Nic Dowd, Kyle Clifford, defensemen Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel and goaltender Peter Budaj.

The group got together for a unique Kings versus Kings instra-squad scrimmage Sept. 25 at Citizens Business Bank Arena (home of the Reign) when Team White defeated Team Black, 3-2, in a shootout. The scrimmage featured segments of five-on-five hockey, four-on-four and three-on-three skating.

Nick Shore (five-on-five) and Mersch (four-on-four) scored for Team White, while Tanner Pearson (four-on-four) and Brodzinski (three-on-three) scored for Team Black in the regulation portion of the match-up.

In the shootout, Devin Setoguchi and forward Adrian Kempe lit the goal lamp for Team White, while Andy Andreoff picked up the lone marker for Team Black.

Vincent LoVerde and Forbort from the Reign also picked up assists in the contest. Kempe and Brodzinski also skated for Ontario last season.

Team White goaltenders included Jonah Imoo and Thomas McCollum, while Jack Campbell and Jack Flinn backstopped Team Black.

Brodzinski, LoVerde and Campbell and were subsequently assigned to the Reign’s 2016-17 roster while McCollum, Imoo (son of Kings goaltending development coach Dusty Imoo) and Flinn were assigned to the Reign’s AHL training camp. Los Angeles native Miles Koules also was assigned to the Reign’s training camp.

Budaj, voted last season’s AHL outstanding goaltender, stopped all 14 shots he faced in the Kings’ 6-1 preseason victory against Anaheim on Sept. 29. He appeared in 60 games last season for Ontario with a league leading 1.75 GAA and .932 save percentage.

Building blocks

Players began trickling down from NHL training camps on assignment to AHL teams during the final week of September. AHL training camps formally began the first week in October – Oct. 3 for San Diego, Stockton and San Jose and Oct. 4 for Bakersfield and Ontario.

The primary focus for coaching staffs is to assess players’ ability to compete and execute. Player evaluation continues through the end of camp.

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“We had a big influx of players at the last part of the season – our draft picks, guys out of juniors, out of college,” San Diego’s Eakins explained. “Some of them didn’t play, but they know what we’re trying to accomplish in practice and they understand our vision and our values in the organization. That’s made training camp much more easier.”

Fleming echoed Eakin’s thoughts.

“For some of them, it’s stuff they’ve worked on already, some stuff we’ve implemented last year, some of the stuff they’ve seen in training camp,” the Bakersfield head coach said. “For new guys, it’s new to them, so we want to see how they handle it and react to it. There’s going to be some good competition … guys fighting for jobs, guys fighting for opportunities.”

Game on

The Gulls and Reign renewed their intense Southern California rivalry with a pair of exhibition games Oct. 6 in Ontario and Oct. 10 in Anaheim. The Gulls captured the two-set opener by a score of 4-3 in a shootout as Kevin Roy and Ondrej Kase each scored shootout goals and the Gulls’ Boyle stopped the Reign’s final shootout attempt by Daniel Ciampini.

The Gulls opened up a 3-1 lead on a pair of goals by Stefan Noesen, including one on the power play.

Cory Ward, Lucas Lessio and Koules each scored in regulation for the host Reign, while Quentin Shore scored Ontario’s shootout goal.

The Gulls defeated the Reign, 4-1, in the two-set finale in front of a crowd of 10,214 at the Honda Center to finish 2-0 in preseason play. San Diego won eight of the teams’ 12 regular-season matchups last season and appears to have set the tone again this year with its preseason sweep.

The Reign’s Education Day was a success as the game featured a 10 a.m. start to accommodate 5,070 school children in attendance at Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena.

Marcus Sorenson scored a hat trick and goaltender Mantas Armalis stopped 32 of 34 shots he faced to lead the Barracuda past Tucson, 4-2, in an exhibition game played Oct. 6 at Sharks Ice.

Sorenson and Armalis are Sharks’ signees from the Swedish Hockey League. Armalis will likely serve as the Barracuda backstop along with returner Troy Grosenick.

Tucson went 0-2 in its Northern California preseason road trip after dropping a 3-2 decision to the Heat Oct. 7 at Stockton Arena. Mark Jankowski led the Heat with three goals, while goaltender Jon Gillies (NCAA championship with Providence College) made 19 saves on 21 shots to post the victory.

Meanwhile, the Condors used third period goals by Jujhar Khaira (shothanded), Benik and Josh Currie (empty net) and 37 saves by goaltender Eetu Laurikainen to record a 3-1 preseason victory over Stockton Oct. 8 at Rabobank Arena.

“I thought we competed hard,” Fleming summed up after the win in the team’s first preseason outing. “We’ve got a starting point and we can go forward with it.”

The Condors completed their preseason slate undefeated after topping host San Jose, 5-1, on Oct. 9.

Descheneau, Benik, Kyle Platzer, Josh Brittain and Scott Allen each scored goals for Bakersfield, while Sorenson sniped the lone goal for the Barracuda.

Home cookin’

Eakins said the biggest difference from the team’s first training camp last year and its second training camp this year was the completion of the team’s training facility at Poway Ice.

“The biggest vibe is that we’re in our facility from day one,” the San Diego head coach explained. “We’re familiar with our facility. Last year was a bit of a fire drill – practicing anywhere we could. This year we’re much more settled being in our own facility.”

Defensemen Brandon Montour and Theodore were late training camp assignments by the Ducks. Montour tied for the San Diego point-scoring lead in his rookie season in 2015-16 with 57 points (12 goals, 45 assists) in 68 games. Theodore collected nine goals and 37 points with the Gulls and three goals and eight points with Anaheim during multiple call-ups last season.

The Gulls’ 2016-17 roster features players who collectively have more than 1,000 NHL games in experience under their skates.

“Experience is golden,” Eakins noted succinctly. “You’ll always want it.”

Among the team’s new veteran core are defenseman Jeff Schultz (409 NHL games with the Capitals and Kings), left wing Nick Tarnasky (245 NHL games with Tampa Bay, Nashville and Florida), defenseman Nate Guenin (205 NHL games with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Anaheim and Colorado) and Gulls returner Corey Tropp (148 NHL games with Buffalo and Columbus).

Another NHLer, goaltender Dustin Tokarski, was assigned to the Gulls from the Ducks on Oct. 9.

Shark attack

The Sharks recalled forward Ryan Carpenter and defenseman Dan Kelly from the Barracuda on Oct. 8.

Carpenter, 25, an AHL All-Star Classic selection in 2015-16, tallied 18 goals and 55 points in 66 games for the Barracuda last season while Kelly, 27, has collected 62 points in 352 career AHL games. Carpenter received the AHL’s Yanick Dupre Memorial Award for community service (AHL Man of the Year award) last season.

Carpenter was one of nine San Jose AHL prospects called up last season by the Sharks and one of six during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Other Barracuda call-ups during 2015-16 included defenseman Dylan DeMelo, defenseman Matt Tennyson, right wing Barclay Goodrow (below), left wing Nikolay Goldobin, center Micheal Haley, forward Bryan Lerg, left wing John McCarthy and defenseman Mirco Mueller.

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Carpenter, Haley, Mueller, Tennyson, Goldobin and Goodrow were called up during the NHL playoffs.

McCarthy, a seventh-round draft pick by the Sharks in the 2006 NHL Draft, will serve as the Barracuda’s captain this season. McCarthy has logged 88 games in the NHL and 369 games in the AHL.

The Sharks resigned goaltender Aaron Dell to a two-year contract. Dell, 27, posted a 17-16-1 record with a 2.42 GAA and a .922 save percentage along with four shutouts in 40 games with the Barracuda last season.

The Heat is on

Left wing Hunter Shinkaruk and defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon were both late assignees from the Flames to the Heat. Shinkaruk racked up 54 points in 70 games between the Stockton and Utica in the AHL and Vancouver and Calgary in the NHL last season; Wotherspoon (below) suited up 53 times for the Heat last season (with 10 points) and 11 times for the Flames (with one point).

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Defenseman Oliver Kylington, one of the youngest players to play in the AHL last season, returns to Stockton on assignment this season. One of Calgary’s top young prospects, Kylington collected five goals and 12 points in 47 games in his professional North American debut last season as an 18-year-old.

Trading places

San Diego’s biggest losses are goaltender Anton Khudobin (signed by the NHL’s Boston Bruins) and forward Chris Mueller (signed by the NHL’s Coyotes and then assigned to Tucson). Khudobin registered a 19-8-3 record, 2.46 GAA and .921 save percentage in 31 games in 2015-16, while Mueller tied for the team lead with 57 points (20 goals, 37 assists) in 63 games.

The Gulls’ training camp roster featured three former Reign players: Schultz (66 games, three goals and 15 assists), left wing Jordan Samuels-Thomas (58 games, 12 goals and 10 assists) and right wing Scott Sabourin (28 games, three goals and two assists).

AHL All-Star Classic pick Derek Grant moves from Stockton to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres in 2016-17 after signing a one-year, two-way contract as a free agent. Grant racked up 27 goals and 45 points in 36 game last season with the Heat while also skating 15 games in the NHL with the Flames.

Forward Kenny Agostino has also departed Stockton after signing with the NHL St. Louis Blues. The Blues have since assigned Agostino (23 goals and 57 points in 65 games to lead Stockton last season) to their AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.

Left wing Bryce Van Brabrant, Stockton’s AHL Man of the Year selection in 2015-16, has signed with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL for 2016-17.

By the numbers

The five California franchises, plus Tucson, will each play 68 regular-season games, while both San Antonio and Texas will each play 76 games (as will the rest of the league’s teams). Because of the imbalance within the Pacific Division, playoff berths will be based on points-percentage (points earned divided by possible points). The top four teams in the division based on points-percentage qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs.

Home openers

San Diego faces off Pacific Division play by hosting Tucson on Oct. 14 and Ontario on Oct. 15. Other home openers include Stockton (Oct. 15 against San Jose), Ontario (Oct. 21 against Texas), Bakersfield (Oct. 22 against Tucson) and San Jose (Oct. 28 against Bakersfield). Tucson hosts Stockton in its inaugural home opener on Oct. 28. The Reign continues its opening weekend with an Oct. 22 game against San Jose.

For complete rosters of the AHL’s five California teams, visit the host websites of the San Diego Gulls (www.SanDiegoAHL.com), Ontario Reign (www.ontarioreign.com), San Jose Barracuda (www.sjbarracuda.com), Bakersfield Condors (www.bakersfieldcondors.com) and Stockton Heat (www.stocktonheat.com).

Story/photos/Phillip Brents; Jones photo/Aaron Bell/CHL Images