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After setting AHL career wins record, Sommer keeps winning

 

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The San Jose Barracuda, which currently finds itself in the thick of a torrid race in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division for a Calder Cup playoff berth, picked up its 25th win of the season after defeating the visiting Bakersfield Condors 4-2 March 6 at the SAP Center.

The career win was the 642nd for head coach Roy Sommer, who has guided the NHL San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate for the past 18 years.

However, it was win No. 637 – a 4-2 victory against the division leading Ontario Reign Feb. 10 at the SAP Center — that actually made headlines throughout the hockey community. With the win, Sommer slipped past Hockey Hall of Famer Fred “Bun” Cook to become the AHL’s all-time leader in career coaching victories.

Cook’s record of 636 career coaching wins had stood for 60 years.

“We beat a pretty good team to get it; it felt pretty good,” explained Sommer, an Oakland native, who entered the AHL’s 80th season as its longest-tenured active coach.

Cook, who played for the New York Rangers in the 1920s and 1930s before embarking on a 19-year coaching career in the AHL (1937 to 1956) with the Providence Reds and Cleveland Barons, racked up 636 wins in 1,171 games. He won a record seven Calder Cup championships during that span – four more than any other coach.

Sommer snapped Cook’s record in his 1,385th game behind the bench.

In fact, there was some anticipation on Sommer’s part in actually breaking the long-standing record. Sommer recorded career win No. 635 via a 5-2 decision at Rockford on Jan. 15. The Barracuda promptly went through a six-game losing streak before finally rewarding their coach with the league record-tying 636th win on Jan. 30 when San Jose defeated the host San Antonio Rampage by a score of 4-3.

“It took a while,” Sommer quipped. “We had been in a little bit of a slump.”

There was an added bit of anticipation in getting the history-making win No. 637 as San Jose dropped a pair of one-goal games in Ontario on Feb. 5-6.

But the record finally fell against the visiting Reign the following week as Barracuda goaltender Aaron Dell stopped 50 of 52 shots and Ben Smith’s short-handed goal early in the second period stood up as the game-winner.

“It was kind of a long process,” Sommer acknowledged. “I was kind of glad it was over.”

Sommer enjoyed a long professional playing career that started with the Saginaw Gears in the International Hockey League in 1977 and finally closed with the IHL Muskegon Lumberjacks in 1987. He also played in the AHL, Central Hockey League and Pacific Hockey League during that lengthy span. His NHL totals included three games with the Edmonton Oilers in 1980-81 with one goal scored and seven penalty minutes.

He earned a footnote in history as the first California-born player to reach the NHL, a fact he is also proud of.

But setting trends appears to be in his nature.

The Bay Area native wasted no time in sharing his teaching skills. He spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Lumberjacks and the Western Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders before getting his first head coaching job with the Roanoke Valley Rebels in the East Coast Hockey League.

Sommer spent five years as a head coach in the ECHL, including four seasons with the Richmond Renegades where he won a league championship during the 194-95 season.

He also coached the San Jose Rhinos of Roller Hockey International (RHI) to the 1995 Murphy Cup championship before earning an assistant coaching position with the NHL Sharks. He spent two seasons in San Jose (1996-98) in an assistant position before embarking on his long AHL coaching career with the Sharks’ AAA-affiliate.

Sommer’s AHL coaching debut was a hit as the Kentucky Thoroughblades finished with a record of 44-26-7-3 in his first season. Over the years, Sommer’s teams (which have also called home to Cleveland and Worcester, Mass.) have posted 30-win seasons 14 times and 40-win seasons six times. His teams have qualified for the playoffs eight times.

Another 30-win season could be in the making for Sommer in the franchise’s first year in California.

Time has proven to be Sommer’s best ally in his assault on the record book.

“You don’t know, it’s a strange business,” explained Sommer, 58. “I was fortunate enough to stay with the same organization. This is my 20th year – 18th in the American Hockey League.

“It just started kind of piling up, kind of like old age. The years start going on; the wins start piling up. The next thing I knew it was 600. The record was just down the road. I signed with San Jose again this year. It was finally good to get it over with.”

That the record-setting game took place on home ice was doubly satisfying for Sommer.

“I’m a Bay Area kid, so it was kind of good to get it at home, in front of my family, my friends,” he said.

The 3,974 in attendance gave Sommer a standing ovation after the game.

“They were into it,” the Barracuda coach said. “The organization did a big thing for me before the Phoenix game (Sharks versus Coyotes on Feb. 13 at the SAP Center). They gave me a boat, a four-wheeler. I was fortunate to be in the same organization a long time … and get the record.”

Over the course of his long career, Sommer has coached 120 players who have gone on to play in the NHL, including 95 who have spent a portion of their careers with the Sharks. Twenty players who have dressed for the Sharks this season played for Sommer at one point in the AHL.

Sommer admitted he takes great satisfaction in that statistic.

“That’s what we work in the AHL for — to hopefully make these guys’ dreams come true,” Sommer explained. “This is the next step to making it to the National Hockey League. It’s the second best league in the world, I think. It’s hard to play in. The guys who put their time in get rewarded.

“It’s kind of nice to drive to the rink and see these guys looking after their family. They’ll probably never have to work again, a lot of them, if they take care of their money. That’s the gratifying part about it. You are one of the steps in the process of getting (them) there. It’s nice to do.”

At the time of Sommer’s milestone achievement, Chicago Wolves head coach John Anderson stood next on the AHL’s active head coaching list with 412 wins. Anderson, who coached the NHL Atlanta Thrashers for two seasons (2008-10), turns 59 on March 28.

Home cooking

The Barracuda and Condors split their March 5-6 weekend set in the Bay Area. San Jose (25-19-6-3) remains in fourth place in the division standings with a 0.557 points-percentage while Bakersfield (25-22-3-2) is fifth in the division standings with a 0.529 points-percentage.

The Barracuda will be looking to benefit from a six-game home stand looming on the horizon. San Jose opens the key six-game set on March 13 that will feature three games against the Pacific Division leading Ontario Reign, two against the third place San Diego Gulls and one non-divisional game against the Iowa Wild.

The Barracuda has played in 15 overtime games this season, including six that have gone to a shootout.

Golden State

All five of the new California teams have winning records in the move west to form the AHL’s Pacific Division.

Regular season play ends April 17 and, at best, only four of the seven teams in the division will lock up Calder Cup playoff berths.

The five California teams are competing against the Texas Stars and San Antonio Rampage for divisional playoff berths but are playing an unequal number of games.

The five California teams have a 68-game regular season schedule while the two Texas teams are each playing 76 games. Standings are thus computed based on points-percentage (possible points divided by points earned) rather than by the standard standings points.

As of March 6, the Pacific Division standings looked like this: Ontario Reign (33-14-3-1, 0.686 points-percentage), Texas Stars (34-20-5-3, 0.613 points-percentage), San Diego Gulls (28-20-2-2, 0.577 points-percentage), San Jose Barracuda (25-19-6-3, 0.557 points-percentage), Bakersfield Condors (25-22-3-2, 0.529 points-percentage), Stockton Heat (24-23-1-2, 0.510 points-percentage) and San Antonio Rampage (24-28-8-0, 0.467 points-percentage).

The top three teams in the Pacific Division standings are guaranteed playoff berths, with the fourth team coming either from the Pacific Division or the Central Division based on crossover criteria. The team with the best points-percentage between the Pacific Division’s fourth-place team and the Central Division’s fifth-place team will ear the No. 4 seed in the Pacific Division playoffs.

Thus, the wild scramble to earn as many points as possible down the final month of regular season play.

Ontario, the defending Calder Cup champion (as the Manchester Monarchs in 2014-15), and Texas continue to be the front-runners in the Pacific Division standings. Four of the five California teams remain bunched up in the middle of the standings, however. San Diego sits one point ahead of San Jose while Bakersfield is just four points out of a playoff berth (behind San Jose). Stockton is four points behind Bakersfield.

Currently, the Pacific Division’s top four teams would qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs, as the Barracuda (with a 0.557 points-percentage) owns a better points-percentage than the Charlotte Checkers (the fifth place team in the Central Division with a 0.526 points percentage) for the crossover position. It’s still too close to call, and could be until the final week of regular season play as teams near the bottom of the division standings attempt to unseat teams ahead of them.

Ontario currently has the best points-percentage in the Western Conference (Pacific and Central divisions) and the second best mark in the league. The Reign has a +40 goal-differential.

Texas leads all Western Conference teams with 231 goals scored in 62 games and ranks second only to the Toronto Marlies in the AHL for most productive offense. Toronto, with a league-leading 0.750 points-percentage, has scored 233 goals in 60 games played.

Magic numbers

The magic number is the number of points needed by a team to clinch a playoff berth.

Ontario needs 18 points to clinch a playoff berth while Texas needs 23 points, San Diego needs 28 points and San Jose needs 29 points. It gets a bit more daunting for the remaining three teams in the division. Bakersfield needs 35 points, Stockton needs 39 points and San Antonio needs 44 points.

Meanwhile, Charlotte needs 40 points to clinch a playoff berth.

A team’s magic number is reduced when it earns standings points, or when the team with the highest possible total outside the playoff picture fails to earn standings points. A team clinches a playoff berth when its magic number reaches zero.

What’s trending

Both the Reign and Stars can finish with 104 points. Ontario has six home games remaining and 11 road games remaining on its schedule while Texas has nine home games remaining and just five road games left on its regular season schedule. However, the Reign can finish with as high as a .765 points-percentage and the Stars at 0.684.

San Diego has eight home games remaining and eight road games while San Jose has seven home games remaining and eight road games. Bakersfield has eight home games and eight road games left on its regular season schedule. Stockton has 10 home and eight road games left on its schedule while San Antonio has 11 home games left and five road games.

San Diego is 7-1-1-1 in its last 10 games while Texas is 6-2-2-0, San Jose is 6-3-1-0 while both Ontario and Stockton are 6-4-0-0, Bakersfield is 5-4-1-0 and San Antonio is 2-7-1-0.

The Gulls are currently riding a 5-0-1-1 streak while the Reign carried a three-game winning streak into the second week of March.

The Rockford IceHogs (32-14-7-4) and Milwaukee Admirals (36-19-3-0) appear to have a race going for the Central Division’s top playoff berth. Both teams have 75 standings points, though Rockford has a 0.658 points-percentage while Milwaukee has a 0.647 points-percentage.

AHL top 20

Texas’ Brendan Ranford tops players from the Pacific Division in scoring with 19 goals and 33 assists for 49 points, followed by San Antonio’s Mikko Rantanen with 20 goals and 28 assists for 48 points.

Ontario’s Sean Backman (17 goals, 44 points) and San Jose’s Ryan Carpenter (13 goals, 44 points) top players from the five California teams in scoring. Both represented their teams at the 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic in Syracuse, N.Y.

“I was a late addition, so it was quick but a lot of fun,” explained Carpenter, a Florida native. “It was cool to meet the guys from the other teams and get to know then a little bit. It was a good time.”

Carpenter, who signed with the NHL’s Sharks as an undrafted free agent in 2014 after playing three seasons at Bowling Green University, picked up one assist for the Pacific Division All-Star Team in the AHL All-Star Challenge portion of the two-day event held Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.

Carpenter played two seasons with the AHL Worcester Sharks before that franchise was transferred to San Jose for the 2015-16 season. He earned a one-game call-up to the NHL on Dec. 11.

The move west has definitely agreed with him.

“It’s awesome,” Carpenter said. “A couple weeks ago it was 75 degrees, and we went to the beach. We were looking out east and they were getting snow and it was freezing cold. We like it a lot. It’s a lot of fun and we enjoy it.”

Top shelf

Stockton’s Derek Grant, another AHL All-Star selection, continues to lead the Pacific Division with 23 goals in 30 games (fifth overall in the league) despite being currently out of the Heat lineup due to an upper body injury. Next up for top Pacific Division sniper honors is Stockton’s Hunter Shinkaruk, recently acquired from the Utica Comets, with 23 goals in 50 games (combined statistics with Utica and Stockton). Shinkaruk, a Calgary native, was a first-round draft pick (24th overall) by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

Bakersfield’s Matthew Ford has 22 goals in 48 games, followed by Ontario’s Michael Mersch with 20 goals in 35 games and San Antonio’s Rantanen with 20 goals in 39 games.

Ontario’s Peter Budaj (31-10-3) continues to top the AHL with his 1.59 goals-against average and 0.935 save percentage. San Jose’s Dell (11-11-5) has compiled a 2.42 GAA and 0.922 save percentage in 28 games.

Protect the nest

San Diego turned in an 8-2-1 showing in February to move into third place in the division standings despite managing call-ups to the parent club and minor injuries.

However, several key players returned from injury during the month to buoy the Gulls. Forward Ondrej Kase missed a staggering 42 games before his return on Feb. 17. He scored a goal and assist in his first game back in the lineup. On the season he has six points (three goals, three assists) in nine games played.

Also returning from lengthy absences were right wing Brian McGrattan and center Kyle MacKinnon while forward Chris Wagner arrived from the Ducks after being claimed off waivers from the Colorado Avalanche.

Nic Kerdiles, a second-round draft pick (36th overall) by the Ducks in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, also returned to the lineup to much fanfare. He earned No. 1 star of the game honors with two goals in a 5-2 win over visiting San Jose on Feb. 27 after notching a power play goal in the previous game, a 5-1 win over visiting San Antonio.

“Momentum is awesome,” Kerdiles commented. “It helps you keep rolling, so when we have that momentum, we feel no team can stop us. We’re a good team. We have some good guys in the lineup and out of the lineup. We’re a threat right now.”

Chris Mueller, who won a Calder Cup championship with the Texas Stars in 2013-14, took over veteran leadership on the ice by collecting five goals and 10 assists in a 12-game stretch to move into the San Diego scoring lead with 43 points (14 goals, 29 assists).

The team’s fourth line, dubbed “the energy line,” also began to produce while the team’s power play unit showed renewed signs of life.

Overall, San Diego won five of seven home games during the month while going 3-0-0-1 in four road games, including a key two-game sweep on a marathon coast-to-coast road trip to Charlotte.

The Gulls continued a remarkable streak in a 3-1 home ice win over Stockton on March 4 by improving to 23-0-0-1 when scoring the game’s first goal. San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins said he is not surprised by the telltale statistic.

“If you look across the NHL and the American Hockey League, if you score first, you have a great, great chance of winning that game,” Eakins explained. “You don’t have to chase the game. When you get behind, you sometime have to take chances — chances you really don’t want to take. A lot of times when you take those chances, it winds up in your net.

“Down one goal, you stick with your game plan, but as the game goes one and the time ticks down, you take chances you’d normally not take, and that’s when things can really go south on you.”

Gulls defenseman Brandon Montour continues to lead the league’s rookies with 33 assists. He also leads the league’s rookies with 22 power play assists and ranks second in team scoring with 42 points.

Center Mike Sgarbossa has moved up to third in team scoring with 13 goals and 34 points.

Left wing Nick Ritchie, who remains on call-up to Anaheim, continues to lead the Gulls with 15 goals and eight power play goals in 33 games played. Defenseman Shea Theodore, who has made multiple call-ups to the Ducks this season, follows Ritchie on the scoring chart with seven goals and 26 points in 42 games.

Goaltender Anton Khudobin — braced by extensive NHL experience in Minnesota, Boston, Carolina and Anaheim — is 12-6-1 with a 2.39 GAA and 0.920 save percentage in 22 appearances for San Diego this season.

Photo/SJ Barracuda

– Phillip Brents