Time to shine for California at AHL All-Star Classic
Players from the five California teams in the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Pacific Division will be out to shine when the 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic takes place on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 in Syracuse, N.Y.
All 30 AHL teams will be represented in the upcoming event, hosted by the Syracuse Crunch. Nine players will represent the five California-based teams on the 13-man Pacific Division All-Star Team roster.
Events will take place at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. The 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic Skills Competition will take place on Jan. 31, starting at 5 p.m. Pacific time. The 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Challenge will take place on Feb. 1, starting at 4 p.m. Pacific time.
The skills competition will keep its traditional format, with the All-Stars representing Eastern Conference teams (Atlantic and North divisions) squaring off against All-Stars representing Western Conference teams (Pacific and Central divisions) in seven skills events.
Instead of a traditional 60-minute game, the All-Star Challenge event will feature four teams – one representing each of the league’s four divisions. The four teams will first compete in a round-robin tournament featuring six games of nine minutes each. The first half of each game will be played four-on-four and the second half of each game will be played three-on-three.
The two teams with the best records at the end of the round-robin tournament will face off for the championship in a six-minute game played three-on-three.
This year’s All-Star Classic will feature the top young talent in the AHL. Of the 679 players who’ve taken part in the AHL All-Star Classic since 1995, more than 93 percent have competed in the NHL.
The Pacific Division-leading Ontario Reign will be represented by three players on the division all-star team, while the San Diego Gulls and Bakersfield Condors each will be represented by two players. The San Jose Barracuda and Stockton Heat will each be presented by one player.
“It feels great when you’re recognized for something like that; it feels pretty good, but I think there could be other guys on the team who could be going; there a lot of guys who are playing well right now,” said San Jose right wing Barclay Goodrow, a first-year selection to the AHL All-Star Classic.
Goodrow, a 22-year-old native of Toronto, has two years of AHL experience and 74 games to his credit over that span with the NHL parent club San Jose Sharks.
“I feel honored and am looking forward to it,” Goodrow said in reference to his upcoming participation in the AHL All-Star Classic.
Goodrow has collected four goals and 11 assists during stints with the Sharks over the past two seasons. He had posted 13 goals and 19 points in 22 games with the Barracuda at the point of his selection to the division all-star team this season. He has since extended those totals to 14 goals and 24 points in 30 games.
Goodrow said he’s been working on putting together a more solid game on his part, which he believes aided in his all-star selection.
“I’ve been playing a harder game, and the goals and assists are coming from that,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be playing with some pretty good linemates to get there. I feel pretty good about that.”
The month of October wasn’t kind to the Barracuda, which lost its first three games and finished its first month in California with a 2-6 record. Partly through Goodrow’s efforts, the Barracuda (18-12-5-3, .579) has since experienced a rapid rise up the Pacific Division standings – from fifth to second place – after making an 8-1-1 run over a 10-game span in late December and early January.
“We’ve kind of figured our game out,” Goodrow said. “At the beginning of the season, we seemed to put 40 or 50 good minutes together in a game but never a full game, but now that we’ve been able to put a full game together, we’ve seen what it takes to be successful; it’s been exciting to be a part of that.
“California is a great hockey state; it’s nice they’ve been able to get a few more teams out there. It’s nice when everyone is so close; there’s some good competition and it builds some good rivalries.”
Bakersfield defenseman Brad Hunt, meanwhile, will be making his third appearance in the AHL All-Star Classic. The 27-year-old native of Ridge Meadows, British Columbia, had posted 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in 26 games at the time of his call-up to the Edmonton Oilers – the Condors’ NHL parent club.
This is the third consecutive season in which Hunt has earned a call-up to the NHL. He appeared in 11 games during 2014-15 with one goal and three points, and has appeared in seven games without picking up a point for the Oilers this season.
Hunt was tabbed alongside Bakersfield teammate Laurent Brossoit. At the time of his selection, Brossoit had put together a 10-5-3 record to go along with a 2.52 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and three shutouts. A three-year AHL veteran, the 22-year-old netminder from Surrey, British Columbia, has since posted an 11-803 record, 2.62 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in 22 game appearances.
The Pacific Division All-Star Team will be coached by Ontario head coach Mike Strothers, who will be making his fourth appearance in the AHL All-Star Classic. He’ll have the opportunity to coach three of his own players at the upcoming event: goaltender Peter Budaj, defenseman Vincent LoVerde and forward Michael Mersch.
At the time of his selection, Budaj sported a 17-7-2 record, league-leading 1.69 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage and four shutouts. The 33-year-old native of Slovakia had extended his record to 22-9-2 for the Reign (24-10-2-1, .689) in 33 appearances while keeping both his goals-against average and save percentage unchanged while adding a fifth shutout.
A second-round draft pick by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Budaj has enjoyed considerable playing time in the NHL (296 games) with both the Avalanche and Montreal Canadiens.
Mersch, 23, from Park Ridge, Ill., had collected 12 goals and 15 points in 19 games at the point of his all-star selection, and has racked up 21 points (13 goals, eight assists) in 25 games for the Reign this season while also playing 15 games for the NHL parent club Los Angeles Kings (with one goal and two assists to his credit).
Mersch, the Kings’ fourth-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, tied for the team goal-scoring lead with 22 goals and ranked fourth with 45 points on last season’s Calder Cup champion Manchester Monarchs team.
LoVerde, 26, from Chicago, also joined Mersch on last year’s Calder Cup-winning Monarchs team. LoVerde tallied 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 29 games to his credit this season with the Reign at the time of his all-star selection and had five goals and 16 assists for 21 points in 37 game appearances for Ontario leading up to the All-Star Classic.
Defenseman Brandon Montour and left wing Nick Ritchie will represent San Diego.
At the time of his selection, the 21-year-old Montour led San Diego in team scoring with 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 30 games. He ranked 12th among AHL players in points, was tied for second overall in assists, while leading the league in power-play assists (15) and power-play points (18). Through 38 games, the 21-year-old from Brantford, Ontario, had compiled six goals and 32 points to continue to lead the team in scoring.
Ritchie, who’s played 11 games with the NHL parent Anaheim Ducks this season, had collected 20 points (12 goals, eight assists) in 21 games with the Gulls at the time of his selection to the division all-star squad. The Anaheim Ducks’ first-round selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the 20-year-old native of Orangeville, Ontario, has since increased his season totals to 15 goals and 26 points in 29 games to rank second in team scoring during his rookie season. He collected his first NHL assist in a Nov. 30 game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Both Montour and Ritchie expressed pride at being selected to the upcoming AHL All-Star Classic.
“It’s definitely a good feeling; obviously it’s good to be recognized from the league for that,” said Montour, who appeared in 14 games last season with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals with one goal and 10 points to his credit. “It’s my first year (with the Gulls) so I’m pretty excited, but we have a lot more work to do before that.”
Both players were tabbed by the Ducks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft; Ritchie in the first round (10th player overall) and Montour in the second (55th player overall).
Montour’s offensive skills as a blue liner caught the attention of the selection committee.
“Obviously, I focus on my own end first – defense first – but when there are chances out there, I like to take those and create offense for the guys,” Montour said. “Power play-wise, I’m quick and I like to shoot the puck.”
“It’s a good honor to me to be selected,” Ritchie said. “It’s going to be my first time; I don’t know what to expect, (but) it’s going to be a fun weekend.”
Ritchie (6-foot-2, 232 pounds) commands a physical presence on the ice.
“I’m obviously a big guy going to the net hard, playing like a power forward,” he said. “My style got me selected.”
Both Gulls players said they’re looking forward to attending the event together.
“Nick’s one of my good buddies on the team; we’ve been together with this since the start,” Montour said. “He’s one of my roommates as well so we became close friends. Obviously, to have him there with me is a good feeling. It’s good to have someone there, coming with me, so I’m excited about it.”
Ritchie echoed those sentiments.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It makes it more familiar traveling with someone else. It’s going to be a fun time for both of us.”
Center Derek Grant will represent the Stockton Heat. The 25-year-old native of Abbortsford, British Columbia, had 15 goals and 21 points in 21 games at the time of his selection to the division all-star team and has since extended those numbers to 17 goals and 30 points in 26 games.
Grant, who stands 6-foot-3, has appeared in nine games this season for the NHL parent club Calgary Flames, and has appeared in 34 NHL games overall with both the Flames and Ottawa Senators over the span of three seasons.
Rounding out the Pacific Division All-Star Team roster are three selections from the Texas Stars: defenseman Esa Lindell and forwards Travis Morin and Brendan Ranford, and one selection from the San Antonio Rampage (forward Mikko Rantanen).
Morin, who’s making his second appearance in the AHL All-Star Classic, leads the Stars with 40 points through 45 games, to rank fourth in league scoring. Rantanen, a native of Finland and first-round pick by Colorado in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, had collected 31 points in 25 games for the Rampage in his rookie campaign.
Hall of Fame
Prior to the All-Star Challenge on Feb. 1, the AHL Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Ceremony is scheduled to take place at the Crouse Hinds Theater that morning.
The event will feature the induction of Bruce Cline, Ralph Keller, Jean-Francois Labbe and Bruce Landon as the AHL Hall of Fame Class of 2016 and will also celebrate honorary All-Star Classic captains Michael Peca and Scott Walker.
Cline, who spent 13 seasons in the AHL (1955-68), was a four-time Calder Cup champion
Keller spent parts of 13 seasons in the AHL (1957-74) and had his No. 3 jersey retired by the Hershey Bears as that club’s all-time leader in games played (737) and points (408) by a defenseman. He’s one of five blueliners in league history to score at least 100 goals (111).
Labbe, who played in the AHL from 1993 to 2003, was one of the most decorated goaltenders of his era with a 202-151-52 record in 420 career AHL appearances (with 27 shutouts).
Landon, drafted as a goaltender in 1969 by the Kings and who’d go on to play five seasons in the World Hockey Association for the New England Whalers, retired as an active player at 28 due to injury, but promptly moved into the front office, serving the community of Springfield, Mass., for 39 years – first as general manager for the Springfield Indians and, since 1994, as a general manager, president and now director of hockey operations for the Springfield Falcons.
The 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic will reach more than 110 million households on Sportsnet in Canada and a comprehensive network of television partners in the United States.
The telecast can be seen on Fox Sports San Diego and Fox Sports Prime Ticket throughout Southern California at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Jan. 31 and 4 p.m. Pacific time on Feb. 1. Comcast SportsNet (www.csncalifornia.com) will also provide coverage in the Bay Area. The two-day event will also be streamed worldwide to subscribers via AHL Live (www.ahllive.com).
AHL Milestone on Tap
San Jose head coach Roy Sommer remains one win away from tying Fred Cook’s 60-year-old AHL record of 636 coaching victories. Sommer, 58, an Oakland native, registered victory No. 635 via a 5-2 win at Rockford on Jan. 15, but the Barracuda has dropped its last four games – including a pair of one-goal nail-biters last weekend (Jan. 22-23) against Ontario – to keep the San Jose bench boss short of reaching the league’s career-win milestone.
The Barracuda end January with three games in Texas (Jan. 27 at the Texas Stars and Jan. 29-30 at the San Antonio Rampage) to provide Sommer with an opportunity to possibly tie and set the new league coaching milestone.
Sommer, who played three games for the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL during an 11-year pro playing career (mostly in the International Hockey League and Central Hockey League), has been coach of the NHL San Jose Sharks’ top minor league affiliate for 18 seasons. He’s currently the longest tenured coach in the AHL.
In 2009, he became just the fourth coach in AHL history to reach 400 wins.
Sommer coached the San Jose Rhinos of Roller Hockey International in 1995-96 before serving as an assistant coach with the NHL’s Sharks for two seasons (1996-98).
Pacific Division Standings
In games played through Jan. 24: Reign (24-10-2-1, .689), Barracuda (18-12-5-3, .579), Stars (23-16-3-3, .578), Gulls (19-17-1-1, .526), Condors (16-16-2-2, .500), Heat (16-16-1-2, .500), Rampage (18-18-7-0, .489). The final order of finish for playoff qualification will be determined by winning percentage.
Drawing a Crowd
San Diego continues to lead the AHL’s five California-based teams in home attendance. The Gulls are averaging 8,658 fans through 16 dates, followed by Ontario (8,086 average through 22 dates), Bakersfield (5,212 average through 16 dates), Stockton (4,800 average through 16 dates) and San Jose (4,225 average through 21 dates).
San Diego ranks second in the league in average home attendance to Hershey (9,386 through 23 dates). The AHL average is 5,658.
– Phillip Brents
Photo: Defenseman Vincent LoVerde is one of three Ontario Reign players selected to participate in the upcoming 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic. Photo/Phillip Brents