The last person the AHL’s top shooters want to see is Charlotte Checkers goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.
With 65 wins over the past two years, including 34 last season when he claimed the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top netminder, no netminder has been as impressive as Nedeljkovic as of late. At one point, it looked like Nedeljkovic had the backup role locked up in Carolina before the club acquired James Reimer early in the summer. With a style similar to a young Jonathan Quick, Nedeljkovic moves quickly in the crease to make up for his smaller stature. And so far, that’s worked out, and Nedeljkovic will try to convert his show-stopping play into consecutive Calder Cup crowns for the Checkers, who will attempt to become the first repeat champions since the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Hershey Bears.
But Nedeljkovic isn’t the only one to keep an eye on in the AHL this season. Many top NHL prospects, including Joe Veleno, Filip Zadina, Ryan Poehling and Vitali Kravtsov will ply their trade in the minors in 2019-20. But this isn’t a ranking of the best up-and-coming talent. Rather, it’s a look at a number of AHL standouts who will make an impact this season:
Lucas Elvenes, LW, 20 (Chicago Wolves)
Has Vegas found a diamond in the rough? A Golden Knights fifth rounder in 2017 (127th overall), Elvenes had a four-point debut against the Grand Rapids Griffins, joining Alex Tuch as just the second Wolves forward to score four points in the team’s season opener. Of course, that’s just one game, but consider that few players were as impressive with Sweden’s U-20 team last as Elvenes, who tallied two goals and 11 points in 15 games. He’s not much of a goal scorer, but his playmaking skills are off the charts. His defensive play has improved over the past two seasons and his tenacious forechecking makes him challenging to play against. He’s showing promise on a strong Wolves club with loads of talent.
Mario Kempe, LW, 31 (Ontario Reign)
The league’s top scorer after a week of play, Kempe has something to prove after going from a near full-time role with the Arizona Coyotes became an AHL demotion in the Kings organization. If he wanted to prove the Los Angeles brass wrong, scoring three goals and four points in the opening two games was a good start. Kempe has 15 points in his last 12 AHL games and is bound for an NHL call-up before too long. Until then, he’ll be the driving force of a hungry Ontario roster.
Tyler Benson, LW, 21 (Bakersfield Condors)
Back in 2013, Benson was on top of the world. Prior to becoming the top pick in the WHL draft by Vancouver, Benson broke the Alberta minor bantam scoring record previously held by Ty Rattie (131) with 146 points in 33 games. At that point, Benson was an early option to challenge Auston Matthews for the No. 1 pick at the 2016 NHL draft, but injuries limited Benson’s output and he eventually fell to Edmonton in the second round (32nd overall). He stayed healthy in his AHL rookie season, however, and looks rejuvenated. Benson led all rookies with 51 assists last season and fell two points short of a point-per-game average in 68 contests with Bakersfield. If he can stay healthy, what’s stopping him from being a top-five scorer in the AHL this season? The Oilers need all the offensive help they can get, and this may be the year where Benson proves himself worthy of an NHL roster spot.
Sean Day, D, 21 (Hartford Wolf Pack)
It’s easy to have forgotten about Day after he failed to live up to the exceptional-status hype. He spent some time in the ECHL and nearly finished as a point-per-gamer in 19 contests last season, with his 15 points beating out his 14 in 46 AHL games with Hartford. The two-way defender still has a long way to prove he’s got NHL potential, but he has been much improved to start the 2019-20 AHL season. If Day stands any chance at cracking the Rangers, he needs to stay in shape and prove he’s a consistent performer, because even at the tender age of 21, time is not on his side as he tries to cement himself in the team’s depth chart.
Jeremy Bracco, RW, 22 (Toronto Marlies)
Bracco’s sophomore campaign couldn’t have been much better, as he finished second to Carter Verhaeghe (82) with 79 points. There wasn’t room for Bracco in the NHL this season and even though he’s a pending restricted free agent, there’s no rush, especially if his post-entry-level deal remains cheap. Though he displayed his pure offensive game last season, there’s still work to be done to make him a true NHL prospect. The majority of his offense – 39 of his points – came on the man advantage last season, which isn’t sustainable for a depth guy in the NHL. His skating needs work, but his puck skills are too good for the AHL. The Leafs could be in a situation where the club needs to move some wingers to create salary space, and that could mean Bracco takes the NHL leap.
Gerald Mayhew, C, 26 (Iowa Wild)
Mayhew has yet to play an NHL game, but he’s coming off of a breakthrough AHL campaign that saw him nearly double his point total from 32 to 60. He’s off to a hot start this season, as well, with four points in two games, leading a team that lost last season’s top scorer, Cal O’Reilly, to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Mayhew’s play last season earned him his first NHL deal this summer and if he proves 2018-19 wasn’t a fluke, it could result in a call-up or two to Minnesota this season.
Alex Barre-Boulet, C, 22 (Syracuse Crunch)
Part of the reason the Tampa Bay Lightning have been so successful is that the club continues to develop gems. After a 34-goal, 68-point rookie campaign in Syracuse last season – good enough to win Rookie of the Year – Barre-Boulet is further proof of the franchise’s successful development model. Barre-Boulet went undrafted despite putting up 337 points in 263 QMJHL games, the most of any player in that span. At 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Barre-Boulet’s size is one of the main reasons why he’s always been an underdog, but the Lightning won’t let him linger too long.
Veini Vehvilainen, G, 22 (Cleveland Monsters)
Vehvilainen might be in the conversation for the league’s top netminder. The top goaltender in the Finnish League two years running, Vehvilainen moved to North America in hopes of a full-time gig with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the near future. Vehvilainen’s issue is that Columbus’ goaltending situation is crowded: Elvis Merzlikins is backing up Joonas Korpisalo and Danil Tarasov and Matiss Kivlenieks aren’t far behind on the depth chart. Vehvilainen had an impressive debut against Laval, stopping 30 shots en route to a 4-1 victory, but staying ahead of the curve will be vital for him as he adjusts to North American ice.
Philippe Myers, D, 22 (Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
Myers is another player looking to prove that he’s worthy of full-time NHL work. The Flyers had a steal on their hands when they signed the undrafted defender in 2016, with the big, bruising blueliner showing untapped potential. Myers skated in 21 NHL games last season with Philadelphia but missed time meant he wasn’t able to reach his true potential. Myers proved he can play a shutdown role in the NHL, but as he kicks off another season in Lehigh Valley, he’ll be one of the Phantoms’ best players before the Flyers inevitably call him up later in the season.
Oliver Wahlstrom, RW, 19 (Bridgeport Sound Tigers)
There were concerns about Wahlstrom’s potential after the 2018 first-round pick (11th overall) left the NCAA as a freshman. With five points in seven regular-season games over the past two seasons, though, it’s clear Wahlstrom can cut it in the AHL and wants to prove he’s still a top prospect. Talent-wise, there’s no issue, so it’s just making sure he’s consistent enough and always engaged in the play. Wahlstrom is a candidate to play some NHL games this season, but it’s hard to imagine the Islanders would want him in a bottom-six role. It’s all about adjusting to the pro game this season.
Other notables: Morgan Frost (Lehigh Valley), Julien Gauthier (Charlotte), Dan Vladar (Providence), Calle Rosen (Colorado), Michael Rasmussen (Grand Rapids).
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