There’s no way Jordan Binnington could have seen this coming.
Nothing really went his way on the path to the NHL. The Blues had a wide array of AHL netminders to choose from, and Ville Husso looked like he was going to emerge as the top goalie prospect within the organization. But you know how the story went: Binnington was good in the AHL, Jake Allen and Chad Johnson fell flat, and Binnington was given a chance midway through the season. A few months later and Binnington is the first rookie goaltender to win 16 games en route to a Stanley Cup.
Not bad for a kid the Blues tried giving away to Boston during the off-season for practically nothing.
Binnington needed eight seasons and 164 AHL games before his promotion to full-time NHL duty became a reality. If it wasn’t for his play in the second half of the season, the Blues would’ve had a very tough time fighting their way back to a playoff spot from last place, let alone a Stanley Cup championship.
But this begs the question: if Binnington could do it, who else can emerge from the AHL to become impact NHLers? We already looked at some of the top prospects who could make the jump, so let’s see the players who might not be star prospects but could still make waves next season:
Andrew Poturalski, C, 25 (Carolina)
There might not be a single player who was more impressive when it mattered in the AHL this season than Poturalski, an undrafted center with four years in the organization. And sure, a good season at 25 may scream “career AHLer” in the vein of Darren Haydar, but Poturalski’s rise this season was quite impressive. He smashed his previous career-high point total of 52 two seasons ago with a 70-point campaign before scoring 12 goals and 23 points in 18 playoff games en route to Charlotte’s first Calder Cup. As an unrestricted free agent, Poturalski, who played two games with the Hurricanes in 2017, could earn a spot in a team’s bottom-six next season and it would be wise for the Hurricanes to keep him around for some added scoring depth for next season.
Tyler Benson, LW, 21 (Edmonton)
Benson is one of the younger options on this list, but there’s a lot to like about him. It wasn’t that long ago that he was pegged as a future star, going first overall in the 2013 WHL draft after destroying the Alberta Bantam AAA scoring record with 146 points in just 33 games. Injuries limited his WHL career and he fell to the second round in 2016 to the Oilers (32nd overall), but he has the skill to be a potential second-liner in the NHL, especially after putting up 66 points in 68 games as an AHL rookie in Bakersfield. Benson is a fantastic playmaker and deserves a shot at making Edmonton’s roster next season.
Jeremy Bracco, RW, 22 (Toronto)
With the Leafs needing to make some changes up front to account for Mitch Marner’s contract, Bracco may finally get an opportunity to crack Toronto’s lineup. It would be even easier to justify it if the team loses Andreas Johnsson, a solid scoring winger that Bracco could replicate. With 79 points in 75 games, Bracco saw incredible progress in his sophomore AHL campaign with the Marlies while leading the playoffs with 12 assists despite a third-round exit. The playmaking winger doesn’t have much more to prove in the AHL and could be a nice budget option for Toronto next season.
Matt Luff, RW, 22 (Los Angeles)
In the midway point of the season, Luff was on an absolute tear with the Kings, scoring seven goals in a 15-game span. He showed tremendous chemistry with Adrian Kempe and Austin Wagner in a limited role, but as time went on, Luff was given opportunities to shine. Unfortunately, his offense dried up and he was shipped back down to the Ontario Reign, but Luff showed some potential on a team desperate for goals. With 31 points in 36 AHL games, Luff will be in the conversation to make the Kings out of training camp, but if he doesn’t, expect him to spend chunks of time in the NHL regardless after impressing in his 33-game stint this season.
Alex Barre-Boulet, C/RW, 22 (Tampa Bay)
All he does is score, but Barre-Boulet still went undrafted despite putting up 337 points in 263 QMJHL games from 2014 to 2018, the most of any player in that span. Signed by Tampa Bay in 2018, Barre-Boulet took the AHL by storm by scoring a league-leading 34 goals, with his 68 points being the most by a rookie since Cory Conacher put up 80 in 2011-12, good enough to earn Barre-Boulet the rookie-of-the-year title. 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 have to give him a chance next season based on his ability to score and his speed alone.
Calle Rosen, D, 25 (Toronto)
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but the Maple Leafs need help on defense. Jake Gardiner is unlikely to return, Ron Hainsey and Martin Marincin also appear to be on their way out and the Leafs are exploring new opportunities for Nikita Zaitsev. Sounds like a perfect time for Rosen to swoop in and steal a spot next season, especially on a team that will look to save every dollar they can. Rosen had 46 points in 54 games with the Marlies this year and was a big part of the team’s Calder Cup title in 2018. It would be smart for the Leafs to promote Rosen next season while allowing youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren extra time to develop in the AHL.
Alex Nedeljkovic, G, 23 (Carolina)
The Hurricanes are expected to roll with the same goalie duo they had this season, but Nedeljkovic’s fantastic season with Charlotte could make things interesting. A second-round pick in 2014 (37th overall), Nedeljkovic took a few years to find his game, but after winning the Calder Cup and the top goaltender award (after leading everyone in wins for the second consecutive season), the time is right to give him a shot. His one NHL start with the Hurricanes this year resulted in a victory, but the team still needs to sign the pending RFA to a deal.
Dylan Sikura, LW/C, 24 (Chicago)
With 11 points in 38 NHL games and a full season of pro hockey under his belt, Sikura looks ready to add his scoring punch to the Blackhawks’ bottom-six next year. Of course, they still have to sign the pending RFA, but that seems like a given after seeing what he can do at all three forward positions. Sikura had a solid 17-goal, 35-point run with Rockford this year and didn’t look out of place as an energy-packed forward in the depths of Chicago’s roster. It’s time for a promotion to full-time NHL work.
Kevin Lankinen, G, 24 (Chicago)
Goaltending has been an issue with the Blackhawks over the past few years, with Corey Crawford’s injury history proving to be a real concern. Alexis Gravel may be pegged as the guy to lead the team in the future, but Lankinen has truly put himself into the conversation as someone who deserves a shot. Lankinen started the year in the ECHL but impressed enough in the AHL with Rockford to warrant a spot on Finland’s World Championship team. Lankinen put on a goaltending clinic, leading Finland to a shocking gold medal over Canada and earning lots of praise for his fantastic effort. Not bad for an undrafted goaltender, but Lankinen may actually be worthy of some starts next year, even if he’s still behind backup Collin Delia on the depth chart.
Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, 21 (Edmonton)
OK, hear me out: Puljujarvi’s time in Edmonton has been a complete disaster, and it’s beginning to look like he won’t have to worry about that next year. But you can’t deny that Puljujarvi is a talented player and that most people agreed that he was the right pick at No. 4 for Edmonton back in 2016. But maybe a new team and a new situation is exactly what he needs to really spice up his career. Puljujarvi hasn’t been spectacular in the AHL by any means, but he looked good in limited action in Bakersfield and could find the stride that made him such a dominant prospect a few years ago in a new situation. Of course, that’s hanging on to the past, but maybe there’s still hope for a kid that’s just 21.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.