Lalonde Helping Iowa Climb From Obscurity

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When Derek Lalonde got hired by the Iowa Wild, there were many people scratching their heads. Not so much in wondering why Iowa would want Lalonde as their coach, but more why would Lalonde leave a great situation like he had in Toledo with the Walleye to go to a team that was limited success in the AHL?? One could only assume that not only did Lalonde like the promotion, he welcomed the challenge of trying to elevate a that has festered in the basement of the AHL standings, while also employing a system that will work not only on the AHL level, but in the NHL as well.

So far, so great for Lalonde’s vision.

On Saturday night, the Iowa Wild won their 29th games of the season, thus setting a franchise record for wins in a season with 16 games left to play. They sit in 4th place in the Central Division, four points up on Cleveland, though Cleveland has two games in hand. This is after a trade deadline which saw Iowa’s leading scorer Teemu Pulkkinen get dealt, along with secondary scoring center Grayson Downing, as well as Zac Dalpe being lost to waivers. Couple that with injuries and call-ups, the Iowa roster has taken a licking, but keeps on ticking.

While they’re not the most offensive team in the league (ranking 26th in the league in goals-for), the defense has been superb for Iowa, ranking 9th in goals-against with 158 goals given up on the season. That has put a lot of the spotlight on Alex Stalock and Steve Michalek, both of whom have performed admirably. Yet, defense has always been the calling card for a Lalonde coached team. In his short time as a head coach, Lalonde’s teams have only one given up more than 200 goals-against, and that was the 2012-13 Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.

However, the modus operandi of Lalonde seems to be that when he takes over a team, he makes them better. While he took over a rather successful Green Bay Gamblers team in 2011-12, he was able to make them better by winning six more games than the year before, while also helping them win a championship in the same year. When he took over the Toledo Walleye, he helped that team get out of the one-year lurch by more than doubling the team’s win total in a year (21 wins in 2013-14, 50 in 2014-15), while also helping the team capture their first Brabham Cup for most points in the regular season in the ECHL. The model continue to work in Iowa, as I stated before, with the team eclipsing their top mark for wins in a season with 16 games to spare.

As Iowa play in the ultra-competitive Central Division, it remains to be seen whether or not the playoff streak of Lalonde’s continues (he has made the playoffs in all five seasons he’s been a head coach), the success that Laldone has already had with Iowa is showing by locking down the defensive side that Iowa has had in its existence (235 GA in 2013-14, 245 GA in 2014-15, 225 GA in 2015-16), while also make this team a winning commodity. Players have bought into his system, also getting help from Minnesota in stocking their AHL affiliate with solid talent with experience in the AHL to help the team climb out of the basement of the league. The fans have seen it, too, as Iowa has cracked the 6,000-person average attendance mark as the time of this writing, proving that winning helps attendance.

Chuck Fletcher has also helped Iowa by helping the team stock up with some AHL veterans (Pat Cannone, Jeff Hoggan), as well as bright, young talent (Alex Tuch, Sam Anas, Mario Lucia) to help Lalonde’s success. The last time a Minnesota AHL team had this much success was in 2012-13 when the Houston Aeros had the likes of Justin Fontaine, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella, and Jason Zucker on their squad– all of whom made the jump to become regulars in the NHL. With the NHL parent club caring for the AHL squad, it helps immensely in the AHL squad trying to have success on top of development. 

The future is bright for Lalonde, especially if this turnaround ends in a playoff run for Iowa. While there’s always the issue of what could happen if an NHL goes after the AHL “Flavor of the Month Coach” as they have in the past with Dallas Eakins and Jared Bednar (though the situations weren’t keen to success for either), the success Lalonde has had in the past at every level should help his cause a little bit, so long as his players buy into his system as they have before, however– only time will tell if that long-term vision becomes maintained success.

First Month in the Sin Bin

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So, it’s been a month since I joined TheSinBin.net and it’s been pretty solid overall. Here’s what you may have been missing if you haven’t checked it out yet.

-The Stockton Heat not only are going through a change on the ice in their league play, but also off the ice in renovations to get the Stockton Arena up to AHL caliber.

-The AHL schedule was announced and boy howdy, it’s as bad as you think it was and it will cause a plenty of confusion with math and stuff to determine the playoffs.

-With the possibility of expansion in the NHL, it means the AHL and ECHL will need expansion as well to have a “One Team, One Affiliation” gimmick going. Hat Trick Consultants are looking at different markets to see what is actually viable.

-And, it’s two weeks– so the podcast is up and going.

It’s been a great time and the people there have been super supportive and we’ve been noticed– with is the main goal. Hope you keep coming along for the journey.

Coaching Carousel in the AHL

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With the coaching jobs getting less and less in the minor league hockey, the one constant remains– Roy Sommer will be coaching the San Jose Barracuda, putting his tenure with the Sharks’ AHL coach at 18 seasons, which has carried him through Kentucky, Cleveland, and Worcester. Outside of that, the trend with the most recent hirings by AHL teams is that of former NHL coaches who weren’t able to keep afloat in the NHL by their own doing or circumstances beyond their control.

The Grand Rapids Griffins got the top name out there in Todd Nelson, who gets back into the AHL after a subpar first outing in Edmonton; which is something no one could have salvaged. Nelson did the smart thing and decided to bail out of Edmonton with their sweeping changes to head to the Grand Rapids side, who should fit Nelson’s style perfectly. With the Oklahoma City Barons, however, Nelson was stellar with a 176-111-46 over four-plus seasons and if given a better goaltender and defense, maybe have been able to stick with Edmonton. However, with Grand Rapids having stellar prospects in their line-up already, it’s a matter of Nelson not getting too far off course from what the Griffins already have and get back to his winning ways in the AHL.

After surprisingly letting go their entire coaching staff, the Arizona Coyotes will start with a new coach in their new affiliation in Springfield, as Ron Rolston will take the helm there. Rolston, who was last seen behind the bench of the Buffalo Sabres– but only for 20 games, gets back the AHL after three seasons away. From 2011 until 2013, Rolston was behind the bench of the Rochester Americans, where he led them to a 79-55-18 record during that time. However, Rolston hasn’t really got himself into a head coaching style. Even with his short stint as the Sabres coach, Rolston is better regarded as an assistant, as he went through the college ranks as one and only has 206 head coaching games to his resume. It will be interesting to see how much rope the Coyotes give Rolston in developing their young stars.

In Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Mike Sullivan will be taking over for John Hynes— who departed for the New Jersey Devils. Sullivan, who was a player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks this season, will return behind the bench in the head gig for the first time since 2006 when he coached the Boston Bruins. However, Sullivan has been behind the bench as an assistant in New York, Tampa Bay, and Vancouver. The AHL is where Sullivan had a great year with the 2002-03 Providence Bruins (41-17-9-4), which was all Boston needed to promote him to the NHL. Sullivan does have tough shoes to fill, as Hynes was a stalwart for the Baby Pens and led them to five straight playoff appearances and two conference finals. Whether or not Sullivan can revive his magic that he had back in 2002-03 remains to be seen, but odds are he will have to make sure this transition goes off without a hitch, lest he finds himself back looking for another job.

There are a few jobs in the AHL left, with Lehigh Valley having an opening with the exit of Terry Murray to Buffalo, as well as the other shuffling affiliated teams and a couple of the California teams– but I wouldn’t expect much out of those except a change of address for the AHL coaches in the previous markets moving to their new locale. As per usual in minor league hockey, the minute the season ends; the next season inevitably begins. No clue what that means– just needed something to end it out and it failed horribly.

Manchester Leaving AHL on Top; What Will the ECHL Bring??

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Photo by Jon Rosen

Even before they knew the Los Angeles Kings would move their AHL operation to Ontario, California; the Monarchs looked like a team ready to finally make a big run at the Calder Cup. While this past season wasn’t their best in terms of wins and points (51 wins and 110 points was reached twice in 2004-05 and 2006-07), it is the first season they were able to have the highest wins and point total in the league (50 wins and 108 points). And while this team didn’t have a win past the first round in four previous playoffs– there was something a little more determined by the team to give their fans a good send-off to the AHL. Though, it was the first round that almost did the Monarchs in again, as they were pushed to a decisive Game Five against the Portland Pirates, but were able to make it out of their alive and then cruise through the rest of the Eastern Conference and then play a hard-fought five games to defeat the Utica Comets and win their first Calder Cup in their last season.

More over, though, is what the Monarchs have done in terms of development and who the fans have been able to see. From Jonathan Quick, Mike Cammalleri, and Matt Moulson; the Monarchs produced a decent amount of NHLers and many who have gone on to win a Stanley Cup with the Kings. Even to the end, with playoff MVP Jordan Weal, defenseman Colin Miller, goalie J-F Berube, and breakout performer Michael Mersch were all Manchester products who will be an asset to the Kings in the future. The fans lucked out big time when it came to the Kings drafting and signing great young talent for them to watch since 2001.

And the fans did turn out for this team, even though after the first few years– they weren’t able to pull in the big 8,000+ average. In the last few years, the Monarchs were at the middle of the AHL charts with attendance at the 5,500+ mark. Much can be put towards the downturn in attendance– the economy, people moving away from the area, more things to do in the area– but the die-hard fans were there to the end and were rewards with this Calder Cup victory.

Yet, the big question is whether or not they’ll turn out in the same numbers with the ECHL team in town. That has been one of the main concerns with the swaps of team is if people who had enjoyed AHL hockey for years will enjoy the “downgrade” of leagues and embrace the new players that will come in, but under the same moniker they feel is familiar with the AHL. While there are few entries in this, the numbers don’t really help the cause for support– as the Peoria Rivermen saw a drop-off of around 1,500 fans not attended the SPHL incarnation the season after they left the AHL. When the Utah Grizzlies went from the AHL to the ECHL, they saw about a 1,000 person drop-off, though their numbers were steadily declining in their last few AHL years. That said, the Grizzlies have rebounded the past few years with better teams and management decisions.

The Monarchs will join the 1967 Pittsburgh Hornets, the 1970 Buffalo Bisons, and 1982 New Brunswick Hawks as teams who won the Calder Cup and not play in the AHL the next season. It will be interesting to see how the Manchester Monarchs go about raising their championship banner. Will they do it during their parade celebration in a couple weeks or will they wait until ECHL opening night to raise their 1st Calder Cup winning banner from the rafters of the Verizon Wireless Arena?? Regardless of the decision, to leave a league out on top is anything that anyone in that organization could have hoped for as the transition happens.

The Magic Number is 68

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In discussion with AHL president David Andrews, Jon Rosen of the Los Angeles Kings Insider was able to get the skinny on what is going to happen with the games for the California teams. There is a reduction, but it isn’t as horrible as many (me included) thought it would be.

That reduction will be a 68-game schedule for the California-based Ontario Reign, San Diego Gulls, San Jose Barracuda, Bakersfield Condors and Stockton Heat, American Hockey League Commissioner David Andrews confirmed to LA Kings Insider during the first intermission of Friday’s Calder Cup Finals game in Utica, N.Y. Teams outside of the Pacific Division will play 76-game schedules. At this time, it is unclear whether the Texas-based Pacific Division teams – the San Antionio Rampage and Texas Stars – will play a 68 or 76-game schedule.

Now, in the previous discussions, including one that was done by Lindsay Kramer from Syracuse.com, the 25 other AHL teams would play a full 76. That said, should the AHL decide that the divisional play is the way they want to go; then if San Antonio and Texas are able to get a 68-game schedule– it’s not all that bad and the Pacific is on a level playing field as the rest of their counterparts. Of course, who knows if those teams want to give up four home dates that they’re used to because of schedule imbalance, but that’ll be revealed when the schedule is put out.

This brings up the debate of why there is being special things in place for the California teams. The Alaska Aces are a team in the ECHL who never got special treatment, same went for the Abbotsford Heat and Utah Grizzlies when they were in the AHL and far away from other teams in their league.

From what I recall when this idea of California teams were bandied about, the big hold-up is whether or not it would be smart to have these teams in the AHL and not hurt the integrity of the rest of the league. For me, five (or seven) teams getting eight less games than the rest of the team is a little bit of an eyebrow raiser, regardless of the travel/profit involved in it. Granted, the NHL does have better transportation; but if this is a development league– one of the things the players coming up should have to experience is the travel that involved in the hockey life.

That said, I’m just a blogger/podcaster and I’m not paid to make the decisions the AHL is doing– which is something that I don’t envy because who knows what politics are involved when making these decisions for these new teams. It has to be hard on Andrews and the staff to make this, while trying not to alienate the rest of the league in the process. Whether less games will actually be helpful or a hinderance won’t be seen for about three years; but for a league that is coming up on their 80th anniversary, one would think that they wouldn’t bend the rules for the minority of teams after doing all they could to get them into the league in the first place.

Remembering The Last Affiliation Championships

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As the AHL season wraps up, the two teams that are in it– Manchester and Utica– won’t be a co-champion with their parent club, as neither Los Angeles and Vancouver are in the Stanley Cup Final– thus it’s another season without the NHL and AHL teams winning their respective championships. In fact, this year marks the 20th season since a NHL and AHL affiliated team have won the Stanley and Calder Cup.

In 1995, during the first shortened season in the NHL; the New Jersey Devils were able to go ahead and win the Stanley Cup in a sweep of the Detroit Red Wings and won the Stanley Cup in a short 20-game playoff run. Their AHL affiliate at the time, the Albany River Rats, were getting through the Calder Cup playoffs with as much ease as their NHL counterpart.

During that 1994-95 season, the River Rats were running roughshod over the AHL, taking the North Division title and having the best record in all of the AHL. They were the only team to give up less than 220 goals (219) and were 6th out of 16 teams in goals for (293). With a list of future NHLers on their roster– the Rats were stacked. Lead by Steve Sullivan, the Rats had three 30+ goal scorers (Sullivan, Bill Armstrong, Rob Conn), as well as three guys with PIMs over 200 (Cale Hulse, Reid Simpson, Matt Ruchty); proving they had grit along with finesse under the tutelage of Robbie Ftorek.

There was a strong NHL connection in the River Rats, as you could tell. Not only were Sullivan, Hulse, and Ftorek on the squad– but the amount of players on the roster who made it to the NHL for more than a cup of coffee is pretty solid: Scott Pellerin, Sergei Brylin, Brad Bombardir, Brian Rolston, Jaroslav Modry, Corey Schwab, Mike Dunham, Chris McAlpine, and Krzysztof Oliwa. While it was more common that AHL teams back in those days to produce NHLers at a rapid pace– this was a nice crew of serviceable NHL players.

The playoff system was different in those days. The AHL only had three divisions for the 16 teams and the top four teams in each division got to the playoffs. At the end of the divisional rounds, the team with the most points of the three playoff winners got an automatic bid into the Calder Cup Finals, while the other two played a best-of-three series to see the other team in the finals. With that format, the Rats just needed to get through the North Division to get that bye into the finals; which would give them a nice upper-hand.

The first round, despite a couple of one-goal games in Albany, the River Rats swept the Adirondack Red Wings, taking advantage of the 35-point differential in the regular season. The second-round looked like it could go the same way, with the Rats taking the first three games of the series, but the Providence Bruins outscored the Rats 11-0 in Games 4 and 5 before the Rats woke up and won Game 6 to advance to the Calder Cup Finals. When all was said and done, the Rats took on the Fredericton Canadiens in the finals. Much like the first round, there were two one-goal games in Albany for the opening of the series– both by the count of 4-3 for the Rats. When they got to Fredericton, the Rats turned on the offense and outscored the Canadiens 7-1 in those two games to take their first (and last) Calder Cup. Goalies Corey Schwab and Mike Dunham split the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for playoff MVP.

Aside from the Calder Cup and Butterfield Trophy, the hardware for the Rats were pretty abundant. Robbie Ftorek took home Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award for Coach of the Year, Doug Burch took home the James C. Hendy Memorial Award for the top executive, while the team also got the F. G. “Teddy” Oke Trophy and Richard F. Canning Trophy for winner of the North Division in the regular season and playoffs, respectively.

With the depth of talent in the AHL and the talent already in the NHL, who knows when’s the next time that the NHL and AHL teams affiliated with each other will win their respective trophies. It’s a bit of a shock that the River Rats were only the second team to win the Calder Cup with their parent team won the Stanley Cup (Montreal Canadiens and Nova Scotia Voyageurs in the ’70s). Whether we will see it again any time soon is up in the air, but for it to be 20 years since the last time it happened; it’s hard pressed to think that next year will be any change to this trend.

AHL Playoffs: Calder Cup Finals

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Image via TheAHL.com

(1E) Manchester Monarchs vs. (1W) Utica Comets

When you look at a final series in any championship, you want to the two best teams out on the ice to compete for the championship. Such is the case in the Calder Cup Finals, were the Manchester Monarchs are representing the east with the Utica Comets holding the flag for the west. The top-seeded teams were also the top teams in the AHL outright, which is something that doesn’t necessarily happen out of chance.

On the surface, however, it seems that the Monarchs have the edge and most well-rounded team. They were the fifth in goals for during the season and second in goals against, while in the playoffs they are first in goals and gave up the least amount of goals of the final four teams. The Comets were right behind the Monarchs in goals against, mainly thanks to the play of Jacob Markstrom, who has gotten his career back on track in a big, big way in Utica. Markstrom was able to outlast the high scoring Grand Rapids Griffins, which shows that he is not afraid and won’t break against a high scoring offensive team. On the other end, the numbers haven’t been as great for J-F Berube in Manchester (2.83 GAA, .894 Sv%), but he’s gotten it done in the win-loss column with an 11-3 record. Berube has gotten a lot of support from the entirety of the team, which has helped him get that next save and not worry about being on edge the entire time.

Speaking of scoring, if there is a hiccup in the game of the Comets, it’s their lack of scoring. While they have been able to spread the scoring around up and down the roster with Cal O’Reilly being a huge set-up man (15 assists, but no goals); the Comets don’t have a goal scorer over six goals in the 18 games they’ve played and that’s from Sven Baertschi— who hasn’t played in two of the games these playoffs from being up in Vancouver for a couple games at the end of their playoffs. On the flip side, the Monarchs top line of Jordan Weal, Michael Mersch, and Brian O’Neill have been dominant and have three of the top four spot in scoring; despite the Monarchs only playing 14 playoff games this year. That line has combined for 30 goals and 21 assists in the playoffs and should be a true test for Markstrom.

While they haven’t been scoring much, the Utica Comets are getting plenty out of their defense, with Adam Clendening and Bobby Sanguinetti playing solidly in front of Markstrom. That’s not to say the likes of Kevin Biega and Travis Ehrhardt aren’t playing well either– as the team who has been staunch in their defense continues that trend going into the finals. On the flip side, the surprise has been Vincent LoVerde has come on strong for the Monarchs, with Colin Miller being as consistent as he was during the regular season. The last four defensemen in Andrew Bondarchuk, Derek Forbort, Jeff Schultz, and rookie Kevin Gravel aren’t putting up the numbers offensively, but have been very calm in front of Berube to keep the Monarchs in the game night after night.

Special teams haven’t been so special for the teams, as they have combined for only 17 goals in 117 attempts (14.5%), while the penalty kills have combined to give up 29 goals on 126 attempts against them (76.9%). Even though there are teams eliminated long ago, the fact they are hovering in the 14% rank on the PP and 77% on the PK doesn’t bode well. Though, it could awaken one of the stagnant power plays with the way the PKs have been. This is especially odd for Utica, who had an 86% PK ratio during the season, but haven’t been able to find their edge in the playoffs. The same goes for Manchester’s power play, which was top of the league with a 20% efficiently rate.

With the series being a 2-3-2 format, despite being under the imaginary 300-mile rule (295 miles, which is the shortest distance since 1989), so that could help Utica get back on track at home, though Utica is only two-games over .500 at both home and on the road. The Monarchs, however, as solid at home as they are 7-0 these playoffs and have one 13 straight playoff games in Manchester.

There wasn’t a Cinderella story for the AHL this season, which could be best for the product. Two top teams (one of which is going to the ECHL next year) will be battling it out for the Calder Cup and a deserving champion will be crowned– either the team who is exiting for California next season or a team who, in their second season, are developing in a quick way to bring prominence back to minor league hockey in Utica