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AHL 2019-20 Season Preview: Central Division

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AHL: DEC 02 Grand Rapids Griffins at Chicago Wolves Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The American Hockey League heads into the 2019-20 season on Friday, so contributors from across the SB Nation Hockey community collaborated to create a four-part series to preview each team. As per AHL rules, the top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, so this preview aims to explore the competitiveness within the division, while highlighting changes to the team from last season as well as what to expect this season.

Related: Atlantic Division Preview

Related: North Division Preview

Related: Pacific Division Preview

The Central Division is comprised of eight teams: Chicago Wolves (Las Vegas Golden Knights), Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild), Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets), Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators), Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks), San Antonio Rampage (St. Louis Blues), Texas Stars (Dallas Stars), and of course the Grand Rapids Griffins for the Detroit Red Wings. The division remains among the most-competitive in the AHL, having sent a finalist to the Calder Cup playoffs for each of the last three years. Grand Rapids was the last to win in 2017.

Chicago (Golden Knights)

Sarah Avampato Knights on Ice

Last season: 44-22-6-4, 98 points, 1st place, lost in Calder Cup Final

Key losses: TJ Tynan (F), Daniel Carr (F), Brooks Macek (F), Tomas Hyka (F), Griffin Reinhart (D), Zac Leslie (D), Max Lagace (G)

Key additions: Patrick Brown (F), Nic Roy (F), Ben Jones (F), Lucas Elvenes (F), Jonas Rondbjerg (F), Jaycob Megna (D), Brett Lernout (D), Garret Sparks (G)

One player to watch: Keegan Kolesar (F)

After a season in which saw the Wolves overcome injuries to nearly all of their top players, often at crucial times in the season, the always-plucky squad clawed their way to the Calder Cup Final. While they ran out of steam against the eventual winners, the Charlotte Checkers, they managed to persevere through three grueling playoff rounds, proving themselves as a team that was perhaps greater than the sum of its parts.

This year, the Wolves are going to have to overcome the loss of a significant amount of scoring firepower. Their top three overall scorers — Daniel Carr, T.J Tynan, and Brooks Macek — all left the organization in free agency, promising young players like Cody Glass and Nic Hague are in the NHL, and the players they brought in may not move the needle much in terms of all of the scoring the Wolves now have to make up for.

But if there’s anything we learned about the Wolves over the 2018-19 season, it’s to never count them out. Head coach Rocky Thompson inspires the kind of confidence in players that leads to “I’d run through a wall for him”-type quotes. He’s consistently been able to get his team to exceed expectations, and there’s no reason not to expect the same out of the team this year.

Grand Rapids (Red Wings)

Last season: 38-27-7-4, 87 points, 4th place, lost to Chicago in Central semifinals

Key losses: Martin Frk (F), Axel Holmstrom (F), Dylan Sadowy (F), Libor Sulak (D), Colin Campbell (F), Carter Camper (F), Jake Chelios (D), Wade Megan (F), Harri Sateri (G), Patrik Rybar (G),

Key additions: Moritz Seider (D), Oliwer Kaski (D), Filip Larsson (G), Gustav Lindstrom (D), Calvin Pickard (G), Joe Veleno (F), Evgeny Svechnikov (F)

One player to watch: Filip Zadina

Remember a few years back when a Steve Yzerman-led team had an entire unit’s worth of NHL-ready guys playing in the AHL together? Welcome to part two of that. Say what you will about all the first-rounders Detroit has in their lineup (not even counting Dylan McIlrath, who wasn’t their own pick), but what it spells for Grand Rapids should be an exciting group of skilled guys who still have a bit to learn about the pace, grind, and toughness it takes to play at the professional level.

With new coach Ben Simon at the helm, he’ll at least start the season with the likes of Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno, Michael Rasmussen, Evgeny Svechnikov and 2019’s sixth overall pick Moritz Seider. The Griffins struggled with consistency at times last season despite a talented roster and could very well see the same (especially as the parent Red Wings see expected injuries require them to call up a number of these guys throughout the season), but they’re bolstered by a number of AHL veterans like Brian Lashoff and the Matts, Ford & Puempel.

Iowa Wild (Minnesota)

Kyle Anway Hockey Wilderness

Last season: 37-26-8-5, 87 points, 3rd place, lost to Chicago in Central final

Key losses: Carson Soucy (D), Gustav Bouramman (D), Andrew Hammond (G)

Key additions: Gabriel Dumont (F), Luke Johnson (F), Cody McLeod (F), Nico Sturm (C)

One player to watch: Gerald Mayhew (F)

The “Baby Wild,” as they are affectionately referred to by Minnesota fans, came of age in last year’s Calder Cup playoffs under first-year coach Tim Army, earning their first postseason bid and winning their first-round series against Milwaukee before falling to Chicago in the second round in six games.

Bolstered by strong goaltending from Kaapo Kahkonen through the first half of the season, Iowa topped the Central into mid-December and held the second-place position at the all-star break with a 24-14-4-3 record. The Wild cooled in an up-and-down second half, and even at one point endured an eight-game losing streak, but still managed to play near .500 hockey after the break to earn the number three spot in the Central.

The Wild were led in the regular season by captain Cal O’Reilly’s team-high 67 points, but it was Gerald Mayhew who stood out the most. Mayhew’s 27 goals in 71 regular-season games were just a preview for what he had in store for the postseason. He scored nine goals and two helpers in 11 playoff games, earning Mayhew a two-year deal with the Wild organization, and drawing a long, hard look during the 2019 Minnesota training camp. In the end, Mayhew was assigned to Iowa for the start of this season, but no one will be surprised to see him get some NHL time as an injury call-up. In the meantime, with O’Reilly leaving Iowa in the offseason, the Wild will count on big minutes from Mayhew if they are to continue their newfound success.

Other additions to this season’s roster include Nico Sturm (college free-agent acquisition), Gabriel Dumont (signed from Tampa Bay’s minor league system) and former Blackhawks prospect Luke Johnson. All look to improve a roster that returns nearly all of the main pieces from last season’s team. The Wild also signed former Colorado agitator Cody McLeod.

Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets)

Cara Thorington Arctic Ice Hockey

Last season: 39-30-5-2, 85 points, 5th place

Key losses: Mason Appleton

Key additions: Sami Niku

One player to watch: Sami Niku

Niku was with the Jets most of last season, but rarely played because of reasons. He is an offensive defenceman who is great at moving the puck. As a rookie, he was the AHL’s top defenceman and playing more will be a massive benefit for him this season.

Why people should care/tune in to your team: The Manitoba Moose should be a better team than the were last year. They should have Sami Niku back on defence instead of wasting away in the NHL press box. Their biggest loss is Mason Appleton who has made the Winnipeg Jets opening night roster. The Jets also lost Eric Comrie on waivers, so the Moose are without their veteran goalie. However, Mikhail Berdin looked more than capable in abbreviated AHL action last season and he will hopefully build on that this season. Finally, if the Moose’s young players like Michael Spacek take a step forward, the Moose should be able to have a strong-ish season.

Milwaukee (Predators)

Eric Dunay On the Forecheck

Last season: 36-24-14-2, 88 points, 2nd place, lost to Iowa in Central semifinals

Key losses: Adam Helewka (F), Tyler Gaudet (F), Justin Kirkland (F), Duncan Siemens (D)

Key additions: Connor Ingram (G), Jeremy Davies (D), Brandon Fortunato (D), Steve Santini (D), Lukas Craggs (F), Frederick Gaudreau (F), Miikka Salomaki (F), Rem Pitlick (F), Josh Wilkins (F)

One player to watch: Rem Pitlick (F)

The 2018-19 season was a tale of two Admirals teams: one that struggled excessively throughout much of the year and one that rode a 14-game point streak in the spring to climb from seventh in the division to second. Despite that, Milwaukee couldn’t get over the first-round playoff hump - something they haven’t done since 2011.

But, this Milwaukee roster is different. Aside from Adam Helewka, losses were minimal. It was one of the league’s best in net - Troy Grosenick - who kept the Admirals in contention, and he’ll be back to lead the way. Combine that with high-ceiling free agents signings from the NCAA, a couple of highly-touted prospects in Eeli Tolvanen and Jeremy Davies, and a talent like Connor Ingram splitting duties with Grosenick and this Admirals roster looks ready for contention.

Pre-season roster moves have added a few NHL-level depth players to the mix to lead the way in Frederick Gaudreau, Miikka Salomaki and Steven Santini. The Admirals are deeper and more talented than they have been in some time. Look for players like Tolvanen and Rem Pitlick to come out firing and push heavily for some NHL looks.

Rockford (Blackhawks)

Brandon Cain Second City Hockey

Last season: 35-31-4-6, 80 points, 7th place

Key losses: Anton Forsberg (G), Andrew Campbell (D), D Gustav Forsling (D), Blake Hillman (D), Henri Jokiharju (D), Victor Ejdsell (F), Peter Holland (F), Luke Johnson (F), Anthony Louis (F), Andreas Martinsen (F), William Pelletier (F), Jordan Schroeder (F)

Key additions: Nicolas Beaudin (D), Adam Boqvist (D), Philip Holm (D), MacKenzie Entwistle (F), Mikael Hakkarainen (F), Aleksi Saarela (F), Kris Versteeg (F)

One player to watch: Adam Boqvist (D)

Derek King and assistant Anders Sorensen will have their first full season behind the bench with several of the organization’s top prospects. The IceHogs dealt with several injuries last season, which King believes may help him with managing players’ minutes this upcoming season. The Blackhawks’ two 2018 first rounders in Beaudin and Boqvist will both patrol the blue line, with the latter more likely to earn an NHL call up.

Rockford returns a dynamic 1-2 punch in net with Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen, who led Finland to gold at the World Championship. Up top, the IceHogs will have more offensive firepower than last season with Saarela, who was a key cog to Charlotte’s title run last season. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Kris Versteeg is back in Rockford on an AHL contract and NHL fringe players Dylan Sikura and Matthew Highmore return as well.

San Antonio (Blues)

Laura Astorian St. Louis Game Time

San Antonio Rampage (St. Louis Blues)

*Last season*: 31-38-0-1

*Key losses*: Chris Butler (D), Jared Coreau (G)

*Key additions*: Derrick Pouliot (D), Alexei Toropchenko (RW), Adam Wilcox (G)

*One player to watch*: Klim Kostin (RW)

*Why people should care/tune in to your team*: The Rampage had a less than ideal season last year. The first half of the season mirrored their parent club’s a little too well. Usually when your parent club goes on to win the Stanley Cup, that’s a good thing - but the Blues took a challenging path to the championship and finished the first half of the season dead last in the league. The Rampage never cracked .500 points percentage - the closest they got to it came after a four game winning streak in mid-January when they reached 21-18-1.

This year, Klim Kostin has something to prove to the Blues. Hopefully that will get the team leader in PIM’s totals down under 100, and his goal total over ten. He had a strong showing during pre-season but was sent to the AHL needing to work on discipline and defense. His learning experience could be the fans’ gain.

Texas (Stars)

Derek Neumeier Defending Big D

Last season: 37-31-4-4, 82 points, 6th place

Key losses: Mike McKenna (G), Travis Morin (F), Erik Condra (F), Colin Markison (F), Colton Hargrove (F)

Key additions: Jake Oettinger (G), Tanner Kero (F), Joel Kiviranta (F), Jason Robertson (F), Riley Tufte (F), Tye Felhaber (F), Emil Djuse (D)

One player to watch: Jason Robertson

The Dallas Stars have their sights firmly set on making a deep playoff push this season, and to help them achieve that goal they’ve assembled a deep farm system to give them all the depth an organization could need.

Dallas has also found success in the draft recently, bucking a few years of struggles. Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger are two of the best prospects to come through the organization in years, while Riley Tufte is turning pro after winning back-to-back NCAA titles.

This combination of depth and incoming young talent should give the Texas Stars plenty of material to build with. And head coach Derek Laxdal, who guided the team to the 2018 Calder Cup Finals, knows what it takes to see the plan through to fruition.