The start of April means all eyes in the American League turn to potential playoff matches and year-end awards.
First, here is a look at the AHL’s playoff races.
The playoff table is mostly set, though the order has still to be decided. The main remaining question to be answered is whether Binghamton can fend off Worcester once and for all and cross over into the Atlantic Division’s fourth spot. If the Sharks lose out to Binghamton they’ll still have a chance to push aside Connecticut for third in the Atlantic. The Sharks sit four points behind the third-place Whale. Binghamton, Connecticut and Worcester all have six games remaining.
The playoff picture is much more muddled out west. Boiled down, Houston and Milwaukee have already clinched spots. Hamilton, Lake Erie, Manitoba and Texas all sit securely in the playoff picture and should solidify their post-season invitations shortly. Thus, two spots remain between the North and West Divisions and five teams are vying for those spots. Chicago, Peoria, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Toronto are all in contention, but the Marlies may not be able to resist being knocked off by a West Division club crossing over to the North’s fourth slot. The Barons and Marlies have only five games remaining, while the other three clubs have six games to go. Abbotsford and Grand Rapids would seem to be long shots, at best.
The following are this corner’s picks for AHL awards this season:
Most Valuable Player
Brad Thiessen, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton - That the Penguins are a solid bet to win the Calder Cup this season is hardly surprising. Pittsburgh aggressively stocked its AHL affiliate last summer and the farm club has delivered on its promise. What is surprising is how Thiessen has blossomed into such a dominant goaltender so quickly. In just his second pro season, the Northeastern University product has put up a robust 32-7-1 mark for the Penguins to go with a shiny 1.88 goals-against average. In a division featuring offensively gifted teams such as Charlotte, Hershey and Norfolk, Thiessen’s numbers are all the more impressive.
Andre Benoit, Binghamton - Very much an unheralded player, Benoit has yet to receive much of a look at the NHL level. He is now in his sixth pro season. An intriguing prospect for his first two pro seasons in Hamilton, Benoit headed to Europe for two years and returned all the more dominant last season with the Bulldogs. Benoit was an off-season signing by Ottawa that showed the Senators meant business at the AHL level and the defenseman has anchored one of the league’s best bluelines.
Luke Adam, Portland - It seems extremely doubtful Pirates fans will see Adam after this season. The latest in a string of top prospects to come through Portland, Adam has exploded for 25 goals in 50 games this season on one of the league’s top clubs. While the crop of top AHL prospects this season is as deep as ever, the 2008 second-rounder stands apart.
Mike Yeo, Houston - The former Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach took a step back to the AHL level so that he could run his own show for the first time. Under Yeo, the Aeros have emerged as a legitimate Calder Cup contender and have gone 26-9-0-3 since Jan. 1. Yeo has authored Houston’s season with a respectable, if unspectacular collection of forwards, a rookie goaltender in Matt Hackett and the blueline loss of top prospect Tyler Cuma, all while playing in the AHL’s deepest division.
Most Improved Affiliation
Tampa Bay-Norfolk - The ownership issues that plagued the Lightning in recent seasons had trickled down to the Admirals, badly damaging the club’s standing in Norfolk. With the new Steve Yzerman-Julien BriseBois regime now running the Lightning, the Admirals’ fortunes have improved considerably. The Lightning supplied Norfolk with a dynamic new coach in Jon Cooper, a number of quality AHL veterans and an intriguing mix of young talent. The result has been an exciting, high-scoring club that will represent the first all-Tampa AHL affiliate to reach the Calder Cup playoffs.
Most Improved Player
Colin McDonald, Oklahoma City - Prior to this season, McDonald was a pedestrian AHL plugger playing for one of the worst clubs in the league. The best deal McDonald could manage last summer was an AHL contract, but he has blossomed into a true power forward. His 34 goals so far this season match the number of goals he recorded over his first three AHL seasons combined.
Denis Hamel, Adirondack - Inexplicably, perhaps the most lethal AHL sniper of the past decade was unemployed to start the season. A dreadful start for the young Phantoms led them to summon Hamel from Quebec, where he was playing semi-pro hockey. Hamel delivered six goals in his first five Phantoms games, provided instant offensive credibility and recorded his ninth AHL season with at least 20 goals. The Phantoms have been a rather solid team in the second half of the season, due in no small part to Hamel.
Goaltender - Thiessen. Defensemen - Andre Benoit, Binghamton; Marc-Andre Gragnani, Portland. Forwards - Alexandre Giroux, Oklahoma City; Corey Locke, Binghamton; Colin McDonald, Oklahoma City.
THIS & THAT
• A five-goal, 10-point week earned Charlotte’s Zach Boychuk player honors.
From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.