NHL Prospects

AHL Prospect Analysis (Atlantic Division)

Jon Litterine   |  @JonLitterine  |  10/19/2021  |  [hupso]

NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — The 2021-22 AHL season has already begun with all 31 teams scheduled for a full campaign after last season’s pandemic-driven limitations. And although an imbalance remains — teams will play either 68, 72, or 76 games depending on their division — the current season is slated to be completed in its entirety for the first time since 2018-19. The return to a longer schedule certainly is a welcomed change, as most of the league’s 31 cities saw their home dates halved last season by COVID restrictions. But fans now have the opportunity for longer looks at the AHL’s growing collection of premier prospects, most of who are expected to play in the NHL at one point or another this season. Below is the first in a four-part series covering most notable prospects whom are either currently playing in the AHL or are expected to shuffle back and forth from their parent club in the NHL.

AHL Team Affiliations

Atlantic North Central Pacific
Bridgeport (NYI) Belleville (OTT) Chicago (CAR) Abbotsford (VAN)
Charlotte (FLA/SEA) Cleveland (CBJ) Grand Rapids (DET) Bakersfield (EDM)
Hartford (NYR) Laval (MTL) Iowa (MIN) Colorado (COL)
Hershey (WAS) Rochester (BUF) Manitoba (WIN) Henderson (VGK)
Lehigh Valley (PHI) Syracuse (TB) Milwaukee (NAS) Ontario (LAK)
Providence (BOS) Toronto (TOR) Rockford (CHI) Tucson (ARI)
Springfield (STL) Utica (NJD) Texas (DAL) San Jose (SJS)
WB/Scranton (PIT) San Diego (ANA)
  Stockton (CGY)

Bridgeport Islanders (NYI)

2021-22 Roster

Photo: Greg Vasil/Bridgeport Sound Tigers

Top Prospects

Robin Salo

Position: Defense
Height: 6’0
Weight: 185 lbs
Shoots: Left
Draft: 2nd Round (46th overall), 2017 NHL Draft

Salo is just about NHL ready after playing parts of the past seven seasons professionally overseas. He’ll play this entire year at age 23, so there is plenty of long-term staying power here. I think he’s a solid middle-pairing defender who can help in all three zones and log some heavy minutes. The Islanders have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations and Salo is yet to play a game in North America as of this writing, so I imagine he’s going to spend the entire year in Bridgeport.

Samuel Bolduc

Position: Defense
Height: 6’4
Weight: 215 lbs
Shoots: Left
Draft: 2nd Round (57th overall), 2019 NHL Draft

Bolduc wouldn’t have made the team regardless, but he was banged up in training camp and thus unable to make a positive impression on the coaching staff. He was excellent in his first AHL campaign a season ago, posting six goals and 14 points in 24 games. Bolduc’s calling card is a massive shot from the point. I could see him making his NHL debut in 2022-23.

Simon Holmstrom

Position: RW
Height: 6’1
Weight: 183 lbs
Shoots: Left
Draft: 1st Round (23rd overall), 2019 NHL Draft

Holmstrom was considered a significant reach when selected 23rd overall by the Islanders in 2019 and two-plus years later, little has changed. Over the course of 70 AHL games the past two seasons, Holmstrom has only 12 goals and 22 points. Although Holmstrom can be a dangerous sniper and he won’t turn 21 years of age until next May, it’s critical for his development that he shows some improvement this coming season. He’s a real prospect but becoming a top-tier option for the parent club looks tougher than it did on draft night over two years ago.

Jakub Skarek

Position: Goalie
Height: 6’4
Weight: 203 lbs
Catches: Left
Draft: 3rd Round (72nd overall), 2018 NHL Draft

Skarek (pictured) was one of the top goalie prospects in the 2018 draft but has bounced around several different leagues the last three seasons. He split 2020-21 between Pelitat in Finland’s second-division Mestis and Bridgeport, posting an unimpressive 3-8-1 mark and .887 save percentage for the latter. But Skarek is off to a better start for the Baby Isles this season, stopping 45 of 50 shots in his first two appearances. Although he’s expected to see the lion’s share of minutes for Bridgeport, Skarek’s size, quickness, and experience against adult-age competition make him a candidate for a short-term promotion to Long Island.


Sleeper

LW Arnaud Durandeau

A sixth-round pick in the 2017 NHL draft, Durandeau is a pesky and abrasive winger who continues to improve as he begins his third AHL season. Although he has yet to play a full campaign with Bridgeport, Durandeau has been productive in several stints and established himself as a top-six forward who sees power-play time. He’s playing with more discipline than his days in the QMJHL, but Durandeau is a tough battler who wins his battles and can make plays from the half-wall or corner.

Charlotte Checkers (FLA/SEA)

2021-22 Roster

Grigori Denisenko (FLA)

Position: Left Wing
Height:
5’11
Weight:
175 lbs
Shoots:
Right
Draft: 1st Round (15th overall), 2018 NHL draft

Denisenko arrived in North America last fall in the middle of the pandemic, ultimately splitting time between the Panthers and their-then AHL affiliate in Syracuse. He posted 13 points in 22 games all told, including four assists in seven games with Florida. Denisenko is NHL ready. I thought he was a future top-six guy when Florida drafted him No. 15 overall in 2018, but I’m starting to believe he may be just a solid depth guy who can move up and down a lineup. Florida’s offensive depth is ridiculous and it’s not out of the realm of possibility Denisenko spends the entire year in the AHL.

Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA)

Position: Center
Height:
5’9
Weight:
155 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 2nd Round (40th overall), 2017 NHL draft

Heponiemi (pictured) is about as polarizing a prospect as you will find. He’s a former WHL Rookie of the Year and averaged nearly a point-per-game (16 goals, 46 points in 50 games) in Finland’s Liiga three seasons ago as a 19-year-old, but he’s struggled to generate consistent offense as a pro in North America. Heponiemi’s hands are exceptional but he’s barely 150 pounds and it’s fair if he’s simply too slight to succeed against elite competition.

Serron Noel (FLA)

Position: Right Wing
Height:
6’5
Weight:
205
Shoots:
Right
Draft: 2nd Round (34th overall), 2018 NHL draft

The odds are clearly against Noel making it at this point, but I remain extremely hesitant to pull the plug on a kid with this type of size. Not only is Noel massive, but he has excellent hands. He doesn’t play to his size and that might be his ultimate undoing, but there is still bottom-six potential here if Noel even makes the slightest of strides.


Sleeper

Logan Hutsko, RW (FLA)

A versatile, multi-tool forward who provides intangibles, Hutsko is making his AHL debut this season after four successful campaigns as a top player for Boston College. Hutsko, who was drafted in 2018 in the third round from the U.S. development program, has overcome several serious injuries during his junior and college days, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing an aggressive, in-your-face game that forces turnovers and gets him into prime scoring areas. He should be a fixture on the power play and see top-six minutes.

Hartford Wolf Pack (NYR)

2021-22 Roster

Zac Jones

Position: Defense
Height:
5’10
Weight: 172 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 3rd Round (68th overall), 2019 NHL draft

Jones was excellent in a brief call up late last year following winning the NCAA National Championship at UMass, but import Nils Lundkvist arrived from Sweden and Patrik Nemeth was signed in free agency to help his transition, so there was no room for Jones on the NHL roster to start this season. He is clearly NHL ready and seems highly likely to play significant minutes with the Rangers at some point this season. I’m a huge fan and see a middle-pairing guy with potential for more due to Jones’ elite hockey IQ.

Braden Schneider

Position: Defense
Height:
6’2
Weight:
202 lbs
Shoots:
Right
Draft: 1st Round (19th overall), 2020 NHL Draft

While Jones is a mobile, offensive rearguard, Schneider is a stay-at-home, punishing defender. He loves to throw the body around and generally makes like miserable for opposing forwards. Schneider is a strong skater and is reliable enough with the puck that he should be able to chip in some secondary offense, but I doubt he’ll be a big point producer for New York. He’s another guy who is just about ready for NHL action, so something will have to give here sooner rather than later.

Morgan Barron

Position: Center
Height:
6’2
Weight:
188 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 6th Round (174th overall), 2017 NHL Draft

Barron (pictured) has already played NHL games, which is a great result for a guy who was selected 174th overall in 2016. Barron can play both center and wing and became a big-time scorer late in his career at Cornell. He was a point-per-game player (10 goals, 21 points in 21 games) in his first AHL campaign a season ago, and stop me if you have heard this before, is ready to help the Rangers right now. I like him better on the wing where he can throw the body around and create havoc on the forecheck. I think he’s a bottom-six regular.


Sleeper

Lauri Pajuniemi, RW

One of the top snipers in Finland’s elite SM-Liiga in each of the last two seasons, Pajuniemi was drafted as an overager in the fifth round of the 2018 draft and has revealed NHL-caliber attributes sooner than expected. In fact, one can make a valid case for ranking Pajuniemi high among the best European-trained wingers from that strong 2018 draft class. It would be lazy to classify him as a one-dimensional, shoot-first scorer, as Pajuniemi plays a responsible 200-foot game and provides energy and physicality when necessary. He’s a deadly option on the power play.

Hershey Bears (WAS)

2021-22 Roster

Alex Alexeyev

Position: Defense
Height: 6’4
Weight: 210 lbs
Shoots: Left
Draft: 1st Round (31st overall), 2018 NHL Draft

The 31st overall pick in 2018, Alexeyev is the best defensive prospect in a thin system. He spent the majority of last year on loan to the KHL but posted nine points in a dozen AHL games during the abbreviated season. I’m a little surprised the Caps didn’t give him a more of a chance to make the team this season. I think he’s a better option than Martin Fehervary. He should make his NHL debut at some point this season.

Aliaksei Protas

Position: Center
Height: 6’6
Weight: 216 lbs
Shoots: Left
Draft: 3rd Round (91st overall), 2019 NHL Draft

Protas is a massive pass-first playmaker with above-average puck skills. And he’s young, as he won’t turn 21 years old until January. There’s upside here, but Protas is going to have to overcome a distinct lack of foot speed in order to make it. He does enough other things well that there’s hope for him if he can keep up with the pace of the professional game, but it won’t be easy.

Brett Leason

Position: Right Wing
Height: 6’5
Weight: 225 lbs
Shoots: Right
Draft: 2nd Round (56th overall), 2019 NHL Draft

Leason improved in his sophomore AHL season, ranking fourth on the Bears with nine goals and 20 points in 33 games. He’s got the size, maturity, and versatility to play in the NHL, but Washington opted to promote younger, more prominent forward prospects such as center Hendrix Lapierre and center/wing Connor McMichael. Nevertheless, Leason should be a standout for the veteran Bears and has done enough at the AHL level to warrant a call-up or two from the Capitals this season.


Sleeper

Garrett Pilon, C

There aren’t many Capitals’ forward prospects who have paid more dues than Pilon, who has been one of Hershey’s top performers in each season since he made his debut in 2018-19. The son of former New York Islanders’ defenseman Rich Pilon, Garrett was Washington’s third-round pick (87th overall) in the 2016 draft after a solid season with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers. He’s a tough, 200-foot center with excellent vision and underrated stickhandling ability, and he even earned a one-game promotion from the Capitals last season.

Lehigh Valley Phantoms (PHI)

2021-22 Roster

Cam York

Position: Defense
Height:
5’11
Weight:
174 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 1st Round (14th overall), 2019 NHL Draft

York is the best prospect in the Philadelphia system; a sublime puck-mover with the ability to quarterback a power-play with the best of them. He wins with vision and awareness, similar to current Flyer power-play specialist Keith Yandle. Philadelphia, for better or worse, has Stanley Cup aspirations this season, thus York is starting in the AHL. He should be the first recall when an injury occurs.

Morgan Frost

Position: Center
Height:
6’0
Weight:
180 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 1st Round (27th overall), 2017 NHL Draft

Frost has been up and down since being selected 27th overall in 2017. He played just two games a season ago due to injury, so it’s far from a shock he is looking at some more time in the AHL. Frost is an offensive player. He tallied 221 points in 115 games over the course of his final two OHL campaigns and had 29 points in 41 AHL games two seasons ago. I’m not sure how he’s going to help the Flyers if he isn’t putting up points, but there’s top-six offensive upside here.

Tyson Foerster

Position: Right Wing
Height:
6’2
Weight:
194 lbs
Shoots:
Right
Draft: 1st Round (23rd overall), 2020 NHL Draft

Philadelphia’s decision to spend the No. 23 overall pick in 2020 on Foerster (pictured) was a little rich for my blood, but the early returns are positive. He spent last season in the AHL due to the cancellation of the OHL campaign, and was effective, posting 10 goals and 17 points in 24 games. Armed with a big shot, Foerster won’t turn 20 years of age until January. I’m interested in seeing how he performs in a full AHL campaign.

Samu Tuomaala

Position: Right Wing
Height:
5’10
Weight:
180 lbs
Shoots:
Right
Draft: 2nd Round (46th overall), 2021 NHL Draft

It’s rare for a top European prospect to pick the AHL over one of several overseas elite leagues, but Tuomaala’s decision seems to make sense when you consider how he can play physical and also excelled in tight-checking affairs in Finland. It’ll be tough for him to unseat Lehigh Valley’s seasoned wing prospects for prime situations, but you have to think the Flyers consider Tuomaala’s initial stint in the AHL as the beginning of a long-term development process. His one-timer is a deadly asset, however, so it’s not out of the question to see him used on either the first or second power-play unit.


Sleeper

Samuel Ersson, GK

One of the best young goalies in Sweden’s SHL a season ago, Ersson was the undisputed No. 1 for Brynas and delivered a clutch performance in the “Play Out” series that helped his team avoid relegation to the lower division. He’s making his North American debut with Lehigh Valley but will have battle fellow countryman Felix Sandstrom for the Phantoms’ No. 1 job. Ersson, who just turned 22, was drafted in the fifth round (143rd overall) in the 2018 draft and has suited up for Sweden at several under-20 tournaments.

Providence Bruins (BOS)

2021-22 Roster

Jack Studnicka

Position: Center
Height:
6’1
Weight:
195 lbs
Shoots:
Right
Draft: 2nd Round (53rd overall), 2017 NHL Draft

I realized it’s not easy given the depth of their roster, but I would have liked to see the NHL Bruins find room for Studnicka (pictured) in some form or fashion. He managed just three points in 20 NHL games a season ago, but Studnicka was one of Boston’s best players throughout the duration of training camp and seems primed to that that next step. Fans in Boston should expect to hear from Studnicka before the year is finished.

Jakub Lauko

Position: Left Wing
Height:
6’0
Weight:
184 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 3rd Round (77th overall), 2018 NHL Draft

Lauko was named to the Atlantic Division All-Star team a season ago after posting five goals and 19 points in 23 games, while also finishing with a plus-11 rating. Lauko might not produce enough offensively to fit into a top-six role for Boston, but he skates extremely well and his work ethic is stellar, making him an ideal role player for the parent Bruins.

Urho Vaakanainen

Position: Defense
Height:
6’1
Weight:
200 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 1st Round (18th overall), 2017 NHL Draft

Vaakanainen is one of several Bruins prospects who’s already tasted NHL but will be destined for yet another full season with the Baby B’s. Drafted 18th overall in 2017, the Finnish native will dress for his fourth AHL season after he split 2020-21 between the minors and SaiPa in the SM-Liiga. He’s big, smooth, and rangy with an active stick, but it’s doubtful Vaakanainen ever develops into a point producer or power-play threat at the NHL level.


Sleeper

Kyle Keyser, GK

Once a spare piece for the Baby B’s with some ECHL time mixed in over each of the last two seasons, Keyser appears to have jumped all Bruins’ goalie prospects to claim the No. 1 job in Providence. Signed by the Bruins as an undrafted free agent after a stellar career with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, Keyser has stopped 38 of 41 shots over his first two games this season, including a 19-save shutout of Bridgeport in the season opener. Boston addressed vacancies in goal by signing Linus Ullmark in the offseason and promoting Jeremy Swayman, but it’s not out of the question that Keyser gets called up several times this season in between his starter’s role in Providence.

Springfield Thunderbirds (STL)

2021-22 Roster

Scott Perunovich

Position: Defense
Height:
5’10
Weight:
185 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 2nd Round (45th overall), 2018 NHL Draft

Perunovich (pictured) should be in the NHL immediately, but it’s difficult to argue with the Blues’ assessment to send him down considering he missed the entirety of the 2020-21 campaign due to shoulder surgery. He was great in preseason and I expect him to dominate the AHL and force a recall in short order. Throughout their respective college careers, Perunovich always reminded me of a left-handed Adam Fox. That’s a strong comp right now considering Fox has become arguably the best defenseman in the NHL in short order, but I was that high on him during his time at Minnesota-Duluth. We’ll see if he can live up to those lofty expectations.

Joel Hofer

Position: Goalie
Height:
6’3
Weight:
160 lbs
Catches:
Left
Draft: 4th Round (107th overall), 2018 NHL Draft

The organization’s top goalie prospect within the league’s deepest pool of netminders, Hofer should be Springfield’s undisputed No. 1 for the 2021-22 campaign. He appeared in 10 games for Utica last season, posting 4-6-0 mark and an .898 save percentage on 303 shots faced, but Hofer is known more for his elite play in the WHL and backstopping Canada to a gold medal at the 2020 under-20 world junior hockey championship. It’s imperative for Hofer to make his mark in the AHL, as the Blues have several quality goalies looking to overtake him on the prospect depth chart.

Nikita Alexandrov

Position: Center
Height:
6’0
Weight:
185 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 2nd Round (62nd overall), 2019 NHL Draft

A puck magnet with a deadly shot, Alexandrov is a streaky scorer who can take over games and serve in a variety of roles. He spent most of the 2020-21 season with KooKoo in the Finnish SM-Liiga, where he notched nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) in 28 games before joining Utica for a few weeks. Although he’s only appeared in nine AHL games through Oct. 20, Alexandrov has recorded five goals and seven points. He should be a top-line player and central figure on the Thunderbirds’ deadly power play


Sleeper

Tyler Tucker, LHD

A seventh-round pick (200th overall) of the Blues in 2018, Tucker was a No. 1 defenseman for both Barrie and Flint in the OHL before he made his AHL debut for Utica a season ago. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, Tucker can be a punishing open-ice hitter and crease-clearer. He produced only 7 points (1 goal, 6 assists) in 27 games as a rookie in 2020-21, but Tucker showed flashes of puck carrying and playmaking that were consistent during his major junior days. On paper, Tucker appears buried on the Blues’ depth chart so another full AHL season on a top or middle pairing is the most likely outcome for him in 2021-22.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (PIT)

2021-22 Roster

Samuel Poulin

Position: Left Wing
Height:
6’2
Weight:
213 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 1st Round (21st overall), 2019 NHL Draft

The Penguins have had arguably the worst prospect pool in the NHL for nearly a decade, but Poulin is legit and a back-end top 100 guy. Although it’s doubtful he’d be considered the best prospect for other NHL clubs, Poulin plays a complete game and contributes on and off the puck. Poulin, who finished his QMJHL career with 229 points in 192 games, may not be the kind of player who will drive offense at the NHL level, but I see no reason why he eventually can’t flank Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and pot 20 goals a few years in a row.

Filip Hallander

Position: Right Wing
Height:
6’1
Weight:
196 lbs
Shoots:
Left
Draft: 2nd Round (58th overall), 2018 NHL Draft

The Penguins like Hallander — who they drafted 58th overall in 2018 — so much, that they reacquired him from Toronto this past July after originally shipping him north in the deal that bought Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh. The Swede spent the past three years in the SHL, posting 13 goals and 24 points in 51 games a season ago. The Pens aren’t exactly flush with forward depth, so Hallander should be a recall candidate if he gets off to a fast start.

Nathan Legare

Position: Right Wing
Height:
6’0
Weight:
208 lbs
Shoots:
Right
Draft: 3rd Round (78th overall), 2019 NHL Draft

A fellow QMJHL graduate, Legare will also be making his AHL debut this season. A third-round pick of Pittsburgh (74th overall) in 2019, Legare has a lightning-quick release and good offensive instincts but is limited by a lack of speed. He might be a better offensive player than Poulin, but Legare’s heavy skating stride is enough to give Poulin the long-term edge.


Sleeper

Valtteri Puustinen, RW

The Pens are no strangers to trading their most valuable draft picks to help fuel Stanley Cup runs, but their later-round selections are starting to develop nicely. Although Puustinen is a smallish former seventh-rounder (203rd overall) from the 2019 NHL draft, his creativity, dynamism and finesse are rare traits for most prospects within Pittsburgh’s pipeline. Having pure skill is one thing, but Puustinen’s hockey sense is evident from shift to shift, as was the case during his last two seasons in Finland in which he was one of HPK’s top scorers despite being one of the younger players on the roster.

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