Mikko Rantanen (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
The AHL will be streaming the league’s All-Star Challenge on its website. Fans tuning into the game should pay attention to five young stars who could be headlining NHL All-Star Games in the future.
Fans will be watching Nashville this weekend as the some of the world’s greatest players gather for the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, but hockey fans looking to watch some great up-and-coming talent can tune into AHL’s skills competition Sunday and All-Star Challenge Monday.
The events, which will in large part mirror those of the NHL, will give fans the opportunity to see talents who could be breaking into the big league in a few season’s time. Best of all, there’s no reason not to be able to watch the game, either, as Canada’s Sportsnet and 25 regional networks in the United States will be carrying both Sunday’s skills competition and the mini-tournament Monday evening. And for fans without access, the league is offering a free stream of the All-Star Challenge. By going to AHLLive.com Monday evening, fans can access the broadcasts by entering in ‘ASC2016’ as a promotional code.
Unlike the NHL, which has gone full 3-on-3 for its All-Star Game, the AHL has decided to change the format up to increase action at the tail-end of the games. Four teams — one from each the Atlantic, North, Central and Pacific divisions — will play a six-game round-robin. Games will last nine minutes with play switching from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 at the midway mark of each game. The top two teams when round robin play concludes will square off in the final — a six-minute, 3-on-3 game.
The AHL all-star weekend has, in the past, featured players such as Patrice Bergeron, Logan Couture, Tyler Johnson, Gustav Nyquist, Tuukka Rask, Cory Schneider, Patrick Sharp and P.K. Subban, so if you need more reason to watch, it could be your chance at watching a few future NHL all-stars before they make their climb to the NHL.
Here are five players to keep your eye on:
Seth Griffith, Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins)
The 23-year-old has already shown that he can dazzle at the NHL level, but you can always check out this clip if you forgot his ridiculous tally against the New Jersey Devils in 2014-15. Griffith was a late pick of the Bruins, taken in the fifth-round, 131st overall in 2012, and he got a 30-game stint with Boston last season. His six goals and 10 points were respectable, but it seems he’s found another gear this season in the AHL.
In 34 games, Griffith has 13 goals and 41 points and is third in league scoring, but he’s only two points back of T.J. Brennan and Chris Bourque, both of whom have played at least seven more games than Griffith. The only knock on Griffith could be his size — he’s 5-foot-9, 192 pounds — but in a league that’s increasingly about skill over size, he could very well make his mark as a playmaking winger.
Brandon Montour, San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks)
Montour left the NCAA last season when the season concluded and signed his three-year entry-level deal with the Ducks and his offensive upside was evident immediately. In 14 games to finish off the 2014-15 campaign, Montour scored one goal and 10 points and he hasn’t slowed down since the move to San Diego with the Ducks’ affiliate.
Montour has six goals and 32 points in 38 games. He’s flown under the radar given how Shea Theodore has been playing with the Ducks, but Montour has been mighty impressive. He was the USHL’s top defenseman and MVP in 2013-14, which led to him being selected 55th overall in 2014. If he keeps this up, he could be a 70-point blueliner in his rookie season in the AHL. That’s a good start to a professional career.
Anthony Stolarz, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers)
Drafted in the second round, 45th overall, Stolarz didn't have a great first season as a pro. In 31 games, he went 9-13-0 with two shutouts, a 3.28 goals-against average, .905 save percentage. He's been much improved in Year Two, though. Through 28 games, Stolarz has a 2.43 GAA, .916 SP and a 14-10-3 record.
In the new era of bigger, broader goaltenders, Stolarz perfectly fits the bill. He stands 6-foot-6 and covers a lot of net with his 210-pound frame. He's going to have to play out of his mind to unseat Flyers starter Steve Mason anytime over the next two seasons, but by the time Mason's deal is up before the 2017-18 season, Stolarz could make a play for the starting gig.
Mikko Rantanen, San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche)
After being taken 10th overall by the Avalanche this past June, Rantanen got a six-game stint with Colorado to begin the season, but he found himself in the AHL by Oct. 22. Since heading to the AHL, though, Rantanen has been one of the hottest players in the entire AHL. In 25 games, Rantanen has 13 goals and 31 points.
He’s only 19, but Rantanen is showing all the signs of being a solid top-six winger in the future. He was tremendous during Finland’s run to the gold medal at the world juniors where he scored two goals and five points. At 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, Rantanen already has the size to be a good power forward. If the rest of his game keeps following suit, the Avalanche may have a star on their hands.
William Nylander, Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs)
The hype train for Nylander came to a temporary stop when he was concussed at the world juniors, but it’s right back to full speed as the All-Star Classic nears. When Nylander is on top of his game, there may not be a better player in the entire AHL this season. In 27 games, he has 14 goals and 34 points, and the 19-year-old is 14th in the AHL in scoring. He’s only nine points back of the scoring lead and he’s more than a dozen games back of the scoring leaders. Nylander’s scoring pace in the AHL is no fluke, either. It’s the real deal. He had 14 goals and 32 points in 37 games after coming over to the Marlies in January 2015.
Nylander’s unlikely to move up to the NHL this season but it’s not crazy to think he, like the Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin this season, could make the NHL All-Star Game as a rookie in 2016-17.
Honorable Mention: Matt Murray, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Murray’s 2014-15 season was almost too good to be true. It’s not that he posted a great 25-10-1 record last season as a rookie, but it’s that he posted a remarkable 12 shutouts, 1.58 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. He was named the AHL’s best goaltender and best rookie in his first professional season.
Murray hasn’t stumbled this season, though. Through 25 games, he ranks second in the AHL’s goaltending list, has four shutouts, 1.97 GAA, .933 SP and a 16-8-0 record. He even got a taste of the NHL this season, and he didn’t look the slightest bit out of place. In four outings, he didn’t once allow more than two goals and finished his brief AHL stint with a 2-1-1 record, 1.72 GAA and .938 SP. At 21, he looks like the goaltender of the future for Pittsburgh.
Murray was originally a part of the list, but has since been removed from the roster and Portland Pirates goaltender Mike McKenna will play in his place. The league announced the change Thursday afternoon.