William Nylander (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Montreal’s Bud Holloway, who is second in the AHL in scoring with 20 points, made his NHL debut Sunday night. But the Canadiens center is just one of several players who are ready to make the jump to the NHL this season.
After years bouncing around the minor leagues and Europe, Bud Holloway got his first call up to the NHL Sunday. Holloway was an easy choice to fill in for the Canadiens once Devante Smith-Pelley went down with injury, and he’s one of several AHLers who look like they could make the jump to NHL duty this season.
Before coming to the NHL, Holloway had tallied five goals and 20 points in 18 games for the St. John’s IceCaps, and he was no stranger to being a top scorer. During the 2012-13 Swedish League season, Holloway was the league’s MVP with a 20-goal, 71-point campaign. Whether he translates that to the NHL is to be seen, but Holloway could have very easily been on a list of AHL talent ready to make the jump.
With Holloway in the NHL for now, here are five other AHL players who could be making an impact this season:
5. Michael Mersch, Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings)
It might seem too soon for Mersch to make the jump, but the 23-year-old keeps scoring at a rate that must be making Kings fans salivate. Through 14 games this season, Mersch has nine goals, which isn’t too far off his scoring pace in the post-season last campaign when he potted 13 goals in 18 playoff game en route to a Calder Cup championship.
Mersch was a fourth-round pick, 110th overall, of the Kings in 2011 and he’s been a consistent goal scorer in his two seasons in the AHL. In his first full professional season in 2014-15, Mersch scored 22 goals and 45 points. Mersch mustered 223 attempts on net last season, good for the eighth-most in the AHL. He’s got a knack for the net and the goal-hungry Kings could use some depth scoring.
4. Stephen Johns, Texas Stars (Dallas Stars)
Johns was a big component in the deal between the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks in the off-season that saw Patrick Sharp head to Texas. Thought to be a top prospect for the Blackhawks, Johns seemed like a lock to challenge for a second- or third-pairing spot on the blueline for the Stars. Instead, he was headed to the AHL to start the campaign.
But Johns is making noise on the blueline in Texas. Through 17 games, he’s on pace to best his career high of four goals and 21 points which came in 2014-15. Already Johns has one goal and eight points. The Stars blueline has improved this season, but Johns has potential to come up and fill in as a bottom-pairing defenseman in Dallas. He was brought in for his potential and, if given a shot, could even further bolster the Stars back end as they challenge for a Central Division title.
3. Connor Hellebuyck, Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets)
An injury to Ondrej Pavelec has Hellebuyck up with the Jets right now, and it could be the opportunity the former NCAA standout needs to show he’s the future between the pipes for Winnipeg. Hellebuyck was stellar in his first professional season in the AHL in 2014-15 and, while the wins haven’t been coming, things could be even worse for the Moose were Hellebuyck not playing as well as he has been.
If Pavelec is out for an extended period of time and Hellebuyck can outperform Michael Hutchinson, it could vault Hellebuyck into the conversation for starting duties or at least a platoon role. Hutchinson’s deal is up at the end of the season and you’d be hard-pressed to find a starting goaltender more maligned than Pavelec.
2. Nick Cousins, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers)
Cousins is entering his third season in the AHL and continues to improve. After a 22-goal, 56-point season in 2014-15, Cousins is on pace to smash that this season. Cousins already has 18 points in 14 games and is on pace for 98 points in 2015-16. He was an incredibly productive player in the OHL and scored more than 1.5 points per game in his final season in major junior with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
The Flyers have the league’s least productive offense, and they could use just about anything to give them a boost. Philadelphia has been shutout in three of their past six games including back-to-back blankings at the hands of San Jose and Ottawa. Cousins has enough playmaking ability that he could spark the Flyers offense and offer up some depth scoring. Whether he gets the call up to the NHL is yet to be seen, however.
1. William Nylander, Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs)
Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas told Sportsnet’s Dean Blundell that the plan was for the team’s top prospects to “master” the AHL, but it looks like Nylander already has. Nylander very well could have been in the NHL to start the season, and he’s showing why through 17 games with the Marlies this season.
Nylander has already amassed 10 goals and 23 points, and he’s more than halfway to besting his 14-goal, 32-point season from 2014-15. Nylander proved his ability to play with the men in 2014-15, too, scoring 20 points in 21 games with Swedish League club MODO.
At 19, he could very well be the most offensively gifted player the Maple Leafs have — and that includes their NHL roster. If Nylander makes the jump, he’ll be an immediate impact player. In four pre-season games, he mustered one goal and two points and proved he can hang in the NHL. Now, he just needs the chance.