As days continue to pass, we inch closer and closer to the reality of no more professional hockey in 2019-20. There are bigger things to worry about, of course, but it’ll be disappointing to see such a fantastic year of AHL hockey – highlighted by a host of top prospects making their marks on the league – end on such an unfortunate note, especially when this season will also be the last for longtime AHL president Dave Andrews.
At the very least, we can look back fondly on the talent the league has produced this season. While the AHL is often dominated by veterans or bubble players whose shot at full-time NHL work is fading or slim to begin with, many of the league’s top players this season were either rookies or sophomores preparing to make the jump to the NHL in 2020-21. That’s promising because at a time where teams often like to shoehorn players into a lineup before they’re ready, we saw many teams take a patient approach with their young guns.
A few of the players listed below have already had a shot at NHL action, but all of them have a legitimate shot at becoming full-timers in the NHL next season. Here’s a look at 10 AHL standouts and NHL prospects who could be major players next season:
Igor Shesterkin, G, 24 (NY Rangers)
Shesterkin proved in a 12-game stretch why he’s been touted as the goalie of the future in the Big Apple for more than half a decade. He posted a 10-2-0 record in those dozen games, and his .931 save percentage and 3.95 goals-saved above average at 5-on-5 put him among the best goaltenders since Jan. 1 despite sharing the net with Alexandar Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist. Since becoming a full-time pro in 2016-17, Shesterkin has lost just 18 of his 121 contests between the NHL, AHL and KHL. No goaltending prospect has been as dominant in that span. Shesterkin has nothing left to prove in the AHL and is ready to dethrone ‘King Henrik’ in the Rangers’ crease.
Owen Tippett, RW, 21 (Florida)
Tippett made the Panthers out of training camp in 2017-18 but failed to find his footing in his seven-game stint. Two seasons later, Tippett finally became a full-time pro and was one of the AHL’s most electrifying rookies, scoring 19 goals and totalling 40 points in 46 games prior to the league shutdown – good for first on Springfield and eighth among all rookies. Tippett, a pure goal scorer, worked on some of the deficiencies in his game and has become more well-rounded. Tippett should get his chance to seize a top-six role as soon as a spot opens up in Florida. And given there were rumors surrounding Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov at the deadline, Tippett’s opportunity could come soon.
Henrik Borgstrom, C, 22 (Florida)
Borgstrom played 50 games with the Panthers in 2018-19, which made him a surprising omission from the opening-night roster. But that’s fine, because while a move to the AHL was a definite step down for a talented player, it allowed Borgstrom to work on other aspects of his game. Injuries limited his action in Springfield and he couldn’t find any consistency in a four-game run with the Panthers, but the team still has faith that he’ll be a contributor in the near future. It could be do-or-die for Borgstrom if he’s serious about making a long-term impact on a team searching for a seat at the playoff table, but he’s got the talent to be an everyday NHLer.
Evan Bouchard, D, 20 (Edmonton)
Bouchard was passed by Ethan Bear in the Oilers’ depth chart this season, leaving some wondering when Bouchard would be ready for the big time after failing to crack the parent club’s roster at any point during the season. Fortunately, Bouchard’s status as a top prospect hasn’t changed: he’s still going to be a valuable defenseman, he just needed some extra time. Bouchard, the top scoring defenseman during his four-year run in the OHL, was third in scoring among rookie defensemen in the AHL this season and represented Bakersfield at the all-star game in January. In terms of on-ice play, Bouchard is comparable to Tony DeAngelo, and given DeAngelo’s rise this season, that’s a good thing.
Erik Brannstrom, D, 20 (Ottawa)
Brannstrom won’t technically be a rookie next season after spending 31 games with the Senators this season, but he was sent down to the AHL on Jan. 3 and never made his way back up. The Senators liked what they saw from Brannstrom, but injuries and inconsistent play hurt the explosion many expected this season. It’s a minor setback for Brannstrom, but the mobile, two-way defender is ready for the show next year.
Josh Norris, C, 20 (Ottawa)
Sticking with the Senators, Norris needed just one season to prove he’s ready for the NHL. At the time of the league lockdown, Norris was leading all AHL rookies with 31 goals and 61 points. The leading candidate for the AHL’s rookie of the year, Norris was acquired in the deal that sent Erik Karlsson to San Jose and, early on, the former NCAA forward has looked like a star in the making. Norris is a high-volume shooter, attacks both ends of the ice and can be relied upon to get the job done with and without the puck. Added bonus? Norris and Senators teammate Brady Tkachuk are good friends. There’s the possibility for instant chemistry.
Morgan Frost, C, 20 (Philadelphia)
Frost had a pair of call-ups this season and even had a few shots in the top six, but he struggled to adjust to the NHL game immediately. His big-league run started off with goals in his first two games, but he failed to find twine in his next 16 games and was demoted to the AHL in the final days of December. Frost, a two-time 100-point forward in the OHL, altered his style as the season went on and showed he can handle the pro transition. Depending on who you talk to, Frost could benefit from another year in the AHL, but it’s hard to think he’d last long before earning another shot in Philly.
Jack Studnicka, C, 21 (Boston)
Providence was one of the best teams in the AHL this season, and no other baby Bruin had the impact that Studnicka did as a rookie. In 60 games, Studnicka had 23 goals (fourth among all AHL freshmen) and 49 points (third) and had a 10-point cushion over veteran Paul Carey for the Bruins’ team lead. Studnicka played all situations for Providence this season and faced a heavy workload each night, so the big club knows they’re getting a hard-working, two-way force that will add depth in the middle six for years to come.
Jesper Boqvist, LW, 21 (New Jersey)
The plan was for Boqvist to factor into New Jersey’s middle-six this season, but he struggled mightily, scoring just four points in 35 games before a demotion to AHL Binghamton. Once in the minors, Boqvist found his game again, recording eight goals and 11 points in 19 games as one of the baby Devils’ best wingers during that span. New Jersey is still in full rebuild mode and wasting a talented goal-scorer’s potential by limiting his ice time wasn’t going to work, so that taste of AHL action could be a big benefit for his career.
Conor Timmins, D, 21 (Colorado)
A 16-month battle with concussion symptoms, including a complete lost season in 2018-19, put a damper on Timmins’ potential as a top prospect, but the former OHL star rebounded in a big way in 2019-20. He was still limited to 40 games with the Colorado Eagles, but Timmins had 27 points after starting the season in the NHL. The Eagles gave Timmins a chance to play heavy minutes and while a crowded blueline with the big club means he won’t be thrust into a big role in the NHL next season, having a player of his caliber, and one with something to prove, further down the lineup can pay serious dividens.
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