Future Watch: The AHL’s under-20 all-stars

0
81


He’s in the right city, but not on the right team.

With Travis Dermott on the sidelines, Rasmus Sandin made the Toronto Maple Leafs out of training camp and made his presence known, albeit in a minor role at times. His six-game stint had its ups and downs, as Sandin posted two assists while playing with Justin Holl on Toronto’s third pairing. But after 23 games and one coaching change, Holl is still with the big club. Sandin is not.

Holl is 27 and has been in the Leafs’ system for the past five years, so that’s not surprising. But Sandin proved last year that he could hang with the AHL’s elite and deserved a shot at the next level, so the demotion in October stung a little. But the top-pairing defenseman has done nothing but excel back with the Marlies, recording a point-per-game through nine contests as the Marlies’ most important blueliner.

Few AHLers make as big of an impact as Sandin has while still meeting the under-20 requirement. Martin Necas led all U-20 players with 52 points in Charlotte last year, with Filip Zadina, Eeli Tolvanen and Erik Brannstrom finishing in the 30-point range. In the past decade, only Mikko Rantanen (60 points in 2015-16), Kyle Palmeri (51 points in 2010-11) and Kevin Fiala (50 points in 2015-16) have broken the 50-point mark as U-20 players in the AHL.

Of course, very few U-20 players are allowed to participate in AHL games as it is. Just 13 U-20 players have participated in AHL games this year, and Kirby Dach, an 18-year-old rookie for the Chicago Blackhawks, was only allowed to play due to a conditioning stint. Due to agreements with the CHL, players who are assigned to Canadian major-junior teams are unable to play in the AHL until they’re 20, except in rare situations. This season, Grand Rapids’ Joe Veleno was permitted to play in the AHL after playing four years in the QMJHL after being granted exceptional status in 2015.

So, when a 19-year-old plays a pivotal role for an AHL team like Sandin has done for the Marlies, it’s notable. Here are five other U-20 players playing a key role for their respective AHL clubs this season:

Oliver Wahlstrom, RW (Bridgeport)
Now this is the Wahlstrom the New York Islanders envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2018 (11th overall). Wahlstrom struggled in the NCAA, recording just eight goals and 19 points as a freshman with Boston College before departing for the pro ranks. Wahlstrom earned a nine-game stint with the Islanders earlier in the season but failed to record a point, instead returning back to the AHL. With Bridgeport sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, Wahlstrom immediately jumped into an important top-six role and already looks like a seasoned veteran, posting seven points through nine games. Wahlstrom will be on Team USA’s top line at the World Junior Championship, and he’s tracking to hit 50 points as an AHL rookie. Not too shabby for someone who, if everything went to plan, would be sitting in a college classroom right now.

Simon Holmstrom, RW (Bridgeport)
Wahlstrom isn’t the only impactful U-20 player on the Sound Tigers this season. Since veteran Andrew Ladd was sent down to Bridgeport, five of Holmstrom’s six points have come in the past seven games. Having someone like Ladd, a former NHL captain with a handful of 50-plus point campaigns and two Stanley Cups under his belt, as a mentor has done wonders for Holmstrom, who is finally starting to look comfortable in his new home. A first-round pick in 2019 (23rd overall), Holmstrom’s high-end speed has been evident from the get-go and once he figures out how to utilize his game in tighter areas, he’ll emerge as a true NHL prospect.

Moritz Seider, D (Grand Rapids)
Detroit Red Wings fans who were upset about the team taking Seider in the first round in June (sixth overall) are quickly changing their tune. With eight points in 17 games, Seider has immediately found himself playing alongside Gustav Lindstrom on the Griffins’ top pairing on a team full of young talent. It’s nice to see Seider adjusting well to the North American game after showing promise in a limited role in the German league, leaving teams to question just how good he could possibly be. The 6-foot-3 defenseman will be Germany’s most important rearguard at the World Junior Championship next month, so it’ll be interesting to see if that mid-season break helps or hurts his play for the second half of the campaign.

Joe Veleno, C (Grand Rapids)
Veleno is a project that the Red Wings should be thrilled about. Sure, he’s the only player the QMJHL has ever granted exceptional status and the second player after Sean Day to earn the exclusive honor in the CHL to not make the NHL right away, but that’s completely OK. The Red Wings are still building towards the future and allowing Veleno to gel with other young guns in a similar position will have its benefits once the team is ready to contend. In his first 18 games of pro action, Veleno has eight points while starting to adjust his game to the more physical nature of the AHL. Yes, he’s being outperformed by guys like Seider and Filip Zadina, but learning from veterans such as Chris Terry and Matt Puempel on an offensively gifted club like Grand Rapids has allowed Veleno to become a more rounded two-way player. Patience is key with Veleno, who’ll be one of Canada’s most important players at the World Junior Championship next month.

Tobias Bjornfot, D (Ontario)
The Los Angeles Kings had one of the best drafts of any NHL team in 2019, landing Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev and Lukas Parik, among others. But Bjornfot was the only one who made the immediate jump to the NHL after going 22nd overall, earning a three-game stint to kick off the season. Since getting sent down to Ontario, Bjornfot has recorded six points in 12 games, putting him just a point behind AHL sophomore Kale Clague for the team lead in points by a defenseman. AHL ice-time statistics aren’t available publicly, but Bjornfot has played big minutes with Paul LaDue and hasn’t struggled to adjust to the smaller North American ice. He’s good enough to crack the Kings right now, but given the state of the franchise, it’s not a bad idea to let him figure things out with the Reign.

Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.