Handicapping AHL’s Western Conference Playoff Race

As of Tuesday, the American Hockey League’s Western Conference playoff picture remains a muddled mess. With 14 games or less left on every team’s schedule just five points separate fifth place Abbotsford from tenth place San Antonio (Chicago is in third also with 75 points). In between the Rampage and Heat are a Ben Bishop-less Peoria, a free-falling Charlotte, a Eastern Conference schedule dominant Rochester and Lake Erie. Four points further below San Antonio are Milwaukee and Grand Rapids with a hard charging Rockford only another point back.

Therefore, things will change a lot in the coming weeks as teams fight for the West’s final playoff spots. But now is as good a time as any to evaluate the bubble and predict which teams will play for the Calder Cup and which teams should dust off their golf clubs.

First I will start with some assumptions:

1) Oklahoma City and Toronto will make the playoffs. Both teams are currently comfortable, sitting high above the bubble line. Plus their NHL affiliates are unlikely to play postseason hockey, meaning the Barons and Marlies will have plenty of help.

2) Though, this might come back to bite me (especially with the Wolves), I am going to say that Houston and Chicago will also make the playoffs. The Aeros have a favorable home/road schedule coming home, while Chicago has a great goals for/goals against ratio. Both teams pass the “eye test” as far as what counts for a playoff team.

3) On the other end of the spectrum Hamilton and Texas have too large a hill to climb. Both teams stand 10 or more points out and that’s simply too much of a gap to cover in the final weeks of the season.

So who gets in to the Calder Cup playoffs and who does not?

I have these three teams as playoff bound:

Peoria (12 Games Remaining, 35-26-2-1–73 pts.): Despite the recent trades of Brett Sterling and Ben Bishop, the Rivermen remain loaded for a playoff run. Earlier in the season Peoria underachieved with its veteran-laden roster, but this has been a different team in the second half. Plus Peoria’s affiliate St. Louis is healthy, playoff-bound and seems likely to grab the number one position in the NHL’s Western Conference. At least until the NHL playoffs, the Rivermen should remain well-stocked.

Rochester (13 GR, 31-23-6-3–71 pts.): I see Rochester as almost a shoe-in to make the playoffs for the simple reason that the Americans play an incredibly favorable schedule to close their season. Left on the slate are 3 games with Syracuse (9th place East), 1 game with Albany (11th place East), 1 game with Adirondack (13th place East), 1 game with Binghamton (worst record in the AHL), plus a game at Hamilton. The Amerks will likely get into the playoffs even if they only win a game or two against the Western Conference the rest of the way.

Charlotte (14 GR, 32-22-3-5–72 pts.): The Checkers ran into a buzz saw over the weekend against Norfolk to fall to just 2-4-1-3 in their last 10 games. The schedule doesn’t get any easier down the stretch with 4 games with Peoria, two with Abbotsford and two with Hershey (plus 3 with Milwaukee). The lone positive is that though coach Kirk Muller is guiding the Carolina Hurricanes on last ditch playoff run, the Checkers’ NHL affiliate will likely fall short. Therefore, for the end of the season Charlotte will likely load up with youngsters to try to gain them some Calder Cup playoff experience.

I see these four teams falling just short:

MILWAUKEE (14 GR, 31-27-2-2–66 pts.): It’s hard to swallow this one, but barring a late winning streak, the Admirals will fall just short of the playoffs. Much of this has to do with the team’s NHL affiliate Nashville, taking many of Milwaukee’s key pieces during the season, while not sending a whole lot back in return. Combine that with the fact that the Predators frequently traded away draft picks over the past couple of seasons, meant that the Admirals needed another year of overachieving. For the first half of the year Milwaukee did exactly that, but reality has set in so far in the season’s second half.

Grand Rapids (14 GR, 28-24-6-4–66 pts.): Kudos to Grand Rapids for their recent play and their recent affiliation extension agreement with Detroit. However, with the Red Wings riddled with injuries and needing healthy bodies to make sure on the playoffs, I just don’t see Grand Rapids getting much stretch run help. Therefore, the Griffins will fall short.

Rockford (12 GR, 29-28-2-5–65 pts.): Hard to believe a team that has won 7 of 9 games against Milwaukee will not make the playoffs, but Ice Hogs simply started out too slow this season. Like the New Jersey Devils a year ago, Rockford got really hot in the second half and made a huge push for the playoffs, but at some point the Ice Hogs will come back to reality. It doesn’t help that Chicago has borrowed Rockford’s players left and right, and that will likely continue toward the end of the season, torpedoing a miracle playoff birth.

Lake Erie (11 GR, 32-26-3-4–71 points): It was a tough call on the Monsters, but every bubble opponent with the exception of Abbotsford has games in hand on the Cleveland natives and that will likely do in Lake Erie in the end. It doesn’t help that out of nowhere NHL affiliate Colorado is making a playoff run of its own, depleting an already roster-shortened Monsters squad. Overall, it’s amazing that Lake Erie came this close considering the overall talent the team had available.

And my final playoff spot goes to:

Abbotsford (10 GR, 34-25-3-4–75 pts.): Despite having the fewest games left of any playoff contender on its schedule, Abbotsford should be in as a playoff team. Of those 10 games remaining, eight are at home at a rink two time zones away from its nearest opponent. What works against the Heat is that NHL affiliate Calgary is still clinging onto dim playoff hopes, which won’t help stock Abbotsford’s roster. However, I see the Heat slotting in at the eighth spot giving Oklahoma City a travel nightmare in the first round.

If Abbotsford lost last night to Texas, I would have swapped them with my final team out which is:

San Antonio (13 GR, 33-26-3-1–70 pts.): A few weeks ago I said the Rampage were a soft playoff team (in sixth place at the time). Since that point San Antonio has slipped ever so slightly, down to currently just a point out of the playoffs. The Rampage have a strong blend of youngsters and quality veterans, but what will hurt in the end is that NHL affiliate Florida is a playoff contender for the first time in over a decade. In the end Nolan Yonkman (team-leading +15) and company will fall just short.

So Roundtable: What are your AHL Western Conference playoff predictions? Which teams do you have playing postseason hockey and which teams are you counting out?

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10 Responses to Handicapping AHL’s Western Conference Playoff Race

  1. I’m not quite in the Ads are Done Club yet, but my playoff hopes are on life support…

  2. “the Admirals will fall just short of the playoffs. Much of this has to do with the team’s NHL affiliate Nashville, taking many of Milwaukee’s key pieces during the season, while not sending a whole lot back in return”

    I disagree with this statement. Nashville really only made two major moves that affected the Admirals (1) calling up and keeping Bourque and (2) calling up and keeping Ellis. Nashville sent us talented players in return (Blum, Geoffrion, Laakso) who just happened to not “show up” as good as they should have in the AHL (and actually Laakso has been playing well, that statement is more towards Blum/Geoffrion). We also had a few injuries to some key players at different points throughout the season that has affected the team. To blame Nashville for our team’s problems I think is incorrect.

  3. Griffin says:

    The interesting thing here for me is that both Bourque and Ellis, who seem to be receiving rave reviews in Nashville, weren’t that great for us when in town. Bourque’s production was extremely low although I suppose his energy brought a certain something each night. And Ellis was hot and cold at best while here. Now, would I love to have them back now, sure. But, at least in my eyes, they both underachieved while playing for the Admirals this year.

  4. adsfan says:

    Milwaukee has a 10% chance for 8th place and a 1 in 3 chance of making the playoffs. The two losses to Rockford killed them. I think a Western Conference team will need at least 86 points to make the playoffs. In decreasing order of making the playoffs.

    In: OKC, Toronto, Peoria, Houston, Rochester,

    Bubble teams: Chicago, Charlotte, SA and LEM.

    Out of playoffs: Abby, Milwaukee, GR,

    Dead: Rockford, Hamilton and Texas.

  5. Ryan says:

    I’m with Creed and Griffin….. I don’t think we can blame Nashville for it. And I’m not sure about the overachieving bit either….in previous years or this one.

    I think Aaron Sims hit it nicely on the head in his blog post….too many regulation losses, not enough OT/SO losses to get some extra points like other teams in the conference have.

  6. Jason Karnosky says:

    Obviously, its difficult to sum up why I predict that Milwaukee will miss the playoffs in a five-sentence paragraph. To solely blame what I wrote is clearly incorrect, but I tried to point out on most of my evaluations the effect each team’s parent club had/has on their AHL affiliate.
    But if/when the Admirals end up mathematically eliminated, we will get plenty of chances to tell our sides of that story.

    However, in response to the comments I will point up the call up of Chris Mueller a few times, plus Roman Josi’s fulltime call up to go along with Laakso, Bourque and Ellis.

    Ryan, I ask you to dig deeper into Milwaukee’s roster. Look for first/second round draft picks by the Predators. Here they are: Jon Blum, 1st, 2007; Jeremy Smith, 2nd, 2007 (Chet Pickard 1st round 2008). Otherwise its made up of a lot of of 3rd round or deeper players. To say Milwaukee didn’t overachieve in the first half is somewhat absurd. Yes, you can win with these kinds of players, but most AHL teams feature more pure talent than Milwaukee. (By the way, Nashville’s last two drafts: Zero first round picks in 2011, zero second round picks in 2010. Next year: zero first round draft picks and I believe zero second round picks).

    But I will give you credit for the fact that Aaron Sims is absolutely right on his assessment of lost points. Last season those “bonus” overtime/shootout points were crucial in forging Milwaukee’s place in the standings. This season, they are few and far between.

  7. Griffin says:

    I do agree with the ‘overachiever’ label with regard to draft picks Jason. Our best player this year, and perhaps last, has been Chris Mueller. The kid wasn’t even drafted. And the promising draft picks they do have-Ellis, Craig Smith, McLellen have bypassed the ole ‘the road to Nashville goes thru Milwaukee’ mantra by being handed a spot on the roster without barely, or ever, pulling on an Admirals jersey. This really bugs me, especially with the amount of forwards carried by Nashville this season.

  8. Ryan says:

    I’m not seeing a good correlation between homegrown draft picks and whether the team over or under achieves.

    Peoria has only three St. Louis second rounders on their roster. No first rounders. Are they overachieving right now?

    Phil McRae (7th in scoring)
    Brett Ponich (21st in scoring)
    Jake Allen

    Darren Haydar was a 9th round pick. And he owns 8,000 AHL records.
    Martin Erat was 7th round, and he’s leading the Preds in scoring.
    Pekka Rinne was an 8th rounder.

    Championship year….Going down the scoring leaders list….the first name that was a first or second round draft pick was Timofei Shishkanov, the 8th leading scorer on the team. (incidentally, he finished this season in the KHL playing on the same team as Jonas Andersson and Janne Niskala)

    Good players can come in all rounds. They don’t need to be blue-chippers for a team to do well. It’s nice, but not a pre-requisite for success. You are certainly welcome to argue over-achieving over the years….but I’ll still disagree….the track record over the last 8 seasons really speaks for itself.

  9. Jason Karnosky says:

    Ryan, we shall agree to disagree.

    Glad you pulled up Peoria as an example. To go along with Phil McRae, Brett Ponich and Jake Allen, lets add T. J. Hensick and Jonathan Cheechoo. It was rediculous that Hensick was a 3rd round draftee for Colorado. The guy completely dominated Division 1 college hockey for four seasons (no less than 46 points per year). Jonathan Cheechoo was a second rounder for the Sharks, who just happens to own an NHL goal scoring title to his credit (56 in a season in the show, yes that was alongside Joe Thornton in his prime, but seriously 56 goals is SIGNIFICANT). You can add Ben Bishop, who was the best player in the AHL for much of the season (selected in the third round), and now looks destined for lengthy NHL career. Personally, I thought Peoria underachieved for much of the first half of the season.

    Milwaukee non-home grownees? Juuso Puustinen, fifth-round Calgary. Kyle Wilson, ninth-round Minnesota. Only Zack Stortini and Brodie Dupont fit the mold of 3rd round picks with other organizations, and Stortini was NOT drafted for his elite scoring touch and Dupont was an injury cast away from New York only playing a part of season with Milwaukee this year.

    Yes, the Admirals have a remarkable record of finding diamonds in the rough of the draft and in free agency. Props to Paul Fenton and David Poile for that, and certainly that has made a big difference if keeping the Admirals elite over the years. But to say Milwaukee is stocked with some of the top “pure” talent in the AHL is simply wrong, hence the overachieving label.

    The Admirals are hard-working, blue collar club much like Nashville and the organization prides itself on that aspect. Both teams have proven they can win that way. But Milwaukee features just one player in the top 30 in the league in scoring (Chris Mueller 28th) and only two in the top-50 (Kyle Wilson 49th). And remember some potential players who would be on that list only spent half or less of the season with their AHL clubs before moving up to the NHL. The only Admirals players who fit that category are Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Gabriel Bourque, and none of those three would likely be in the top-50 even if they played a full season with Milwaukee. I will give you that Blake Geoffrion and Roman Josi were top two-round draft picks, but their contributions with the Admirals this season were insignificant at best.

  10. Ouch! says:

    Define overachieve, please.

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