By Ben Raby
It’s arguably the biggest personal milestone in Sam Anas’ career. It just isn’t exactly how he drew it up. The Iowa Wild right winger was home in Maryland – two months removed from his last game – when he officially secured the AHL’s scoring title May 11. The news came over email as the AHL announced the cancelation of its season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it could always have a little bit of a remembrance that it was in the coronavirus season,” said Anas, who had a league-best 70 points in 63 games. “But in the end, it’s something pretty special I can look back on and really appreciate.”
For the fourth-year pro – a pending UFA still looking to make his NHL debut – the personal accolades are significant. With NHL teams potentially returning this summer with expanded rosters, the 26-year-old could earn his first call up.
“It’s something that’s in my head,” he said.
That possibility fuelled Anas in recent weeks as he remained in Iowa through the end of April, taking advantage of the flat terrain and rollerblading regularly. He also had a decent setup during quarantine, working out and lifting in a makeshift gym that Iowa’s strength coach John Odgers assembled in his garage.
“You just never know with how (the NHL) is going to come back and all the injuries that could happen,” Anas said. “But whether it’s one month from now, three months from now, next season, next January, no matter what, I’m going to give myself the best opportunity for someone to give me that chance.”
That process arguably began for Anas in the summer of 2019 when the foundation was laid for his breakthrough AHL season.
After undergoing hand surgery and missing nearly six weeks in 2018-19, the Quinnipiac alum altered his off-season program and returned to campus for two months. He rented a place with former college teammates Devon Toews and Chase Priskie and trained regularly with alums and coaches.
“He certainly did the work,” said Iowa coach Tim Army. “When a player has the type of year he had, there’s always a commitment and a focus. That was very evident as soon as he came into camp.”
Army leaned on Anas early in the year to shepherd rookies Nico Sturm and Brandon Duhaime. By late November, they formed Iowa’s most consistent trio. Eventually, Anas and Sturm were joined by Gerry Mayhew on a No. 1 line that did plenty of heavy lifting.
“That line was playing against the best line on the other team every night,” Army said. “We looked to that line to win that matchup night in and night out. That means not only producing but also defending. So, Sammy had my trust in the biggest minutes, in the biggest situations, and his game became more complete.”
For all that Anas accomplished this season, Army brings up his two empty-net goals among the highlights. They were the first two ENGs of Anas’ career, and his coach believes that says something about the improvements he’s made in his overall game.
“You cannot lead the American League in scoring and not be a well-rounded player,” Army said. “You can’t produce the way that he has without getting those minutes. You can’t just score on the power play and lead the league in scoring. You’ve got to be a good hockey player. Scoring those empty-net goals, it illustrates the kind of hockey he was playing. We trusted him.”
Showcasing that all-around game and continuing to get stronger will be key to Anas finding a regular spot in the NHL. He owns plenty of offensive skill, with silky hands, good speed and an accurate shot, and those assets can help mask his obvious lack of size at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds.
“If he’s going to play in the NHL,” Army said, “you hope he gets the opportunity to play with offensive players at 5-on-5 and that he gets power play time. That’s the player that he is. That’s where his strengths are. However, on the other hand, it’s imperative that he continues to round his game out. If the call comes to the NHL and if he needs to play fourth-line right wing and to play eight or nine minutes a game, he needs to be able to play in that role as well and take the opportunity and expand it.”
Despite the premature end to the AHL season, Anas finished with career-high numbers across the board. Along the way, he represented the Wild at the AHL All-Star Classic.
Still, Anas can’t help but wonder what could have been for his team.
“It’s an unsettling feeling,” he said. “You’re so used to having closure with every team you play on. It’s weird that it could just end.
“If you’re in the playoffs and you lose that last game,” Anas said, “you still have that moment in the locker room with the guys.”
For the Wild, that moment came during an overnight bus ride home from a game in Grand Rapids March 11. As word spread on the bus that the NBA was suspending its season, a realization set in.
“All of a sudden,” Anas recalled, “it just went from being a regular-season game to ‘Wow, this could be it for us.’ ”
The team bus pulled into Des Moines in the early morning hours of March 12. It marked the last time the entire group was together.
When the AHL suspended its season later that day, Iowa was tied for the second-most points in the league. Anas led the league in assists and points, Mayhew had a league-high 39 goals in 49 games, and goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen had a league-best 25 wins and seven shutouts. The Wild were legitimate Calder Cup contenders.
“It’s an awful feeling,” Army said. “It’s like you’re out in space, like you’re drifting. It’s hard to come to grips with it. We never even took a team picture. This is the best team in team history, and we don’t even have a picture of the group to put on the wall.”
With 13 games remaining, the Wild (37-18-4-4) were on pace to shatter single-season team records for wins and points.
That’s why, Anas admits, every now and then while the season was still in limbo, his mind wandered.
“Even watching the Michael Jordan documentary, and seeing them win a championship, I looked over at my girlfriend and said, ‘Gosh, I really wish we have the chance to do that this year.’ ”
But as the weeks passed, the likelihood of resuming the season seemed more remote. Messages from coaches and management became less frequent, and players eventually scattered to their off-season homes. Anas was among the last Wild players still in Des Moines when he finally drove home in late April. He made the annual trek east not knowing when or where he’ll next play or for which team.
“It’s weird,” he said. “It’s definitely unchartered territory. You’re so used to always having hockey and knowing when I wake up in the morning, I’m going to the rink to do my work out or to practice, and then all of a sudden your life is just uprooted. All you can really do is try to develop your own routine and just be ready whenever that opportunity comes.”