It’s safe to say most hockey fans consider the NHL All-Star Game a write-off. Nobody wants to get hurt and there’s nothing on the line, so it’s all about having a grand old time. But the on-ice all-star festivities aren’t quite over yet. There’s still one game to be played, with focus shifting to the NHL’s little brother.
The Ontario Reign will play host to the AHL All-Star Classic Monday, an affair that will feature a similar format to its big-league counterpart: the AHL’s four divisional teams will compete in a six-game 3-on-3 tournament. Even though there’s still the injury factor, the AHL all-star game has its share of intrigue. Players have something to prove and many of the younger players are top prospects who hope to skate with their respective NHL clubs this season. Some already have, but others are hoping to increase the possibility they’ll see NHL minutes in the near future. A good all-star showing might not play a major part in that, but it is still a good opportunity to check out who’s hot in the minors right now. Reigning All-Star MVPs Drake Batherson (2019) and C.J. Smith (2018) earned call-ups shortly after the event, so anything is possible.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at seven candidates who could earn NHL call-ups sooner rather than later, either to address organizational needs or purely due to their own performance this season:
Morgan Frost, C (Philadelphia)
Perhaps the most obvious choice, Frost has already skated in 18 games with the Flyers and could be headed back up soon. His NHL run started off with goals in his first two games, but he failed to find twine in the next 16 games and was demoted to the AHL in the final days of December. With 19 points in 28 games, Frost’s AHL numbers in Lehigh Valley don’t jump off the page, but he’s quickly showing his worth as a complete player. Frost isn’t going to be a driving offensive force in the NHL, but Frost he’s a great complementary piece who makes great decisions with and without the puck at each end of the ice and coaches aren’t afraid to give him opportunities in tough matchups.
Owen Tippett, RW (Florida)
When Tippett was drafted by the Panthers in the first round in 2017 (10th overall), there were a few key skills he needed to develop. Primarily, his defensive game, playmaking ability and shift-to-shift consistency. Since then, Tippett’s play away from the puck has improved mightily and he’s been better at distributing the puck. His true value is in the goal-scoring department, though: among all U-21 AHL rookies, Tippett’s 19 goals put him just behind Belleville’s Josh Norris (22) for the league lead. Not only that, Tippett’s total is nearly double that of either Aleksi Saarela or Paul Thompson, who are tied for second in goal scoring for the Springfield Falcons. With 40 points in 46 games, Tippett has exploded onto the scene as an AHL rookie and when a spot opens in Florida’s top six, Tippett looks ready to seize the opportunity.
Josh Norris, C (Ottawa)
A major candidate for AHL rookie of the year, Norris has dazzled the Belleville faithful with 22 goals and 40 points through 42 games, the fourth- and seventh-best totals in the league. Production is clearly not an issue for Norris. Using Byron Bader’s prospect model at HockeyProspecting.com, Norris projects to be a 40-point forward who can play middle-six minutes. That he’s a mindful defensive player helps his case, too. Norris has what it takes for a call-up this season, but the Senators are still rebuilding and there’s no rush for a mid-season promotion. Don’t be surprised if he’s given a stint after the trade deadline.
Jeremy Bracco, RW (Toronto)
Bracco has the skill to be an NHLer right now, but his days in Toronto may be numbered. Currently fifth among AHLers with 29 assists, Bracco is a high-end playmaker, but the 22-year-old hasn’t been able to fight his way up the NHL ladder given the considerable roadblocks in his way. Bracco doesn’t thrive in a checking role, so his ideal fit is in the middle six playing an important offensive role. There are plenty of teams who could use Bracco’s services this season, and with the Maple Leafs needing help on the blueline, there’s a good chance Bracco could be in the NHL with another club by early March.
Evan Bouchard, D (Edmonton)
A late addition to the all-star festivities, Bouchard failed to make the Edmonton Oilers out of training camp, but that could have been for the best. A second-pairing option on a veteran-laden D-group, Bouchard’s 26 points are the second-most among rookie defensemen, eight back of Utica’s Brogan Rafferty (38 points). Bouchard is a smart defenseman with a great work ethic who moves the puck exceptionally well and doesn’t need to get fancy to be effective. Simple is best. Bouchard projects to be a power-play quarterback who can produce decent numbers. His capability as an all-around defender adds extra value for the Oilers long-term.
Tyler Benson, LW (Edmonton)
The bad news: Benson has spent the past two years trying to catch up after suffering serious injuries during his junior days with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. The good news: the top pick at the 2015 WHL draft is making up for lost time with 80 assists and 104 points in 115 games across two-plus seasons in the AHL. Benson isn’t laying waste to the league like he did when he had 66 points last season en route to a spot on the AHL’s second all-star team, but his 35 points are tops in Bakersfield. If you want a comparison, Benson is a little like Jean-Gabriel Pageau – a skilled playmaker who works hard at both ends of the ice.
Martin Frk, LW (Los Angeles)
Once a promising prospect, Frk failed to translate his minor-league prowess into big-league production and has spent the past few seasons bouncing between the AHL and NHL. But with 30 points in 33 games, Frk has been a leader in the AHL for a young Reign team. He’s also auditioned well when given the chance. He skated in four games with the Kings earlier this season and scored three goals while playing limited minutes. That type of depth scoring puts him on the shortlist for NHL call-ups in Los Angeles, particularly given the Kings’ scoring woes. He’s likely to get the call if an injury arises. Oh, and his incredible 109.2 MPH shot during the skills competition turned some heads.
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