How to get your hockey fix: AHL, ECHL, U.S. juniors
The NHL lockout has blessed the AHL with a wealth of top young players
The ECHL features some interesting players in exotic locales, like Alaska
Those who track top American prospects should check out USHL, USNTDP
No NHL, no problem. While the lockout drags on, there's plenty of topflight hockey to follow across the sport's sprawling landscape. Much of it is already underway. Here's the best of what to watch, and where.
The puck drops for the AHL's 77th regular season Oct. 12, with each of the 30 teams -- all affiliated with NHL clubs -- playing 76 games until April 21. (At least six NHL arenas in Montreal, St. Paul, Minn., Washington D.C., Toronto, Raleigh, N.C., and Philadelphia will host AHL matches this season.) Only four AHL teams (St. John's Ice Caps, Abbotsford Heat, Hamilton Bulldogs and Toronto Marlies) are Canadian-based; the others are in the U.S. Eight from each conference qualify for the postseason tournament and play for the Calder Cup, named in honor of the NHL's first president. Fun fact: The league's expansion and absorption of six IHL teams in 2001 left it with a pair of clubs, in Norfolk and Milwaukee, that call themselves the Admirals.
More than 88 percent of current NHLers, and more than 100 Hockey Hall of Famers, have spent time in the AHL, which has has also been a proving ground for coaches such as Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh Penguins), Guy Boucher (Tampa Bay Lightning), Glen Gulutzan (Dallas Stars) and Bruce Boudreau (Anaheim Ducks). Syracuse's Jon Cooper is considered a rising star in the current AHL coaching ranks.
Syracuse Crunch: The Tampa Bay Lightning have switched their affiliation to Syracuse, taking most of the Norfolk Admirals, who won the Calder Cup last season, along. The Admirals, who led the AHL with 113 points in the standings, scored a whopping 273 goals, while allowing just 180. Their 55-18-1-2 mark included a 28-game win streak that set a North American pro hockey record. They also swept St. John's and Toronto in the final two rounds of the playoffs. (Norfolk, which is now an Anaheim Ducks affiliate, will not be blessed with such firepower.)
Toronto Marlies: The minor-league arm of the Maple Leafs won the Western Conference's Northern Division last season and reached the Calder Cup Final before falling to Norfolk. Coached by NHL journeyman Dallas Eakins, the Marlies led the league in penalty killing for the second season in a row. Look for forward Joe Colborne, a fast starter last season, to have a bounce-back campaign after offseason wrist surgery.
Oklahoma City Barons: With all the rebuilding that the Edmonton Oilers are doing, real NHL star power should be on this team at least for the early part of the schedule. The Barons -- not to be confused with those short-lived NHL boys from Cleveland (remember them?) -- topped the Western Conference with 99 points last season. Oiler forwards Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Magnus Paajarv are now on board. If Taylor Hall (shoulder rehab) joins as planned, the Barons would be even stronger.
G Braden Holtby, Hershey Bears: When he earned a chance to play a little goal for Washington last spring due to injuries suffered by Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, nobody expected the rookie to lead the Capitals past the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round and give the New York Rangers a seven-game battle in the second. The 23-year old has a 14-4 mark in 21 regular-season games over two NHL seasons, but after notching a 2.61 GAA in 40 games with Hershey in 2011-12, he lowered that total to 1.95 in 14 NHL playoff games. Holtyby's cool under fire is already impressive. Regular work with Hershey could help him build some stamina for the long haul.
RW Jordan Eberle, Oklahoma City Barons: After a superb showing in his second season with the Oilers (34-42-76), the 22-year-old right wing could tear up the AHL if he spends enough time there. Consider that in 2009-10, while splitting time between the AHL's Springfield Falcons and the WHL's Regina Pats, Eberle amassed 56 goals and 120 points. Like the financially troubled Coyotes, the Oilers may ultimately be playing for their future this season, so a good showing by their kids could help earn the team the new arena it may need to stay in Alberta.
C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oklahoma City Barons: Though shoulder injuries kept the Oiler rookie from playing a full season and perhaps winning the Calder Trophy, the NHL's first overall pick of 2011 can certainly use the extra seasoning. After picking up 52 points in 62 games during his debut campaign, it wouldn't hurt to put some more meat on his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame in order to better endure the rigors of NHL life.
D Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Portland Pirates: The 21-year-old Swede has already proven his durability by playing in all 82 games with the Coyotes and scoring 13 goals while earning ample power-play time last season. Now he needs to figure out what sort of player he can be. Ekman-Larsson grew into a more physical player during the 2009-10 season in Sweden, amassing 118 penalty minutes in just 58 games with both Leskands and the country's junior national team. He's been far less physical with Phoenix, totaling 56 in 130 games. This stint in the A could coax him to become a more forceful presence on the backline.
LW Chris Kreider, Connecticut Whale: Though he's never played a regular-season game in the NHL, the Boston College standout impressed even hard-to-wow coach John Tortorella with his speed after joining the Rangers for their three rounds of playoffs last spring and scoring five goals. At 6-3, 225 pounds, Kreider is also difficult to knock off the puck and has gifts that most forwards dream about. A stint in Hartford could help get his defense up to par with his scoring prowess.
C Sean Couturier, Adirondack Phantoms: Though the rookie scored just 27 points in 77 games with Philadelphia last season, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette gave him extended minutes during the playoffs when he appeared to mature and thrive. Couturier's emergence as a two-way player also allowed the team to trade James Van Riemsdyk to Toronto. In his first exhibition game against Albany, he recorded two assists on the power play, after averaging just 26 seconds of man advantage time per game for the Flyers last season. More of that and Laviolette may allow him to expand his role once the NHL season starts.
LW Cory Conacher, Syracuse Crunch: The Tampa Bay Lightning already have Martin St. Louis, and now comes another pint-sized (5-8) stud in their system. The AHL MVP had a brilliant season as a rookie (39-41-80) and picked up 114 penalty minutes for the league's best team. His performance is all the more remarkable because he suffers from Type I diabetes and wears an insulin pump when he isn't playing.
CAZENEUVE: Devils' Henrique making most of AHL
American Hockey League: The AHL's official site has schedules, stats, archives and live games (for a fee). The site offers packages to watch AHL games online, with options for all-access, individual team passes, away games only, or individual packs of 10 games, five or one.
Fans in Canada can watch games on Sportsnet, which will begin its coverage with three Saturday matches this month.
Dec. 30: Grand Rapids Griffins vs. Toronto Marlies outdoors at Comerica Park in Detroit.
Jan. 4: The AHL champion Admirals host the Crunch for the first time since the Norfolk staff moved to Syracuse after the season because the Lightning switched its affiliation.
Jan. 27-28: AHL All-Star festivities are in Providence, R.I., home of Boston's AHL affiliate.
Jan. 20: Hershey Bears vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins outdoors at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa.
March 23: You'll have plenty of AHL hockey to choose from as all 30 teams will be in action. The full schedule will be repeated April 19 and 20 as well.