A Calder Cup Crystal Ball

Jun 8, 2020

Despite all the disappointment in the cancellation of the AHL season, the Iowa Wild are sure having a heck of an offseason from a recognition standpoint.

[Quick aside here…obviously the cancellation was necessary given the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to keep AHL players, staff and fans safe.]

Four Wild players were named to the First and Second AHL All-Star teams for their achievements this season.  Iowa goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen took home the “Baz” Bastien Award as the league’s outstanding goaltender, while winger Gerry Mayhew won the Les Cunningham Award as AHL MVP.  Plus, Mayhew won the Willie Marshall Award for his league-best 39 goals and Sam Anas earned the John B. Sollenberger Trophy, leading the way with 70 points.

With the offseason hardware now in the rear view mirror, I thought it was a good time to get out the crystal ball and surmise how far this Iowa Wild team may have gone.

Obviously, there’s no way to know exactly how the Wild would have fared.  After all, injuries, a bad bounce, missed call or any other number of factors can change a team’s playoff fate.

So, I decided to look at a few factors.

  1. Dominant regular season teams, focusing on points percentage
  2. High scoring forwards who ranked among the league’s scoring leaders
  3. Teams with strong defensive numbers (most likely backstopped by an elite goaltender)

For factor number one, I dug up teams with a .650 points percentage or higher since the 2015-2016 regular season. I chose that season because it was the first year of the Pacific Division (mostly California teams) – remember, they play just 68 regular season games compared to the 76 games all other teams play – so comparing standings points across the league isn’t exactly “apples-to-apples”.

For the record, the Iowa Wild finished this season with a .651 points percentage (82 points through 63 games). The .651 % was the fourth-best in the league behind Milwaukee (.714), Providence (.661) and Hershey (.653).

In 2015-2016, four teams – Toronto, Ontario, Albany and Milwaukee all hit .650 or higher.

Calder Cup Playoff wins:

Toronto – 8

Ontario – 7

Albany – 6

Milwaukee – 0 (swept in first round, 3 games to none)

The Calder Cup champs that season were the Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters.  They finished the regular season with a .638 points percentage, 6th best in the AHL.

By the way (and it pains me to type this), the Wild had a paltry .388 points percentage, which was 30th in the league.  Ugh…

In 2016-2017, six teams reached or passed the .650 mark – Wilkes-Barre / Scranton, San Jose, San Diego, Lehigh Valley, Chicago and Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids won the Calder Cup (.658 points % and 100 standings points overall), defeating Syracuse in the Finals.  The Crunch were the 12th ranked team that season, but they got a huge boost from their parent club, the Tampa Bay Lightning, getting Cory Conacher, Yani Gourde and current Wild center Gabriel Dumont back on April 10th, just in time for the playoffs.  Conacher and Gourde finished first and second, respectively, in playoff scoring, while Dumont added 11 points in 22 postseason matches. Of the other strong, regular season teams that year, San Jose posted 8 playoff wins.  The rest of the clubs didn’t do much at all in the spring of 2017.

In 2017-2018, five teams hit at least .650 – Toronto, Lehigh Valley, Tucson, Syracuse and Wilkes-Barre / Scranton.

The Toronto Marlies won it all that year, defeating the Texas Stars (90 pts. in regular season) in a decisive Game 7. Texas got some help from the Dallas Stars just prior to the postseason, including the return of starting goaltender Mike McKenna.  The Stars were also red-hot entering the Calder Cup Playoffs, earning at least a point in their final seven regular season games.

It should be noted that Lehigh Valley won seven playoff games that spring, while Wilkes-Barre / Scranton was swept in the first round (0-3).

In 2018-19 (last season, which still feels weird to phrase it that way) four teams hit the .650 plateau – Charlotte, Syracuse, Bakersfield and Rochester.

As most of you know, Charlotte hoisted the Calder Cup, defeating Chicago (the Wolves finished with a .645 points percentage, 5th best in the league).  Rochester had a rough go, getting swept in the first round (0-3).

So, to summarize…

Three of the last four Calder Cup Champions finished the regular season with a .650 points percentage or better.  However, a few of the recent regular season powerhouses also flamed out, getting swept in the first round, and a couple had decent runs, posting a handful of playoff victories.


Now, how about a look at some teams where two players either led, or were close to the top, in the AHL scoring race. This of course is relevant because Iowa’s Anas (70 points) and Mayhew (61 points) tore it up offensively this season.  As I noted earlier, Anas led the AHL with those 70 points, while Mayhew finished 3rd in scoring but won league MVP, thanks in large part to his 39 goals (including 10 game-winners) in just 49 games.

I went back to the inaugural Iowa Wild season of 2013-14 to see how teams fared when they had a potent one-two punch (or more). So, here we go:

2013-14: Charlotte Checkers forward Zach Boychuk led the AHL with 36 goals, while finishing 2nd in the league with 74 points…his teammate Chris Terry (69 points) was 6th in the final scoring race.  However, the Checkers missed the Calder Cup Playoffs.

2014-15: Manchester Monarchs forwards Brian O’Neil (80 points) led the AHL that season, while his teammate, Jordan Weal, ranked third in scoring, posting 69 points.  That duo helped lead the Monarchs to the Calder Cup title, with an impressive 15-4 postseason record.  It should be noted the Monarchs recorded a whopping 109 points in the regular season.  And, just to add in some Iowa Wild flavor, former Wild star Teemu Pulkkinen led the league that year with 34 goals as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins.

2015-16: Hershey’s Chris Bourque led the AHL with 80 points, but Providence had a trio of offensive stars – Seth Griffith was 2nd overall in scoring, Alex Khokhlachev ranked 4th and Austin Czarnik was 7th – with those three players combining for 206 points in the regular season. Throw in Frank Vatrano’s league-leading 36 goals (in just 36 games) and the P-Bruins had four players in the top 20 AHL scoring race.  Yet, Providence still lost in the first round to Wilkes-Barre / Scranton.

2016-17: Chicago’s Kenny Agostino finished 1st in points (leading the AHL in assists), while his linemate (for a large part of the season) was Wade Megan, who topped the league in goals and ended up with the 4th most points.  The Wolves bowed out in the second round, falling to Grand Rapids, the eventual champs.

2017-18: This is the one season where no team really had multiple players near the top of the leaderboard. The closest were Grand Rapids teammates Ben Street and Eric Tangradi, they were 7th and 8th, respectively.  Toronto won the Calder Cup in 2018, in large part to goaltender Garrett Sparks. Sparks sparkled (see what I did there) with a 1.79 goals against average (GAA) in the regular season and a 2.22 playoff GAA, winning a combined 45 games during the year.  The Griffins received a combined 12 points in the postseason from Street and Tangradi, but the defending champs couldn’t get out of the first round.

2018-19: Syracuse Crunch teammates Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Barre-Boulet each finished in the top six in scoring, with Verhaeghe placing 1st (82 points) and Barre-Boulet notching 34 goals and 34 assists for 68 points, good enough for 6th overall. Cory Conacher, who I referenced earlier in this blog, ended up 12th with 64 points. However, the Crunch managed just six goals in four games as they were ousted in the opening round of the playoffs.

From a dynamic duo (or trio) perspective, the previous six “completed” AHL seasons have yielded just one championship, and ironically enough it was the 2015 Manchester squad with O’Neill and Weal finishing 1st and 3rd in scoring, the exact same positions where Anas and Mayhew slotted as this 2019-20 season was halted.  Other than that, it was a bunch of playoff disappointment for teams with multiple high-end offensive performers.


Finally, let’s quickly dive into the last six Calder Cup Champions (again, using the inaugural Iowa Wild season as a starting point) and see what type of defensive / goaltending efforts they put forth.

Here are the regular season rankings for team goals against average (GAA) since 2013-14:























We all know that good goaltending is of vital importance to winning a championship at any level of hockey. And in the AHL, the proof is in the pudding.  Of the last 12 teams to reach the Finals (both champs and runner-ups), nine of them cracked the top 10 in regular season GAA and none of the eventual champions placed lower than 7th.

Couple other quick notes here…in 2017-18, McKenna (referenced above as well) posted a .927 save percentage in the postseason for the Stars.  One season prior, McKenna was the number one netminder for Syracuse and recorded a .911 save percentage in 22 playoff games, as the Crunch lost in the Calder Cup Finals.

Also of note, Iowa finished the 2016-17 season ranked 4th in team goals against average, but missed the Calder Cup Playoffs by a slim margin.

Now back to this season, where Kahkonen assumed the number one goaltender duties and thrived in the role.  His 25 wins and seven shutouts led the AHL, and his GAA and save percentage were both 4th best.  Coupled with the efforts of young goaltenders Mat Robson and Dereck Baribeau, Iowa ended the year with a 2.71 GAA, which was 4th in the AHL.  The league’s top regular season team points-wise, Milwaukee, finished 1st at 2.24.

Again, take this info. and draw your own conclusions.  But I think it’s safe to say that most pundits around the AHL believed the Iowa Wild had as good a chance as anyone to hoist the Calder Cup, especially if they could have claimed the Central Division (postseason) title, which would have likely meant a showdown in the second round against Milwaukee.

The ingredients were certainly there for Iowa – an impressive regular season points percentage, some of the circuit’s top point-getters, and the defensive / goaltending numbers to stifle its opponent.

The 2020 Calder Cup Finals would have been wrapping up right around now.  Who knows how it all would have played out………

Unfortunately, it’s a question that will remain unanswered as the AHL goes without handing out the Calder Cup for the first time since 1936.

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