Rookies make impact at AHL All-Star Classic
Date: Feb 2, 2017
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Some of the top NHL prospects are taking a break from the in-game grind of the long American Hockey League regular season, but the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross is keeping them on the ice at PPL Center.
The league's four divisions will compete in a 3-on-3 round-robin tournament starting at 7 p.m. ET on Monday.
The All-Star tournament follows the skills competition, when the Western Conference defeated the Eastern Conference 15-11 in front of a sellout crowd of 8,424 at PPL Center on Sunday.
In an event featuring 13 first- or second-round NHL draft picks, a pair of rookies made a strong impression early in the skills event.
Bridgeport (New York Islanders) defenseman Devon Toews had the second-best time in the fastest skater competition. His 13.478 seconds for one lap edged the 13.674 seconds by Manitoba (Winnipeg Jets) forward Jack Roslovic. Roslovic's time was the third-best in AHL history.
The Islanders selected Toews in the fourth round (No. 108) of the 2014 NHL Draft. The 22-year-old is tied for 12th among AHL defensemen with 26 points in 42 games. He's in his first season in the league after three seasons at Quinnipiac University.
Speed is a significant part of what Toews brings but he also credits Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson with helping to add grit to his game.
"He is a pretty fiery guy," Toews said of Thompson. "We work a lot on battling in the corners and getting [opponents] engaged before they get to the net so that I don't have to battle as much there. It has been really helpful for me."
Roslovic, who turned 20 on Sunday, is in his rookie season after the Jets chose him with the No. 25 pick of the 2015 draft. He leads Manitoba in scoring with 25 points in 34 games.
Defenseman Robbie Russo of Grand Rapids (Detroit Red Wings) had a busy night, competing in the rapid fire, hardest shot and breakaway relay events. Russo, 23, has emerged as a top prospect for the Red Wings in his second AHL season with six goals and 25 points in 43 games. He signed with the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 16, 2015 after playing four seasons at Notre Dame. He had been chosen by the Islanders in the fourth round (No. 95) of the 2011 draft.
Last season, Russo had five goals and 39 points in 71 games. He was the first Grand Rapids player to be named to the All-Rookie and Second All-Star teams in the same season. He quarterbacks Grand Rapids' league-leading power play (27.3 percent) and coach Todd Nelson credits his poise as a key to its success.
"This year [Russo] is quietly having a good year," Nelson said. "He is just getting more mature on the ice. He always has had great poise with the puck and he is a very smart player. He has a nice skill set. He is developing, knocking on the door and taking the next step."
Said Russo, "I think I move the puck pretty well, and when I've got to shoot it, I can shoot it. I try to make plays."
Goaltenders Anton Forsberg of Cleveland (Columbus Blue Jackets), Jack Campbell of Ontario (Los Angeles Kings), and Michael Leighton of Charlotte (Carolina Hurricanes) combined to finish the win for the Western Conference, stopping all 20 shots in the breakaway relay.
Campbell, a first-round pick (No. 11) by the Dallas Stars in 2010, has revived his career with Ontario. Originally expected to back up Peter Budaj, Campbell assumed the No. 1 job when Budaj was called up to the Kings when Jonathan Quick was injured. Campbell, 25, is 20-6-0 with a 2.68 goals-against average and .908 save percentage for Pacific Division-leading Ontario.
Rochester (Buffalo Sabres) goaltender Linus Ullmark made an impression for the Eastern Conference. A sixth-round selection (No. 163) by the Sabres in 2012, he made 15 saves on 18 shots in three events and was named the event's top goaltender.
"It's always fun to see guys showing their great skills," Ullmark said.
Ullmark, 23, is in his second season of hockey in North America. He played 20 games for the Sabres and 28 for Rochester. This season he leads the AHL with 34 games played. Although Rochester is last in the North Division, he is 17-15-2 with a 2.84 GAA and .913 save percentage.
"You've just got to be dominant in [the AHL first]," Ullmark said of trying to earn a full-time NHL job. "It's hard. It's a tough league to play in. Good teams play against you, and if you're not ready every day you're not doing yourself a favor."