Ten players worth watching in the American Hockey League Calder Cup final between the St. John’s IceCaps and Texas Stars, beginning tonight in Cedar Park, Tex.:
Maxime Fortunus (D): The player with the name like a Roman centurion is indeed a true general, one of the most respected players in the AHL, and the Stars’ captain. A native of La Prairie, Que, and the son of Haitian immigrants, Fortunus is looking for his first Calder Cup after coming close twice. A player with a decade-long history in the AHL, he was with the Calder Cup runners-up in back-to-back seasons — 2009 with the Manitoba Moose (where IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray was a teammate) and in 2010 with Texas. In both cases, the Cup winner were the Hershey Bears, whose lineup included Andrew Gordon, now the IceCaps’ playoff scoring leader.
Travis Morin (F): The 30-year-old Minnesota native is the 2013-14 AHL most valuable player and scoring leader (32-56-88 in 66 games). A former linemate of St. Louis Blues star David Backes when the two were with the University of Minnesota-Mankato a decade ago, Morin began his pro career with South Carolina of the ECHL, and graduated to the AHL Stars after leading the Stingrays to a Kelly Cup championship in 2009, when they beat the Keith McCambridge-coached Alaska Aces in a seven-game series.
Curtis McKenzie (F): The 23-year-old left-winger from British Columbia burst onto the pro scene this season, winning the AHL rookie of the year award after scoring 65 points, more than any other first-year player in the league. That includes 27 goals, which amazingly is just two less than the 29 he scored in his entire 156-game university career at Miami (Ohio) University. A sixth-round draft choice of Dallas in 2009 out of the Penticton Vees junior A team.
Jamie Oleksiak (D): The 21-year-old defenceman and Dallas’s first-round pick from 2011, Oleksiak will be the biggest player on the ice in this series and probably would be so in any series. However, the six-foot-seven, 240-pounder’s large size doesn’t translate into large penalty minutes. The most PIMs he’s had in a season is 57 during his one year at Northeastern University, 2009-10. Has played 23 NHL games with the big Stars over the last two seasons. Born in Toronto, he has dual American-Canadian citizenship, but has indicated he will play for Canada internationally and did so at the 2012 world junior championship.
Cristopher Nilstorp (G): Has been in a playoff goalie rotation with former American world junior star and Stars’ first-round pick Jack Campbell, but has played every minute since Campbell was injured early in a second-round series against the Grand Rapids Griffins. The 22-year-old Campbell has returned to practice, so it will be interesting to see if head coach Willie Desjardins will go back to the rotation if the young netminder is ready. The 30-year-old Nilstorp has a 2.14 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 14 playoff games, after putting up 2.45 and .918 numbers in the regular season. Won an Elite League championship with Farjestads in his native Sweden in 2011.
Kael Mouillierat (F): Played a half-dozen games for Texas in 2009-10, making him one of two current IceCaps to have suited up for the AHL Stars in regular-season play. (Backup goalie Tyler Beskorowany, who made 51 appearances for the team from 2010-12 is the other, while defenceman Cody Lampl attended a couple of training camps with Texas). After putting up 53 points in 60 regular-season games, Mouillierat had a slow start to the playoffs, with just a goal and an assist in St. John’s first eight contests, but things have been better of late, and he’s up to three goals and five assists.
Michael Hutchinson (G): As far as workload goes, Hutchinson is far into uncharted territory. Overall, counting his time in the ECHL with the Ontario Reign, a half-season with the IceCaps, three games in the NHL with Winnipeg and this post-season run, he’s already appeared in 71 games, 13 more than his next-busiest season, 2009-10, when he totalled 58 games with the OHL’s London Knights. Has shown no sign of fatigue, however and looks to be getting even stronger as the playoffs go on, as evidenced by his 1.61 GAA and .946 save percentage.
Will O’Neill (D): After serving a one-game suspension for a match penalty picked up in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, O’Neill looks to get back in the groove he had been in before his forced hiatus. Despite missing the first two games of the playoffs, the sophomore has 13 points, second only to the Toronto Marlies’ T.J. Brennan among defencemen during these Calder Cup playoffs. His 12 assists are most among rearguards. It’s all part of a remarkable turnaround for O’Neill, one that began mid-season.
Andrew Gordon (F): Gordon was highlighted in a similar feature prior to the series with Wilkes-Barre, but is worth noting again and not just because he leads all scorers in these playoffs with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists). A two-time Calder Cup-winner with Hershey (2009, 2010), his second championship came in a final against these same Texas Stars. So you can say Gordon has been here before, in more than one way.
Patrice Cormier (F): Might be the most under-appreciated IceCap. Has just two goals and three assists, but does everything and anything, primarily on an energy/checking line with Kyle MacKinnon and Blair Riley. Cormier is also adept at face-offs, plays a grinding, physical game and sees some time on the power play as a big body parked in front of the net. An idea of the effectiveness of Cormier and his teammates: Despite their modest offensive numbers — the line has scored five goals — they are all plus players, led by Cormier’s plus-four rating. That means they are allowing very little scoring from those they are matched up against, often some of the most skilled opposition forwards.