When the Ottawa Senators lost goaltender Craig Anderson -- a potential Vezina Trophy candidate -- to injury with a sprained ankle, they turned to the AHL to fill the void. While losing Anderson is certainly a big blow, the Sens enjoy some organizational depth that can ease the blow, including call-up Robin Lehner.
Lehner, the Sens' second-round pick in 2009, has been absolutely spectacular, posting a .938 save percentage in 31 games this season in the AHL. The praise for him from NHL sources is very high, with some saying he can be a star goaltender, a comment you normally don't hear for goalies seeing as that is usually a position that requires a conservative approach to project. Lehner is a big goalie, measuring at 6-foot-4 and over 200 pounds, and a source describes him as a goaltender "who moves like a small man. You simply can't score on down low."
His combination of athletic tools, size, good overall hockey sense and a record of high-end puck stopping makes Lehner a top prospect. NHL backup Ben Bishop is playing well in net for Ottawa, and it's hard to know how long Anderson will be out for, but if Ottawa needs to use Lehner to fill starts, he is more than ready. In the long run, the Sens' goalie of the future will likely find a way to get himself in the net sooner rather than later.
Lehner isn't the only AHL prospect who could make an impact in the NHL as soon as this season. Here are some notes on other top AHL prospects who have played well and have made a case for some NHL ice time:
Andersen has an interesting story, as he is one those rare draft re-entries -- something that was all but eliminated in the new collective bargaining agreement, as he was drafted by Carolina in 2010, unsigned and taken by Anaheim in the third round in 2012. Andersen led the Swedish Elite League in save percentage last season at .943 and has been equally dominant in the AHL with a .931 save percentage this season. He stands at 6-4, 250 pounds and is athletic and nimble for a goaltender his size. There are good goalies up with the Ducks already -- Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth -- but if Anaheim were to move one or if there's an injury, Andersen could step in and potentially be one of the league's top backups right away -- and potentially a starting goalie down the line.
Audy-Marchessault is another prospect with an interesting story. He went undrafted, was signed to an AHL deal by the New York Rangers, scored 64 points in 76 games as a rookie pro and was signed to an NHL deal by Columbus. He is now tied for fourth in AHL scoring -- third if you don't count Jordan Eberle. One NHL source simply raved about his skill set.
"[Audy-Marchessault] is quick, works hard in both ends, skilled and makes heady plays," he said.
Another NHL scout also complimented the player's skill level and competiveness. Audy-Marchessault has the stats, the skill and the work ethic, so really he sounds like a fantastic prospect, but his issue has been his size, as he is 5-9. While that height isn't ideal, there is simply too much pointing in the right direction for Audy-Marchessault. He got a cup of tea in the NHL this season and should again in the future.
Brian Dumoulin, D, Pittsburgh Penguins (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton)
He was sent to Pittsburgh in the Jordan Staal trade at the 2012 draft. Dumoulin has been caught in a numbers game in an extraordinarily deep defensive system, with Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo getting the calls first. That doesn't discredit Dumoulin, who just turned pro after a few seasons in college. He has played well in the AHL, showing significant defensive value, and has been given top power-play responsibility. Dumoulin can move the puck well and has above-average offensive potential. He's 6-3, and having a defenseman with skill is a significant asset, especially if he can make stops in his own end. The only real issue is that he's a subpar skater. Dumoulin will get his opportunity as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (Syracuse)
A few weeks ago, I told you about Tampa Bay's stocked system and its strong AHL team. Since then, two players -- Alexander Killorn and Richard Panik -- have been called up. They have some more options too, such as top-10 pick Brett Connolly and AHL defenseman of the year Mark Barberio -- both of whom are putting up big numbers. But one of their quality options is Tyler Johnson, who is leading the AHL in scoring and has a lot of intriguing elements. He is quick and a very good playmaker, and he works hard. Johnson's main weakness is his size, as he measures just 5-9. Still, he is quite effective defensively for a small guy. Tampa Bay opted for the bigger wingers recently, but even as a small center, Johnson has put himself in the right spot for a call-up if a spot becomes available.
Krug was a top college free-agent signing last summer after a fantastic season at Michigan State, where he was named the CCHA player of the year and was a Hobey Baker finalist. After he was signed, he even got a handful of games in with Boston. Krug started this season a little slow, which was compounded by an ankle injury, but lately he's been on a tear. In a period between January and February he went on a nine-game point streak and notched 16 in that span. Krug's skating is dynamic, as is his ability with the puck. Despite his size (5-9, 175), he remains a quality prospect due to his talent level. His defense has improved in his rookie pro season, and if Boston needs a call-up on D, Krug could be that option.
Larsson came into his own last season with a tremendous 19-year-old campaign in the Swedish Elite League, where he displayed significant offensive potential and advanced game processing. His first year in North America has gone fine. He hasn't lit the league on fire in the AHL, but he's been a good two-way player who has displayed his competitiveness as well. Larsson is a player with very good hockey sense at both ends of the rink. One NHL source likes him a lot because he has a lot of elements to his game that give him all-around value. He got a call-up for one game already with the Wild, and when they need to go back to Houston, he's likely the top option at forward.
Nyquist, per several scouting sources, is ready to make the jump, but he has remained in the AHL due to an organizational philosophy of patience and also a lot of depth at forward. Detroit has brought him up only when it felt Nyquist could be slotted into a role with scoring responsibility. He sits second in AHL scoring and is just dominant in the league. Nyquist is a high-end playmaker and puck handler who is a little on the small side and will never be an imposing physical player, but he has a ton of offensive potential. Between free-agent signing Damien Brunner and fellow top prospect Tomas Tatar -- who started in the AHL as well -- it was always going to be a battle for ice time for the Red Wings forward prospects. However, Nyquist is ready to contribute at the top level -- maybe even a significant amount -- whenever Detroit comes calling.
Austin Watson, C, Nashville Predators (Milwaukee)
While one may look only at Watson's stat line, 27 points in 53 games, and not be overly impressed with his rookie season, it masks the 18th overall pick in 2010's true value.
"He's playing against the opposition's top players and playing very well [considering that]," said one NHL source.
This was the role Watson played in London of the OHL, where he took all the tough draws and shut down very good players while showing average offensive ability. That is also the kind of player he projects as in the NHL. His high-end defensive skills and work ethic make him a desirable asset at 6-3 and could let him make the NHL jump into a bottom role pretty seamlessly.
For Niederreiter, it's been an interesting season and a half as a pro. He was clearly not ready for the NHL last season, given little ice time and not looking good in the time he got. During his time in the AHL, there was a report by ESPN's Katie Strang of a trade demand when he did not get a shot at the big club during Islanders training camp -- despite the fact that most of the Islanders' top prospects in the CHL or AHL were not given a camp invite either. In a better development environment, Niederreiter has flourished. He leads Bridgeport in scoring and has been in the top 30 AHL scorers all season, at times cracking the top 15. One NHL scout praised his play, describing his AHL performance as dynamic and applauding the combination of his skill and power game.
His skating still needs to get better, though. The Islanders are letting him develop in a less challenging environment, and it has been working. He has tailed off a little bit of late, but given how he looked over the whole season, he could be an option for the NHL. There's obviously some moving parts, such as the fact that the Islanders are carrying a lot of forwards, but in a vacuum, Niederreiter seems ready for another shot.
As always, if you have questions about any prospects not profiled, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to answer them.