|Juuse Saros (Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)|
Before we break down each position, it’s important to note that we aren’t allowed to vote for Texas Stars, since we cover the team. And, due to the nature of the AHL scheduling, we haven’t seen an Eastern Conference team or player this season (Texas has played three Eastern Conference teams all-time: the Hershey Bears, St. John’s IceCaps, and Syracuse Crunch).
Keep that rule and guideline in mind. We can’t vote for Texas, and we tend to vote for Western Conference players.
Goaltender - Juuse Saros, Milwaukee Admirals (34gp, 26-7-0, 2.18gaa, .922sv%, 4so)
Defenseman - Brandon Montour, San Diego Gulls (63gp, 11+41=52pts., E, 29 PP pts.)
Defenseman - Robbie Russo, Grand Rapids Griffins (65gp, 5+34=39pts., +47)
Forward - Austin Czarnik, Providence Bruins (62gp, 16+40=56pts., +15, 5 PPG, 2 SHG)
Forward - Mikko Rantanen, San Antonio Rampage (47gp, 22+34=56pts., +20, 5 PPG, 4 GWG)
Forward - Frank Vatrano, Providence Bruins (33gp, 33+16=49pts., +17, 3 hat tricks)
Texas Media Ballot:
Goalie: Juuse Saros, Milwaukee Admirals
Stephen: There’s only a handful of rookie goalies who really garner consideration for the award. When you look at the list of top 20 goaltenders in the league, this is a no-brainer.
Juuse Saros ranks third in the league in GAA, and the next rookie goaltender behind him is ranked 22nd. Saros isn’t winning all the goalie awards running away like Matt Murray did last year but in the rookie sphere, he’s got it wrapped up.
Saros had the benefit of working behind one of the AHL’s historically best teams in terms of defensive stats. However, his overall stats of 26-7 with a .922 SV% is still impressive. Regardless of how many shots you face, you’ve still got to stop a high percentage of them.
I want to also mention that just beyond Saros, Texas has a player who could have garnered consideration for this award. Maxime Lagace is the third-ranked rookie goalie in GAA. Personally, I find his performance impressive given that he came into a team that was quite poor in terms of goals against.
Defenseman: Robbie Russo, Grand Rapids Griffins
Sean: Russo leads the AHL in plus/minus at plus-47 through 65 games and is in position to post the league’s best overall plus/minus in more than a decade. Russo was an Islanders prospect that opted for free agency after his NCAA career at Notre Dame, and the Detroit Red Wings capitalized on the opportunity.
Russo adapted well to the AHL and has helped the Griffins limit chances throughout the season. He’s also done his part offensively and has 39 points (5 goals, 34 assists) and has earned additional power play time throughout the season.
Earlier this season Griffins coach Todd Nelson said Russo, “doesn’t get rattled like a rookie or look like a rookie.”
In addition to coaching opinions and statistics, Russo passed the eye test for me in his four games against Texas. He isn’t overly flashy and he can blend into the background, for the right reasons. When you do notice Russo it’s because of his offensive touch, not because he’s getting beat in his own end.
Texas’ Esa Lindell could have grabbed a spot on a couple ballots with his play throughout the season. He certainly passed the eye test and if time on ice were public, he’d likely lead all AHL rookie defensemen in ice time.
Defenseman: Brandon Montour, San Diego Gulls
Stephen: Yea, yea. I know I made a lot of noise this season about the likely lack of awards for Pacific teams. However, in the end, you look at the stats and Montour stands out. He’s nearly a point per game (11-41=52 in 63 GP). As a first-year player in a big man’s league, that’s a big deal.
His plus-minus was what gave us pause here. Montour’s Gulls also did not perform well against the Stars, which biases our view of his play. We argued a bit back and forth about the well-tread argument against putting offensive defensemen over defensive defensemen in the award ballots. We compromised on Robbie Russo and Montour, one being defensive and the other offensive.
Forward: Mikko Rantanen, San Antonio Rampage
Sean: Thanks to the AHL’s uneven scheduling we saw a lot of Rantanen this season, and the Finnish teenager is the real deal. He led all rookies with 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists) and was remarkably plus-20 on a team that’s going to finish last in the Pacific Division.
It was even more impressive watching a teenager succeed in the AHL right away. Last season we watched Julius Honka as a teenage rookie in the AHL with Texas and he struggled. I expected a similar learning curve for Rantanen with San Antonio, but the 19-year-old often put his team on his back and didn’t sulk after he was demoted from the NHL in November (sulking is a common problem in the AHL amongst top prospects).
It was a pretty notable season for Rantanen all the way around. In addition to his success in San Antonio and a handful of NHL games with Colorado, he won a World Junior Championship for Finland -- which cost him half a dozen games and likely a couple more goals and assists.
Forward: Frank Vatrano, Providence Bruins
Stephen: Well, the AHL’s schedule imbalance strikes again. The Stars have never played the Bruins and are unlikely to unless they both make the Calder Cup Finals. It seemed like all season the debate was between Rantanen and Vatrano for the AHL Rookie of the Year Award. Both of them had marks against them, not in performance, but in terms of their games played. Vatrano found himself in Boston; Rantanen was in Colorado and at World Juniors.
Despite that, I don’t think there’s anyway that you can argue with Vatrano’s resume. In just 33 games, he potted 33 goals. He added 16 assists and notched a plus-minus of plus-17. If that doesn’t qualify you for the All-Rookie team, then you might as well not give out the award at all. Vatrano was a no-brainer.
Sean: While Vatrano did play less games, his inclusion on the All-Rookie team or as an awards finalist is different than the Connor McDavid debate in the NHL. While McDavid played less games because of injury, Vatrano played less games because of extreme achievement in the AHL and he should win the Willie Marshall Award as the league’s leading goal scorer if Chris Bourque (28 goals) doesn’t catch fire in the final five games.
Forward: Vincent Hinostroza, Rockford IceHogs
Sean: The third forward position was the toughest to fill on our All-Rookie ballot. In a perfect world, this spot should have gone to Texas Stars rookie forward Jason Dickinson (programming note: keep an eye out for Stephen’s AHL on the Beat Story about Dickinson) both on our ballot and in the final tally.
Since we couldn’t vote for Dickinson we considered a handful of players including Milwaukee’s Max Gortz and Hershey’s Riley Barber. In the end, we decided on Hinostroza on a combination of stats and the eye test. Hinostroza had 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) and I was impressed when watching him in back-to-back games against Texas.
He did have a slight slump in March, but he made up for it with his overall season play and earned seven NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Austin Czarnik from Providence ended up getting the award, which I don’t have any qualms with. Statistically he’s amongst the best rookies and we didn’t have a chance to see him thanks to the AHL scheduling.
Up Next: AHL All-Star First and Second Teams