HERSHEY, Pa. – The path to earn AHL’s Atlantic Division crown runs largely through Pennsylvania, where the Keystone State Clash is set to renew rivalries with a hefty schedule between the Hershey Bears, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season. Combined, there will be a total of 38 games played between the three teams this season, and the rivalry goes so far as to be tracked in the “Pennsylvania Cup” standings posted by the Phantoms on their social media pages. These rivalries will renew to open the season as the Penguins and Phantoms face off on October 16 followed by a matchup between the Bears and Phantoms the day following. One lesson learned from the 2020-21 season is that there will always be a fierce rivalry between the three teams and where prospects learn to dislike these teams on their way to play for their NHL parents.
Three first round selections from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft will be eligible to play for the AHL affiliates of these three teams, which will add an interesting element to the rivalry. These highly regarded prospects should be key factors on their respective AHL rosters – provided their parent club doesn’t want to bring them up to the NHL ranks, but most of these players should see time in the AHL and are worth watching out for as the Pennsylvania battle will intensify.
First up, the 14th overall selection in the 2019 draft is defenseman Cam York of the Philadelphia Flyers. York was able to jump into the professional ranks briefly this past season after his final college season at the University of Michigan in addition to captaining the United States Under-18 squad in international play, and tallied two goals and three assists with the Phantoms in eight games. He was able to skate in a brief three game stint with the Flyers as they completed a difficult season, and although the organization regards York highly, the team has done a lot of work to build a deep defensive group that will most likely see him skate in Lehigh Valley. He’s already proven he has a good handle on AHL play in a brief stint, and his contributions will be invaluable for a competitive Lehigh Valley squad. He along with fellow Flyers prospect Egor Zamula should prove to be a formidable force on the back end, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get an NHL call this season.
Picked 21st overall, the first round choice of the Pittsburgh Penguins is Samuel Poulin. While he hasn’t had any formal experience at professional ranks at this point, skating in the QMJHL for the entirety of last season, he’s already shown he has the tools necessary to fit in well at the AHL level. Poulin scored 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in just 24 games in the 2020-21 season, and could be an early candidate for NHL time with the amount of players on the shelf for the Penguins to start the season. Poulin is a player who has a relentless work ethic, and always seems to be where the puck is to score a goal. His offensive abilities are a huge add for Wilkes-Barre, who is looking to stay competitive in a tough Atlantic Division.
Connor McMichael made his NHL and AHL debuts this past season, skating in one game with the Washington Capitals and all 36 games with the Hershey Bears who he led in scoring with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists). He led the AHL in game winning goals with eight, and adapted to the league well to show why he was taken 25th overall. He seemed to only improve as time went on last season, finishing with 14 points in his last 11 games and earning the league’s final Player of the Week honors as the Bears finished with the league’s best record. With the Capitals icing a veteran lineup, McMichael’s name shouldn’t be far down the depth chart and will be looking to impress the NHL brass as the Bears look to repeat their success from 2020-21.
This is a rivalry that fans of all three teams should want to check out this season in order to get acquainted with these players who will no doubt become household names in the near future. Particularly noteworthy on the schedule will be three games in a row between the Bears and Phantoms followed by three straight games between the Penguins and Bears in early December.
The Atlantic Division is always ripe with great teams, but the AHL rivalry in Pennsylvania is incredibly unique and fierce, and it should no doubt lead to some great competition when the puck drops this season.
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