Ryan Smith's 7 Things to Watch in 2023-24Aug 14, 2023
The 2023-24 hockey season now sits less than three months away, and with the American Hockey League unveiling the team schedules, hockey fans from coast-to-coast are breaking out their highlighters to mark the matchups rife with anticipation. Be it a rivalry, a playoff rematch, a player’s return to a previous destination, or another factor, a 72-game calendar lays out the roller-coaster of a year every AHL team will face.
The Thunderbirds’ schedule features a lot of what Springfield fans have grown accustomed to in recent years, with some new wrinkles mixed in periodically. Heading into the T-Birds’ seventh season of play, these are seven games or stretches of games I’ve got underlined – five on home ice and two on the road.
Opening Night – Saturday, Oct. 14 vs. Hartford Wolf Pack
“Sheesh, Ryan, you really are thinking outside the box on this one.”
I’m sure some of you had that response to this one, but when you get to begin a new season with a chance to get some retribution against the team that ended your season six months earlier, it absolutely becomes a more meaningful opener.
Nobody wants to remember how the 2022-23 season ended at the hands of the red-hot Hartford Wolf Pack, who not only won two straight against Springfield but then went on to knock out the top-seeded Providence Bruins in the Atlantic Division Semifinals.
Both teams will have a different look in the fall, but don’t be surprised if Dylan Garand gets greater responsibility as a netminder in Hartford as he looks to prove his playoff excellence was no accident. With Joel Hofer expected to land in St. Louis, it will likely be up to Vadim Zherenko and first-year St. Louis signee Malcolm Subban to try to give Springfield a third straight season of splendid goaltending.
Wyatt Kalynuk will also have a motivating factor in what could be his Thunderbirds debut, facing the team and organization that opted not to re-sign him in the offseason. Every player downplays it, but do not be fooled, there is always something extra in it for a player when he faces his former teammates and coaches.
Hartford figures to be even more formidable this season, with first-round Rangers pick Brennan Othmann (67 points in 56 OHL games last season) turning pro and veteran Riley Nash (59 points w/ CLT) highlighting a new crop of Wolf Pack talent. This season could prove to be the fiercest and most talented I-91 rivalry series to date.
Teddy Bear Toss – Saturday, Dec. 9 vs. Bridgeport Islanders
It is always fun to have one of the best community initiatives and one of the fiercest rivalries occurring on the same night. That’s what we have when the Isles come to town in December. However, Bridgeport has proven that they like to spoil Teddy Bear Tosses – Jakub Skarek blanked the Hershey Bears on a world-record collection of bears last season in Chocolatetown.
Springfield, as you could imagine, wants no part of history repeating itself. There are many geographic rivals for the T-Birds based on their proximity to division opponents, but to me, no rivalry is more physically charged and nasty than the one against Bridgeport.
However, things will look different for the Islanders this season, as longtime head coach Brent Thompson has moved on to take an assistant job in the NHL in Anaheim. Replacing him is his assistant Rick Kowalsky, who is far from a stranger at the AHL level, having been the head bench boss previously in Albany and Binghamton, where he spent eight seasons as New Jersey’s AHL coach before another three seasons as an NHL assistant with the Devils.
Don’t expect Bridgeport’s M.O. to change one bit, though. Gritty agitators Cole Bardreau and Kyle MacLean will continue to provide an edge. While prominent scoring threats Chris Terry and Andy Andreoff have moved on, expect William Dufour and Arnaud Durandeau to step into more prominent roles along with second-year skill winger Ruslan Iskhakov.
Hometown Heroes – Saturday, Jan. 27 vs. Charlotte Checkers
Hometown Heroes Night is always one of those nights that allows everybody to take a step back and appreciate the little things we may take for granted day in and day out. While I will need to find a good set of earplugs (those emergency vehicle sirens at intermission are quite loud!), the night should be made doubly exciting as former T-Birds bench boss Geordie Kinnear and his Checkers play the second of back-to-back games at the Thunderdome.
Springfield has had Charlotte’s number on home ice, to say the least. Since the start of the 2021-22 season, the Checkers have just one win to show for at the home of the T-Birds.
The Checkers may have seen their leading scorer Riley Nash move on to the Rangers’ organization, but acquisitions Rasmus Asplund and Will Lockwood provide more offensive depth, not to mention the return of captain Zac Dalpe, former Checker Alex True and the arrival of rookie Mackie Samoskevich from the University of Michigan. The T-Birds’ defensive systems need to be buttoned up, as Charlotte should figure to be among the most offensively gifted groups in the East.
All eight of the two clubs’ matchups against one another will take place on Jan. 26 or later, so precious division points will be on the line down the stretch.
Ice-O-Topes vs. Defending Champs – Saturday, Feb. 10 vs. Hershey Bears
It will not be the first time the T-Birds get a chance to take down the reigning Calder Cup champions, but Springfield will have its three-year Ice-O-Topes win streak on the line. Last year’s Ice-O-Topes contest may very well be the most exciting regular season game in the T-Birds’ young history, as Springfield erased deficits of 3-0 and 4-2 for a thrilling 5-4 overtime win.
As has continued to be a theme this offseason more so than in years past, the Bears will be a different-looking unit in 2023-24. Former T-Birds Sam Anas and Henrik Borgstrom departed to play overseas, while Joe Snively, Aliaksei Protas, and Ethen Frank will be contesting for roles in the NHL with Washington. However, the usually high-spending Bears did not go easy on their offseason, bringing in AHL goal-scoring champion Matthew Phillips from the Flames organization and up-and-coming Alex Limoges from the Jets organization.
There will also be one more familiar name in the Caps’ organization, as Ryan Hofer (a forward) will likely get a look in Hershey against his brother’s organization.
Pink in the Rink – Saturday, March 9 vs. Toronto Marlies
First and foremost, Pink in the Rink will always make my list of games I’m most excited to call. There is something about seeing dozens and dozens of survivors honored in that pink ring around the center logo. What they have gone through and persevered through will never cease to inspire me and hopefully everyone else.
This year’s Pink game doubles as a rare matchup with the Toronto Marlies, who did not face the T-Birds at all during the 2022-23 season. While they have met only sparingly dating back to the T-Birds’ inception in 2016, the Marlies have yet to drop a contest to Springfield. It’s about time for that trend to end, and Springfield will potentially have multiple ex-Marlies trying to take down their old squad.
Adam Gaudette and Mikhail Abramov, who each were acquired in the Ryan O’Reilly trade last February, could potentially get their first crack against their old mates in the contest. Gaudette is coming off a stellar season, during which he scored 27 goals between the Marlies and T-Birds. Abramov, still just 22 years of age, looks to take a step forward in his development after posting 24 points in 55 games between Springfield and Toronto.
On the back end, it’s also a potential first game against a former foe as Joseph Duszak figures to be a key cog for the Thunderbirds' offense from the back end. In 61 games with Toronto in 2021-22, Duszak had 52 points, including 25 power play assists, the second-most by a blueliner in the AHL that season.
Late-Season Set in Charlotte – March 16-17
A road-trip favorite of players and broadcasters alike, not only will a March trip to North Carolina make for a presumably good break from winter weather in Massachusetts, but it marks the beginning of a 15-game sprint to the finish over the span of just 36 days to close the season. Four of those games will come against the Checkers, and if the standings prove to be anything like the prior two seasons, the matchups could make the difference between a first-round bye and a play-in series.
In late March of 2023, the T-Birds made the trek down to Charlotte for three games in a weeklong stay, and all Springfield did was take all three. Drew Bannister’s team would love nothing more than a duplicate of that result on their second trip to Carolina.
Canadian Trio + Return to Toronto – April 3-6
The Thunderbirds’ longest bus trip of the season comes at a crucial moment as the season enters its final month. Three huge matchups against foes north of the border await the T-Birds, beginning with a School Day 11:00 a.m. contest in Toronto. As mentioned earlier, Springfield has had a difficult time against the Marlies, especially inside Coca-Cola Coliseum, where the T-Birds fell behind 5-1 in the first period alone in their last visit on Jan. 10, 2022. Springfield did claw all the way back to a 5-4 score, but the T-Birds are still searching for their first win in Toronto since the franchise’s inception seven years ago.
The busy week also features a prime-time matchup in Belleville on Friday, April 5 against the Senators and a 3:00 p.m. getaway day game in Laval on Saturday, April 6. It will only be Springfield’s second trip back to Place Bell since their thrilling Eastern Conference Finals series in 2022. It may not be playoff games by that point but don’t expect the atmosphere in Laval to be lacking with such little time left in the season.