Tri-City Americans

Ams season earns A grade so far

KENNEWICK -- 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the rink,

Not a creature was stirring, and the Zamboni was catching 20 winks;

The stockings were hung on the dasher boards with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The players were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of the Memorial Cup danced in their heads.

With a 27-7-0-0 record and a Western Hockey League-leading 54 points, the Tri-City Americans don't have to worry about Santa filling their stockings with coal.

I must admit, I couldn't find much fault with the Americans at the holiday break. Off to the best start in franchise history, they also are on an eight-game winning streak. They are ranked No. 2 in the CHL poll and have the third-most points in the CHL.

In handing out grades this season, there were just a few blips on the naughty-and-nice radar, but chalk those up to youthful on-ice indiscretions.

The defense and goaltenders got high marks, and the offense is clicking away at nearly four points a game behind Adam Hughesman, Brendan Shinnimin, Patrick Holland and Justin Feser.

Mason Wilgosh leads a penalty-kill unit that is tops in the WHL at 84.6 percent, but the power play could use a kick in the behind (or a lump of coal).

General manager Bob Tory (who likes to play Santa), through drafts, trades and sly deals, has put together a team a players who fit together like Lego. Coach Jim Hiller just has to put the right pieces together.

General Manager

Bob Tory -- He's the man who lost popularity points when he traded goalie Drew Owsley. He chose to keep the overage Winnipeg trio of Adam Hughesman, Brendan Shinnimin and Mason Wilgosh, and parted with defenseman Brock Sutherland. But the moves he made in the offseason and at the overage deadline have paid dividends. He brought in defensemen Mitch Topping and Derek Ryckman, goalie Ty Rimmer, and forwards Nate MacMaster and Lukas Walter, whom Tory stole from Portland when the Winterhawks failed to put him on their protected list. Also, import players Malte Strömwall and Michal Plutnar were quality draft picks. The end result? The best start to the season at the holiday break.

* Grade: A

Coach

Jim Hiller -- There are a few things that make you go "Hmmmm." 1. Not fond of the fact he mixes his lines so much. 2. Spokane's home opener was not the right place to start rookie goalie Eric Comrie (he's still working off those goals against). 3. Though the penalty kill (ranked No. 1) has become lethal, the power play (ranked No. 8) -- while improving -- still lacks the power expected from the top team in the WHL. If that's all there is in the complaint department, there's really not much about which to complain. The Americans remain second in the CHL poll for the second week and, with 54 points, have a four-point lead over the next best team in the WHL. The Americans are on an eight-game winning streak and have allowed 83 goals -- second fewest in the league.

* Grade: A

Goalies

Ty Rimmer -- There were questions about his qualifications when he came over in a trade from Prince George, but a change of scenery was just what he needed. He is 15-4-0-0 with a league-leading .929 save percentage and ranks second in goals against average at 2.14. He also has a league-high three shutouts. Has a bit of a edge to his game, rolling up 10 penalty minutes. He has had his off-nights, but his experience is key in certain situations. He has been a good mentor to rookie Eric Comrie. Unlike a lot of veterans who get the lion's share of time in net, he splits time with Comrie and has handled the situation like a pro.

* Grade: A

Eric Comrie -- Rookie goalies who see significant time in the league are few. Rookie goalies who are 16 and see significant time are rare. Comrie is the rare exception. Four rookie goalies in the WHL have played at least 700 minutes, but the other three are 18 years old. Comrie is 12-3-0-0 -- and he would be the first to thank his defensemen for their help. He leads all rookie goalies in goals against average at 2.62 (seventh in the WHL) and has an .897 save percentage and two shutouts. He has been in over his head a time or two and made rookie mistakes, but he and Rimmer make up the best goaltending tandem in the league.

* Grade: A-

Forwards

Tyson Dallman -- It's always hard to grade the rookies who have limited ice time. Dallman has played 16 games and made the most of his opportunities with one goal and two assists.

* Grade: Incomplete.

Justin Feser -- Mr. Versatility. A talented forward with blazing speed, he also has taken a step back to the blue line this season to fill in for injured defensemen. He plays on the power play and penalty kill, and ranks fourth in team scoring (41 points) with 17 goals and 24 assists. The Americans would be lost without him.

* Grade: A

Patrick Holland -- A big week (three goals, three assists) entering the holiday break earned him WHL Player of the Week honors. He had a slow start to the season with one goal at the end of October, but his play without the puck and on special teams has been impressive, which is reflected in his plus-15 rating. He's third on the team in scoring (42 points) with 13 goals and 29 assists.

* Grade: A-

Adam Hughesman -- Where to start? He leads the team in points (59), goals (23) and assists (36), which ranks third in the league. He ranks fourth in league scoring and is third in power-play goals (10) and in power-play assists (18). His plus-22 rating is second on the team and in the WHL. One of the league's most underrated players, he is on pace for a 130-point season. He is a key component on the power play but does not play on the PK unit. He finished the first half of the season playing his 300th WHL game -- all with Tri-City.

* Grade: A

Nate MacMaster -- Toiled away last season in Calgary before coming over in a trade early this season. Winning certainly agrees with him. He has four goals and three assists in 22 games (injuries limited playing time). His play on the checking line and penalty kill has been impressive at times. He knows his role and plays it well.

* Grade: B

Jordan Messier -- His touch around the net isn't what it was last year when he had 20 goals at the break -- 19 of which were even strength. This season, he has nine goals, 12 assists and a plus-3 rating to go with 35 penalty minutes and five fights. He's capable of more. Much more.

* Grade: B-

Marcus Messier -- Skates a regular shift and plays his heart out every night. He is the burr under the saddle for opponents -- which is his role. On the upswing, he has three goals and two assists.

* Grade: B

Lucas Nickles -- He's still trying to find his way on a team stacked with talent up front. In 19 games, he has one goal, one assist and a minus-3 rating.

* Grade: Incomplete

Connor Rankin -- Coming off an impressive rookie season, he's a top-line guy most nights with Adam Hughesman and Brendan Shinnimin. In his second year, he has 12 goals and 18 assists to go with a plus-17 rating. He has a spot on the top power-play unit and has six goals for his efforts.

* Grade: A-

Brendan Shinnimin -- After having just four goals and 14 points through October, he has come on strong. He's second on the team in scoring with 17 goals and 33 assists. He excels on the power play and penalty kill, where he leads the team with two short-handed goals. He has a little bite to his game, which is always appreciated.

* Grade: A-

Malte Strömwall -- It didn't take long for the Sweden native to figure things out in the WHL. He's good with the puck -- eight goals and seven assists -- but with the talent ahead of him, he has been a third-line player. Just 17, he has many good years ahead.

* Grade: B

Lukas Walter -- At 6-foot, 190 pounds, he's not your typical enforcer, but don't tell him that. He leads the team with eight fights and defends his teammates -- sometimes a little too vigorously. He was suspended by the league for six games for a one-man fight against Kelowna. Not advised, as he found out. Along with his 50 PIMs, he has two assists. He has played 21 games, but with limited shifts at times.

* Grade: C

Mason Wilgosh -- Has taken the value of hard work taught to him at a young age in the league and passed it on to his teammates. As captain, he leads by example every night on the ice and has been instrumental in brewing up a team chemistry that is second to none. His offensive output has taken a step forward with six goals and 21 assists. He has a plus-16 rating and is one of the best penalty killers in the Western Conference.

* Grade: A

Brian Williams -- Has played all but two games entering the break, chipping in three goals and nine assists. He has taken his lumps -- the three fights he was in were one-sided, and not in his favor -- but he never backed down. His speed is an asset, his size is not, but this team makes its living off guys like him.

* Grade: B

Defensemen

Drydn Dow -- A little time at forward last year brought his confidence to the surface. He has impressive speed and good puck-handling skills. He fought for ice time last year but has played all 34 games this year, adding one goal, six assists and a plus-10 rating.

* Grade: A-

Sam Grist -- A steady stay-at-home guy who has great value on the penalty kill. He has three assists and a plus-11 rating. He's big and strong, plastering guys into the boards, but his team-high 61 PIMs only have three fights in the mix. The only concern is the petty penalties. He should know better by now.

* Grade: A-

Riley Guenther -- Has played just 10 games, but he got some ice time right before the break with injuries to Zach Yuen and Mitch Topping. He has one assist and six PIMs.

* Grade: Incomplete.

Justin Hamonic -- Like Guenther, has had limited playing time. In 13 games, he has one assist and nine PIMs.

* Grade: Incomplete.

Michal Plutnar -- Has picked up the game faster than he has the language. The Czech Republic native has been an asset on the blue line and works well when paired with Grist. He has three goals, six assists and a plus-6 rating.

* Grade: A-

Derek Ryckman -- Another refugee from Lethbridge who has revived his career in Tri-City. It took him a few games to catch up to the speed of the Americans' game, but partner Drydn Dow helped him adjust. He has erased his minus-7 rating with the Hurricanes (combined minus-15 in three seasons) and is at a plus-5 for the season. He has one goal and four assists with Tri-City and is valuable on the penalty kill. He's also a reliable stay-at-home defenseman. Colton Yellow Horn and Mitch Fadden found success here, and so will Ryckman.

* Grade: A-

Mitch Topping -- The former Chilliwack Bruin has fit in nicely. It didn't take long for him to rise to the top and earn a spot on the top pairing with Zach Yuen. He has four goals and nine assists to go with a plus-14 rating. He does a little bit of everything and does it well.

* Grade: A

Zach Yuen -- One of the most reliable and talented defensemen in the league. He has good vision on the ice, doesn't take lazy penalties and is a big reason the Americans have given up just 83 goals in 34 games. He leads the defense with five goals, 11 assists and a league-high plus-23 rating.

* Grade: A

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