Binghamton did not look like a playoff team during the first two months of the American Hockey League season, but prospects are fueling a turnaround for the New Jersey Devils affiliate.
Binghamton is 33-24-4-0 and three points clear of fifth-place Syracuse in the race for the playoffs in the North Division. It has gone 26-9-0-0 in its past 35 games, including a current six-game winning streak, to overcome a 7-14-4-0 start.
Here’s a look at the prospects making a difference:
The 21-year forward was one of the Devils’ major returns at the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24. They sent defenseman Sami Vatanen to the Carolina Hurricanes for Kuokkanen, defenseman Fredrik Claesson, and a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Kuokkanen (6-foot-1, 193 pounds) was drafted by Carolina in the second round (No. 43) of the 2016 NHL Draft. He played in 11 NHL games the previous two seasons (four in 2017-18; seven in 2018-19) with no points. After missing a run to the 2019 Calder Cup championship with Charlotte following season-ending surgery for an unspecified injury, Kuokkanen rebounded to lead the team in scoring (42 points; 12 goals, 30 assists in 52 games) before the trade.
He responded immediately to his new home. He had six points (three goals, three assists) in his first four games with Binghamton, prompting a callup to the Devils on Saturday.
The Devils took Boqvist (6-0, 180) in the second round (No. 36) of the 2017 NHL Draft.
The 21-year-old forward has played 35 games with the Devils and has four goals. After a one-game NHL recall last week, Boqvist went back to Binghamton. Like Kuokkanen, he responded quickly. He had two goals at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on March 6 and has 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in 18 AHL games.
“He has worked hard, and it hasn’t been easy,” coach Mark Dennehy said. “I think he understands how hard this league is too. But we weren’t worried about it. We knew how good he is, and he was getting chances. Now he’s just capitalizing on those chances.”
New Jersey relied on NHL veteran Cory Schneider to work with goalie prospect Gilles Senn (6-5, 191), a fifth-round pick (No. 129) in the 2017 draft. Senn is in his first North American season after playing last season in the Swiss National League with HC Davos. The 24-year-old is 17-7-2 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in 27 AHL games.
“[Senn has] got all of the tools,” said Schneider, who returned to New Jersey on Feb. 20. “He is a big kid. He moves well and is smooth in the net. He’s got good hands. You can see his evolution as well.
“He’s getting more comfortable. It’s an adjustment to play in this league, no matter where you are coming from. The NHL, coming from Europe, coming from junior. He has started to figure it out. He’s learning where the scoring areas are and how to use the size to his advantage. He’s got a great demeanor. He’s pretty cool and calm in net.”
Dennehy has a much deeper group of forwards than during his rookie season.
New Jersey acquired Nick Merkley (5-10, 194) and Nate Schnarr (6-3, 180) as part of the trade that sent forward Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 16, 2019.
Merkley was selected by the Coyotes in the first round (No. 30) of the 2015 NHL Draft. The 22-year-old has overcome a serious knee injury sustained in his rookie season. He has 35 points (11 goals, 24 assists) in 53 AHL games between Tucson and Binghamton.
Arizona took Schnarrin the third round (No. 75) of the 2017 draft. The 21-year-old rookie has 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 43 games with Tucson and Binghamton.
“They came at a good time for us,” Dennehy said. “We were starting to come a little bit, and then you add two pieces like that.”
Forward Brett Seney (5-9, 156) who played 51 games with New Jersey last season has 44 points (19 goals, 25 assists) in 60 AHL games this season. New Jersey chose the 23-year-old in the sixth round (No. 157) of the 2015 draft.
Nathan Bastian (6-4, 205), has 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 61 games. New Jersey took the 22-year-old in the second round (No. 41) of the 2016 draft.