AHL pipeline to NHL has never been busier

Author: Patrick Williams, NHL.com Correspondent
Date: Feb 5, 2018

The numbers speak for themselves.

Last season, 88 per cent of NHL players were AHL graduates. Sixty AHL players have made their NHL debuts this season.

Current NHL bench bosses Bruce Boudreau, John Hynes, Peter Laviolette, Todd McLellan, Joel Quenneville, John Tortorella and Barry Trotz are among the AHL coaching alumni.

That kind of successful production continues to spur even more investment by NHL teams in the AHL, as they seek every possible edge.

"The investment that is being made now in AHL teams and AHL players by the NHL is dramatically different than it was even 10 years ago," said AHL president and CEO, Dave Andrews. "Having a strong development system at the AHL level is really a critical part of sustaining high-quality play with the NHL team. With that level of investment by NHL teams, they want to be able to see those prospects daily.

"They want to monitor their progress, they want to get to practices, get to their games with senior management."

Here's a look at three NHL organizations and their increased commitment to the AHL.

Closer to home

Add the Colorado Avalanche to the growing list of NHL teams bringing their AHL prospects closer to home. Thirteen NHL teams have made AHL affiliation changes since 2015 — including the Ottawa Senators, who shifted their top farm club from Binghamton, NY, to Belleville this season, cutting time and distance and eliminating border crossings.

"We're stabilizing our geography, and that stabilization is centered around our teams being closely geographically connected to their NHL partners," said Andrews.

Like Ottawa with Belleville, geography helped fuel that decision for the Avalanche. They'll move the Colorado Eagles, their ECHL affiliate, up to the AHL next season.

That'll put their AHL prospects in Loveland, a 50-minute drive from the Pepsi Center, and allow management to make regular trips to see them in a market where the ECHL team plays to 94.8 percent capacity.

The move also allows the St. Louis Blues to have their own AHL affiliate. The Blues will be the new parent team for San Antonio, replacing the Avalanche.

The Blues, who scattered their prospects with three different AHL teams, signed a five-year affiliation agreement with San Antonio that starts next season.

Development days

The Los Angeles Kings call them "development days," and the concept is simple.

In 2015 the Kings relocated their AHL affiliate from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Ontario, California, a short drive from Staples Center. That change created a significant opportunity for Kings prospects.

Kings director of player development Nelson Emerson and development coaches Glenn Murray and Jarret Stoll make regular trips to Ontario to provide prospects with personal instruction. Goaltending development coach Dusty Imoo works most days with Ontario rookie goaltender Cal Petersen.

"There's a whole whack of them," said Ontario captain Brett Sutter, of the traveling Kings contingent. "You get to see familiar faces come down almost daily. Those guys who make the drive from L.A. — there are a lot of them. It's hands-on and they're always there for questions.

"It has been an amazing experience."

From Marlies to Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a very homegrown roster. Forwards Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Josh Leivo, William Nylander and Nikita Soshnikov, along with defencemen Connor Carrick, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly all came to the Leafs after apprenticing in the AHL, while forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Travis Dermott have been the latest recalls.

Maple Leafs prospects can expect considerable hands-on instruction along with a winning AHL environment. Under coach Sheldon Keefe, the AHL-leading Toronto Marlies were 32-11-1 at the All-Star break, had an 11-game point streak (10-0-1) and were on their way to making the Calder Cup playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.

"The biggest thing the AHL represents is opportunity," said Keefe. "It's all about opportunity."

Keefe, 37, who played three seasons in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning, can recall a much simpler development template. The Maple Leafs have built a premier AHL setup, but Keefe notes there is ample competition from other NHL organizations.

"I just think the amount of time, money and manpower that is put into development of players and coaches is just far greater than when I played," said Keefe. "There was maybe one assistant coach — max. No video coaches, no full-time goalie coaches, no skills coaches. It was almost a holding tank for players. Now I believe it's true development. I think the players really feel that.

"I think all of this has become such a huge priority now, and that's a game-changer."

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