As anybody that's read my comments and posts knows, I am a strong supporter of the American Hockey League, and more specifically our own Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. So when people complain about our NHL depth in Pittsburgh or suggest that we need to look for new NHL free agents, I'm quick to point out some of the promising young players that are moving their way up through our farm system.
Unfortunately, more often than not that is met by derisive comments. It seems a lot of people feel that the AHL is just a bush league, the place where young guys play when they are not good enough for "real hockey" in the NHL and where older players go to die when they are past their prime. There is a certain amount of truth to this of course, the AHL is where young players are sent to develop when they are not quite ready for the NHL, but it doesn't mean they will never be ready. And the AHL is where a lot of veterans wind up in the twilight of their careers, but the same came be said for most of the European leagues. So there is a stigma, people feel that the AHL is a lesser league (which it is, it's minor pro while the NHL is major pro), and they look down on any player that plays there.
There are also numerous people that acknowledge that the AHL is a developmental league and as such every so often the cream will rise to the top and you will find somebody worthy of moving to the NHL. But even these people seem to believe that all we are going to get out of the AHL is fringe 4th liners. They feel that the only way to get truly skilled players is to take them straight out of the draft. Once again, there is a certain amount of truth to this. The truly elite players, the franchise superstars that are the core you build your team around, these are more often than not players that play so well in the juniors that they are ready to immediately move up to the NHL. But they neglect to realize that most teams are lucky to have 1 or 2 superstars, so the vast majority of your players have to move up through the ranks in the traditional way.
Perhaps another reason the stigma persists is that we expect immediate gratification. If an NHL team has a promising you prospect in their pipeline but no room for them on their NHL roster, then that player has no chance of succeeding in the NHL, at least not with that particular club. Sometimes you have a Top 6 scoring forward or Top 4 D from the AHL that is ready to move up. With their potential they could succeed as top NHL players too, but what if there is no room on the active roster in the position they were groomed for? These players wind up getting pigeon holed into lesser 4th line or 3rd pair roles, or even worse being a healthy scratch waiting around for an injury. And when they do get a chance to play they are usually skating alongside veteran depth who are on the 4th line/3rd pair because that is the best they have to offer. So skating alongside these players, the young prospects don't have the chance to shine and show what they could really do if given a shot in the Top 6. So watching them struggle in a role that they are ill suited for, we now have the mistaken notion that they were barely good enough for the NHL, and if this is the best the AHL has to offer then the vast majority of them must be worthless.
Look at our own Penguins for example. We have had Sidney Crosby for the past 8 years and Evgeni Malkin for the past 7 years locked in at Center in our Top 6. We previously had Jordan Staal for 6 years and then traded him for his immediate replacement Brandon Sutter centering the Check line. So if you are an up and coming Center in the Penguins system, moving your way up through the juniors/college and into the AHL, you are stuck behind a massive roadblock. Even if you are good enough to be a Top 6 or even a Check line Center, there is just no room for you, and the most you can hope for if getting to Center the 4th line, and that is if you are lucky enough to not be scratched more often than not. So if you ever want to be more than a 4th liner you have to either move on to another team that has openings, or else adapt and move to playing the wing.
However, even our wings don't often have openings. At the moment we have Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and James Neal as our top 3 wings, so going into this season we had just one opening. The 3 of them have been in that position since acquiring Neal in 2011, accompanied by a string of veterans over the years. First it was Alex Kovalev, then it was Steve Sullivan, and this year it was Jarome Iginla. And its not just the Top 6, even the 3rd line wings have been Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy for the past 3 years, although this year we had a special situation with the Salary Cap and had an extra veteran in Brenden Morrow who played on the 2nd and 3rd lines at various times. So how is a young up and coming AHL player supposed to crack the lineup when there is no room for them in the Top 9? There only hope is to join and get stuck playing 4th line minutes or being a healthy scratch, hoping that one day an opening will be available to move up to the Top 6. Next year the plan is for Beau Bennett to do just that, filling in as the 6th forward in the Top 6. Other guys, such as Dustin Jeffrey, have been waiting for years for that opportunity to present itself, and it just never happened.
Of course it does happen sometimes. As mentioned Bennett will be moving up next year, but before him we saw Dupuis move up in 2010-11, which bumped Kennedy up to the 3rd line. Prior to that we had Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko (who moved up from the previous season), and Alexei Ponikarovsky joining Kunitz, Cooke, and Dupuis in our Top 9. The year before that we had Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan joining Kunitz, Guerin, Dupuis, and Cooke in our Top 9. It has been years since we have had a legitimate opening in our roster, so how can we expect the AHL players to succeed when we are lucky to even have room for them on the 4th line? We develop them, have a promising young prospect, but nowhere to put them. So they waste away like Jeffrey, or they move on to greener pastures like Mark Letestu, Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson, Maxime Talbot, and Tim Wallace. Sure they may not be the most impressive players, but by moving on they got a chance to take on a greater role with a new team, getting more ice time and more opportunities to prove themselves in situations they wouldn't have seen stuck here in Pittsburgh.
We have had more openings on D in recent years, which may be why the Pens were so focused on drafting defensemen, but it also resulted in more success in D moving up from WBS. Brooks Orpik moved up the ranks from WBS to 3rd pair to now being one of our top 3 D. Kris Letang did the same, starting in WBS and joining the Pens on the 3rd pair, to where he is now our #1 defenseman. For years it was difficult to really make an impact though, as we had veterans such as Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney (who is himself a product of the Pens farm system via WBS), Rob Scuderi (another product of the Pens farm system in WBS), Mark Eaton, and Hal Gill.
However, some managed to break through in the post-Cup Bylsma years. Unfortunately it was still rather difficult to move past the bottom of the depth chart because the core Top 4 defenders were still around. Alex Goligoski managed to move up from WBS to help us win the Cup in 2009, but then couldn't get any further than the 3rd pair and wound up getting traded to Dallas where he is now their #1 defenseman. The reason he never got the opportunity to move up is because the Pens acquired 2 new free agents to replace Gonchar and Scuderi when they moved on in free agency, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin.
So once again there was no room for an up and coming AHL defenseman to be anything more than a 3rd pair D. We saw Matt Niskanen come in to replace Goligoski on the 3rd pair, leaving only 1 opening in the roster on the 3rd pair. So over the past 3 years we have seen Ben Lovejoy, who came up from WBS and spent most of his time in Pittsburgh as a healthy scratch, move on the Anaheim where he is able to get more regular playing time and an opportunity to pitch in on PP and PK. We have Deryk Engelland, who moved up from WBS to become the #6/7 D in Pittsburgh. A very brief 1 game appearance of Carl Sneep, who even in WBS was finding it hard to get playing time with so much defensive depth, so he was traded to Dallas where he got an opportunity to get more ice time with the Texas Stars. We had Brian Strait, who after graduating from WBS found himself the 9th D on the roster and thus placed on waivers and claimed by the Islanders, where he has since made a name for himself as one of their top defensemen.
And now we currently have Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo. The two of them would have seen more opportunities this past season, but we were once again blocked up along the blue line. Letang, Martin, and Orpik once again remain the top 3. They were joined by Niskanen who moved up after we traded Michalek. That left Despres and Bortuzzo fighting with Engelland and Lovejoy for time on the 3rd pair (and Despres also tried to usurp 2nd pair minutes from Niskanen but did not succeed). If that wasn't bad enough, they then brought back Eaton and eventually added Douglas Murray to the mix. So the young rookies Despres and Bortuzzo, and the countless D waiting in the wings in WBS, were lost in the shuffle. However, next season Despres is penciled into the Top 4, and if Bortuzzo returns he is likely to get a bigger role on the 3rd pair, although for his sake I would understand if he chose to move on to a new team that is in need of a Top 4 shutdown D.
How many AHL players make it to the NHL?
So now that we have looked at the specific problems that make it unlikely for a lot of our prospects to be able to crack the Penguins NHL roster, let's take a look at the league as a whole. A lot of people look at our current young NHL prospects, wasting away at the bottom of the depth chart or struggling to make the roster on a regular basis, and assume it must be a symptom of the ineptitude of the AHL in general. But in reality, how many NHL players are a product of the AHL? One group, the group that acknowledges that some players do eventually crack the glass ceiling to join the NHL, assumes that the players coming up from the AHL are just fringe players and are lucky to even crack the bottom of the depth chart. If this is true then obviously we would have a very small percentage of AHL alumni playing in the NHL today. So how many really do?
Quite conveniently, the AHL itself has done this work for me. At the start of the 2013 NHL season, 626 NHL players on the Opening Day Rosters had previously played in the AHL. That accounts for "more than 86 percent of the NHL’s player pool." That leaves roughly 100 players that had never played in the AHL (I'm sure many of them came from Europe, which means they went through their own developmental minor pro leagues). That averages out to 3 or 4 players on the team that did not have to move up from the AHL to earn a place in the NHL. So the vast majority of players, even the Top 6 forwards, shut-down Check liners, Top 4 D, and many starting goaltenders joined the NHL via the farm system in the AHL. Its not just the botom of the depth chart 4th liners, 3rd pair D, and healthy scratches that people wrongly associate with the AHL. And its not just an anomaly because of the lockout in which we saw a lot of NHL calibre players down in the AHL. They did the same thing for the start of the 2011-12 NHL season, finding that there were 607 AHL alumni on the NHL's Opening Day rosters, "making up nearly 83 percent of the NHL’s player pool."
So who are some of these "worthless bottom of the depth chart" AHL alumni? The articles list quite a few prominent names: Conn Smythe winner and Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick; Vezina and Conn Smythe winner and Stanely Cup champion Tim Thomas; Hart winner Corey Perry; Norris winner Erik Karlsson; Lady Byng winner Martin St. Louis; Selke winner Ryan Kesler; and numerous All-Stars such as James Neal, Shea Weber, Zach Parise, Dustin Brown, Jason Spezza, Zdeno Chara, Cory Schneider, Jimmy Howard, Kari Lehtonen, John Carlson, P.K. Subban, Logan Couture, and Pekka Rinne. In 2011-12, "more than 850 AHL alumni played in the National Hockey League, including 329 who skated in both leagues last year alone. 11 AHL graduates led their NHL teams in scoring, and 28 AHL goaltending alumni paced their NHL clubs in victories." Prior to that, in 2010-11 "more than 850 AHL alumni played in the National Hockey League, including 320 who skated in both leagues last year alone. 16 AHL graduates led their NHL teams in scoring, and 27 AHL goaltending alumni paced their NHL clubs in victories."
And it isn't just players. At the start of the 2011-12 season, 23 out of 30 NHL Head Coaches had previously coached in the AHL. This feat was repeated in 2013, with 23 out of 30 NHL Head Coaches having moved up the ranks having formerly been AHL coaches. By the end of the season this increased, as Buffalo replaced their long time coach with the Head Coach of their AHL afilliate, bringing the total to 24 out of 30 (Tampa Bay replaced their coach too, but both the former and replacement had been AHL coaches in the past).
So it may very well be time for people to get over their misgivings on AHL call-ups. The vast majority of NHL players, including many elite scorers, All-Stars, and franchise core players, got where they are by playing their way up through the AHL. So when we look at our roster and find holes that need to be filled, either this year or in coming seasons, people should not be so apprehensive about trusting our young prospects. The Penguins have quite a number of prospects that have every likelihood of succeeding and moving on to fill those holes. Sure we may not have a lot of players that are ready for that duty right now (well except for Bennett, Despres, Jeffrey, and Bortuzzo who have already graduated to the NHL), but most of them are not far off. Keep an eye on them in rookie camp in July and then once more in training camp this fall. They may well surprise you, and could even earn a spot on the roster if there are still opening available.