The importance of the American Hockey League in developing players

Author: Clarence Paller, for PHPA.com
Date: Mar 23, 2016

"The AHL is the second best league in the world and most players in the NHL come directly from there," said Linden Vey of the Vancouver Canucks. “They produce and develop a lot of really great hockey players."

Recently, I had the chance to be a part of the media presence prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ visit to play the Vancouver Canucks.  Both teams are currently seeing an influx of young talent, players who have been able to not only transition to the NHL but also excel and play key roles for their respective teams.  This is a league wide trend which in most cases can be attributed to time spent developing their prospects in the AHL.

Now more than ever, teams are leaning heavily on these prospects not just to be call ups to fill a hole in the line-up, but rather make an impact to the team.

I wanted to know more about how the AHL prepares these young players for the NHL from their own personal perspective.  After speaking to players on both teams as well as Vancouver Canucks President, Trevor Linden, some key themes emerged.

 

League Most Similar to the NHL

A theme that came up with several players was that the AHL was not only the second best league in the world but also that the league was very similar to the NHL in terms of level of play.

Canucks forward, Sven Bärtschi who played parts of four seasons in the AHL explained the role the AHL played in his development. "It’s huge. I’ve spent quite some time there. You play against some very talented young players. Most of the time there are players already playing at the NHL level. That makes the league very good. For me personally it was great because it allowed me to really develop my game. I was put in situations where I could really be creative with the puck and really play my game."

Bärtschi continued, "My time there was a big learning process. You are always ready to be called back up to the NHL. There is no difference in speed of the game, it might be a little crisper in the NHL but I think the AHL has developed into a really great league to help players get used to the speed of the NHL."

Canucks goalie, Jacob Markström added, "The AHL is the league most similar to this league, the rink size and the North American style of hockey. As a player you are one call away from making the NHL. If you want to be in the NHL, I feel that the AHL is the best league to be in to get to the next level.  As a goalie, you notice that many AHL players have NHL shots."

 

Transition and Time to Develop

The AHL is a great stepping stone for young players to transition from junior and learn the professional game. "I feel the AHL is more about learning and developing prospects with a lot coming from junior. Right now with the veteran rule there are a lot of young guys playing in the AHL," said Markström.

Peter Holland of the Toronto Maple Leafs explained, "Playing in the AHL was a crucial time for my career; it’s another step from junior, going up to play against men. Then it’s another big step to make it to the NHL. The AHL is a great league, 90% of NHL guys go through there. I attribute a lot of my confidence and success to playing there."

Generally, players are not rushed in their development, Trevor Linden emphasized. "It’s not about how fast they get to the NHL it’s about how long they are here for". It took Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Byron Froese five seasons between the ECHL and AHL before he got his chance in the NHL this season. Froese explains, "I think my last five years have prepared me, not just my time last year or the year before that. Every year I have learned from my mistakes and made sure to come back the next day stronger."

"The one thing about the American league is the way the schedule works, it is gives you so much time to get stronger and work on your game" explained Linden Vey of the Vancouver Canucks. The AHL is primarily a weekend league, where players have more time to work on their game.

Another aspect to the AHL is the rigorous travel players go through together as a team, as Sven Bärtschi explains, "You spend so much time together on the bus, at the airport and travelling that you really get to know the guys by going through the grind together."

 

Coaching in the AHL

Great coaching and mentorship is an instrumental aspect to the success of the AHL in developing players. Trevor Linden explains the importance of coaching in the AHL, specifically using the Utica Comets, the Canucks AHL affiliate, as a prime example. "The job that Travis Green, Paul Jerrard, and Nolan Baumgartner do for us coaching in Utica, you can’t ask for a better development tool. That mentorship that the players receive from the coaches in the AHL is critical to them being professionals. It’s not about how fast they get here it’s about how long they are here for."

Frank Corrado who spent last season in Utica and Vancouver and who is now on the Toronto Maple Leafs attested to the Utica Comets coaching staff, “Travis Green and his staff did an unbelievable job in Utica. They are really detailed and smart hockey people. Travis, I think is well on his way to becoming a really good NHL coach. He knows how to get the most out of his players and how to talk to players. He knows the right buttons to push. It was great for me be there and learn from them."

 

Final Thoughts

The AHL is a critical factor for an NHL team’s success. More young players are stepping into key roles with NHL teams and are being heavily relied on. This is made possible by the development model of the AHL. It is no surprise that the Canucks are full of Utica Comets players from last season’s Calder Cup final run team and this season the Maple Leafs heavily relying on players from the Toronto Marlies, who are also poised to make a deep playoff run. Ultimately, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Vancouver Canucks are re-structuring around young talents and this season offers us a glimpse of an exciting future to come.

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