Is the AHL Truly the World’s Greatest Development League?

By Bill Meltzer

Watching the American Hockey League All-Star “Classic” on television last week, I heard the announcers and the interviewees utter the familiar refrain that the AHL is the world’s best development league for NHL prospects. Today’s minor leaguers are tomorrow’s NHL stars, we were told ad nauseum.

I have always been of the opinion that the American League is in fact a valuable place to develop goaltenders and defensemen over a couple of seasons. However, while forwards who spend more than 2 seasons in the AHL may still have long-term futures as NHL role players, it’s rare to be able to use the AHL farm team to develop forwards who ever become top NHL players. This was based strictly on observation. I had never actually looked at breakdowns of NHL forwards to see how many top players can be deservingly claimed by the AHL.

I looked at the top performing forwards in the NHL this season to see how many of them were actually “developed” in the NHL. Among the current top 26 scoring forwards in the NHL, 7 played at least a single AHL game. Three (Glen Murray, Pavol Demitra and Vaclav Prospal) spent at least half a season in the American Hockey League.

Even if the boundaries are expanded to encompass any minor league– after all, quite a few NHL teams had their farm teams in the now-defunct IHL– the numbers expand to only 10 among the top 26 who passed even briefly through the minors. Demitra, Prospal and Ray Whitney are the only ones with 100+ AHL games, while Zigmund Palffy spent a little more than the equivalent of one season in the IHL.

The American League often lists established stars like Alexei Kovalev, John LeClair, Doug Weight and Owen Nolan among the league “alumni.” In truth, however, all of those players were just passing through. None played more than 13 AHL games (Kovalev) before being permanently recalled to the NHL. Ditto younger up-and-coming stars like Mark Parrish (3 games), Olli Jokinen (9 games after struggling early in his NHL career), and Jeff O’Neill (one AHL game). I hardly think that’s enough time to claim that the league played a significant role in developing any of those players.

What about other notable veteran stars not among the current top quarter? A large percentage, such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis, and Jeremy Roenick never played in the minors at all. Ditto the likes of many “B level” stars such as Dave Andreychuk, Rod Brind’Amour and Adam Deadmarsh. Among the elite level talents, Brett Hull (who as a young player in the Calgary organization, spent a little less than a full season in the AHL) had just about the longest AHL stay you’ll find. Even among “B level” stars, such as Claude Lemieux or Steve Thomas, it’s tough to find players who spent more than one-plus seasons in the minors before permanent recall to the NHL.

Next, I extended the analysis to the top 12 forwards on the Philadelphia Flyers’ current depth chart. The results: 8 of the players at least made an appearance in the minors (Mark Recchi in the IHL, the others in the AHL).Recchi (1+ IHL seasons), Michal Handzus (1 AHL season) and Keith Primeau (a little more than 1/2 AHL season) were the only players among the top 8 who played at least half an AHL season.

I did not count recently acquired Eric Chouinard in the top 8 calculations but did include him in the top 12 because he currently skates on Jeremy Roenick’s line and the organization seems very pleased with him so far. If Chouinard does become an NHL impact player, he will be bucking the odds, given his extended AHL gestation period and overall modest AHL production. That’s not to say it can’t be done, of course.

Looking at the Flyers current top 12 forwards, in which I included former AHLers Chouinard, Donald Brashear and Marty Murray, another trend starts to develop. As you move down the depth chart toward the notable role playing forwards, you begin to find a bigger likelihood of finding players who spent several seasons in the minor leagues. Often these players took a couple years to come into their own in the minors but it eventually happened and they moved on. Conversely, the future NHL stars like Recchi typicaly dominated in the minors immediately and were clearly too good for the league.

Brashear, for example, spent 2-plus seasons in the AHL with Fredericton before the Canadiens called him up to stay. In his second season, he had 38 goals and 66 points to go along with his 250 PIMs in 62 games. Murray, meanwhile, needed 3 AHL seasons, 2 years in Europe and a dominant performance for the Phantoms in early part of the 2001-2002 season to finally earn a permanent call-up.

Similarly, ex-Flyer fan favorite Shjon Podein needed a 30 goal season and an average of over a point-per-game over the latter part of his 3-plus AHL seasons after college before he finally caught on as an NHL role player. There are numerous other similar examples.

The reasons for this are actually not hard to figure out. First, the forward positions– especially the wings– are less complicated positions to learn how to play than defense and goal. Top NHL forwards tend to emerge (and decline) at a younger age than defensemen and goalies.

The AHL’s development window for top forwards is hurt by virtue of the agreement with CHL teams that prevents players under the age of 20 from playing in the AHL. The very best players are often ready to jump to the NHL right out of junior hockey. Meanwhile, NCAA players have the opportunity of a longer development window in college hockey. Finally, with so many top players now coming from Europe, most of these players developed in the junior and senior leagues at home and required little or no AHL seasoning.

Demitra is a rare exception to the rule. Even Prospal, the “poster child” of prolonged AHL development (3 3/4 seasons before the Flyers finally recalled him), is an atypical case. He truly was “AHL developed.” Rather than playing in the Extraleague at home, Prospal jumped from Ceske-Budejovice’s junior team to the AHL at the age of 18. Thus, while almost all of his North American and European counterparts were putting in their development time in other leagues, Prospal took the very difficult route of being a boy among men. There are other European players such as Radek Bonk and Sergei Samsonov who played successfully in the IHL prior to their draft eligibility but that possibility, of course, no longer exists.

At any rate, here’s the bottom line. If your AHL team of choice has a forward prospect in his early to mid 20s who has been playing in the league for more than a few years, the odds are significantly against him ever becoming an NHL star– even if he is now a minor league star. As for the AHL being the “world’s greatest development league,” it clearly is not, at least not for future NHL star forwards. It would be interesting to do the same test to see how many top NHL defensemen and starting goaltenders, by comparison, spent prolonged periods in the minors.