AHL Development Breakdown Part II: Defensemen

By Bill Meltzer

Without question, young defensemen take longer to come into their own than young forwards. Many of the responsibilities cannot be quantified on a stat sheet. Therefore, defensemen typically reach their primes and decline later than forwards. But is a young defenseman better off learning from his mistakes over a substantial minor league apprenticeship or is someone destined for a succesful career better served by working through his growing pains in the NHL?

I ran a test for current NHL defensemen and a few notable players who retired within the last couple of years. The list is not intended to be comprehensive—it’s a cross-section of players, although I did try to include most of the top NHL defensemen of recent vintage. I took players of various statures within the league (all-stars, regulars, and journeymen), drafted in various rounds (or signed as undrafted free agents), from a variety of backgrounds (CHL, NCAA, and Europe) and a mix of older veterans and younger players. The result, somewhat surprisingly, was virtually the same for defensemen as it was for the forwards. Defensemen need the same—or only marginally more—minor league time as forwards.

I did not expect to find so many notable defensemen who played no more than a quarter of a minor league season. Not only do most A-level and “second tier” star defensemen spend little or no time in the AHL (or the now-defunct IHL), which is to be expected, it is rare for most long-term regular 3-4 defensemen to spend the equivalent of two full seasons in the minors (either consecutively or broken up over several seasons of shuttiling between the NHL and the minors). An argument can be made that spending parts of several seasons in the minors can aid development, so I indicated that in cases where this applied (such as Mike Rathje, who only played 53 IHL regular season and playoff games—a little more than half a season’s worth—but did so over parts of 4 seasons before he cemented his full-time spot with the Sharks).

The only defensemen in the sampling who have ended up having long-term NHL careers after prolonged (over 2 seasons) in the minors are players who were undrafted rookie agents (such as Greg DeVries and Andy Delmore, who are both still fairly young but both figure to remain in the NHL), lower round draft picks who turn into solid, physical defensive defensemen (Bob Boughner, Lance Pitlick) or the rare defensive D who was probably NHL-ready at a younger age but developed a deep organization that did not have a full-time NHL roster spot (Brad Bombardir is a good example). If your organization has a solid defenseman who just can’t seem to crack the NHL full-time, you may have a future Joe Reekie. Every team needs that kind of defenseman. However, it’s very unlikely the player will ever be a star, even if they became the backbone of an AHL blueline.

As with forwards, all the same factors apply that weaken the AHL as a development league. Many significant NHL players matured in Europe or college hockey and needed little or no AHL team, although they may have made their North American pro debuts at ages 21-24. Some, like Chris Chelios, also played in the Olympics under the old “amateur” system prior to turning pro. Meanwhile, there is also the agreement with the CHL that keeps players under 20 from playing in the American Hockey League even if they are ready to move up from junior hockey but not quite ready for the NHL. The extra year or two of junior hockey does not seem to hurt most players at all. It does, however, reduce the significance of the minor leagues as a vehicle to develop players.

Two final key points before I present the breakdown of players. First, there is always greater likelihood that a first round draft pick will be rushed to the NHL (thereby potentially ruining their development if the player struggles early. Without question, Aki Berg would probably have better off staying in Finland than jumping right to LA, just as one example. However, it’s rare that being demoted to spend significant time in the minor leagues will later help“revive” the player’s development and lead to a long-term stay as an NHL starter. Good examples are players like Shawn Anderson , Darren Rumble and Jason Bowen. Karl Dykhuis is a rare exception. Although he’s always remained an inconsistent player, he at least recovered to the point of becoming a long-term NHL regular after flopping with Chicago at the start of his career. The defensemen who survive significant early growing pains tend to be able to do so, even under the glare of the NHL spotlight. Chris Pronger is the ultimate example both in terms of early struggle, on and off ice, and subsequent success. Ed Jovanovski is another example.

Secondly, in the chart below, I indicate minor league games for two players in the sampling who played in the AHL during the NHL lockout of October 1994 to January 1995. For both Washington’s Sergei Gonchar and the Flyers’ Chris Therien, the decision to send the player down to the minors was largely based on the impending lockout.

Now for the chart itself. The indications after the player’s name are the player’s primary league before reaching North American pro hockey, the age the player secured his NHL roster spot, and the number of minor league seasons (in terms of GP, either consecutively or over parts of seasons split between the NHL and the minors). Minor league playoff games are indicated where a player only joined a minor league for the playoffs (such as at the end of a junior season). I did not include brief minor league injury rehab assignments once a player was established in the NHL.

No AHL or IHL Experience
Bryan Berard (OHL, 18)
Rob Blake (NCAA, 21)
Ray Bourque (QMJHL, 19)
Chris Chelios (NCAA, 22)
Kevin Hatcher (OHL, 19)
Phil Housley (US High School, 18)
Calle Johansson (Elitserien, 20)
Ed Jovanovski (OHL, 19)
Alexander Karpovtsev (Russia, 23)
Darius Kasparaitis (Russia, 20)
Brian Leetch (US High School/NCAA, 19)
Nicklas Lidstrom (Elitserien, 21)
Bryan McCabe (WHL, 20)
Dan McGillis (NCAA, 24)
Larry Murphy (QMJHL, 20)
Scott Niedermayer (WHL, 19)
Janne Niinimaa (SM-Liiga, 21)
Teppo Numminen (SM-Liiga, 20)
Mattias Ohlund (Elitserien, 21)
Fredrik Olausson (Elitserien, 20)
Chris Phillips (WHL, 19)
Tom Poti (NCAA, 21)
Chris Pronger (OHL, 19)
Marcus Ragnarsson (Elitserien, 24)
Wade Redden (WHL, 19)
Luke Richardson (OHL, 18)
Richard Smehlik (CZE, 22)
Scott Stevens (OHL, 19)
Brad Stuart (WHL, 19)
Glen Wesley (WHL, 19)
Dmitri Yushkevich (Russia, 21)
Alexei Zhitnik (Russia, 20)

Less than 20 AHL and/or IHL Games
Eric Desjardins (QMJHL, 20 y/o, 7 AHL GP (3 RS, 4 playoff)
Adam Foote (OHL, 20, 6 AHL GP)
Garry Galley (NCAA, 21, y/o, 4 AHL GP)
Hal Gill (NCAA, 22 y/o, 4 AHL GP
Roman Hamrlik (CZE, 18 y/o, 2 IHL GP)
Derian Hatcher (OHL, 21 y/o, 2 IHL GP)
Niclas Havelid (Elitserien, 26 y/o, 2 AHL GP)
Bret Hedican (NCAA, 22 y/o, 19 IHL GP)
Al MacInnis (OHL, 20 y/o, 19 Central Hockey League GP)
Dave Manson (WHL, 20 y/o, 6 IHL GP)
Derek Morris (WHL, 20 y/o, 10 AHL GP (7 RS, 3 playoff)
Rich Pilon (WHL, 20 y/o, 6 AHL/ 2 IHL GP)
Sami Salo (SM-Liiga, 24 y/o/,5 IHL GP)
Oleg Tverdovsky (Russia/WHL, 21 y/o, 9 AHL GP)
Igor Ulanov (Russia, 22 y/o, 15 AHL/IHL GP)

Between 1/4 to roughly 3/4 AHL/IHL season (>20 but < 65 GP)) Eric Brewer (WHL, 20 y/o, 25 AHL GP)
Patrice Brisebois (QMJHL, 53 AHL GP)
Sergei Gonchar (Russia, 20 y/o, 63 AHL GP (2 playoff+ 61 RS during NHL 94-95 lockout))
Jyrki Lumme (SM-Liiga, 23 y/o, 32 AHL GP (26 RS + 6 playoff)
Richard Matvichuk (WHL, 22 y/o, 63 IHL GP over parts of 3 seasons)
Jay McKee (OHL, 20 y/o 24 AHL GP over parts of 3 seasons (4+7+13)
Sandis Ozolinsh (Russia, 20 y/o, 36 IHL GP)
Mike Rathje (WHL, 21 y/o, 53 IHL GP over parts of 4 season (5 playoff + 48 RS)
Ruslan Salei (Russia, 22 y/o, 26 AHL/IHL GP over parts of 3 seasons)
Mathieu Schneider (OHL, 20 y/o, 31 AHL GP (3 playoff+28 RS)
David Tanabe (NCAA, 20 y/o, about 1/2 IHL season after demotion)
Chris Therien (NCAA/Canadian National, 23 y/o, 40 AHL GP (6+ 34 during NHL 94-95 lockout)
Sergei Zubov (Russia, 23 y/o, 32 AHL GP over 2 seasons (30 GP+2 GP)

Between 3/4 season to 2 full AHL/IHL seasons (>65 but <164 GP)
Adrian Aucoin (NCAA, 22 y/o, 113 AHL GP over parts of 3 seasons)
Keith Carney (NCAA, 23 y/o, 93 AHL/IHL GP)
Cory Cross (Canadian College/ Supp draft, 24 y/o, 1 1/2 IHL season)
Ken Daneyko (WHL, 22 y/o, 101 AHL GP)
Dave Karpa (NCAA, 22 y/o, 80 AHL GP over 1 full and parts of 3 seasons)
Bryan Marchment (OHL, 21 y/o, 88 AHL GP over parts of 2 seasons (56+33 GP)
Mattias Norstrom (Elitserien, 22 y/o, 118 AHL games)
Lyle Odelein (WHL, 22 y/o, 137 AHL/IHL GP)
Chris Tamer (NCAA, 24, 101 IHL games over 2 seasons (53+48 GP)
Eric Weinrich (NCAA, 24 y/o, 1 3/4 AHL season)

Between 2 to 3 full AHL/IHL seasons (>164 but < 244 GP)
Brad Bombardir (NCAA< 26 y/o, 2 1/2 AHL seasons)
Greg DeVries (OHL/rookie F/A, 24 y/o, 3 AHL seasons)
Andy Delmore (OHL/rookie F/A, 24 y/o, 2 1/2 (182 GP) AHL seasons )
Karl Dykhuis (QMJHL, 24 y/o, 2 1/2 IHL seasons over parts of 4 years)
Craig Rivet (OHL, 23 y/o, 2 1/2 AHL seasons)
Jason Woolley (NCAA, 25, 142 AHL/IHL GP over parts of 4 seasons)
Jason York (OHL, 26 y/o, 195 AHL GP)

More than 3 full AHL/IHL seasons
Bob Boughner (OHL, 24 y/o, 4+ ECHL/AHL/IHL seasons)
Nathan Dempsey (WHL, 27 y/o, 6+ AHL seasons)
Bobby Dollas (QMJHL, 28 y/o, 5+seasons)
Lance Pitlick (NCAA, 27 y/o, 5+ AHL seasons)