The Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins used the Stanley Cup Final to show the importance of player development in the American Hockey League.
For the Predators, 96 percent of their roster had graduated from the AHL; 92 percent of the Penguins roster were AHL alumni.
Pittsburgh has emphasized the union of player development with a winning environment with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, its AHL affiliate, and Nashville has had similar success with Milwaukee.
A portion of what NHL teams do during free agency involves finding quality AHL veterans, and many of those signings are about aiding their developing prospects. Teams want to surround those prospects with mentors in a positive and winning culture.
That mentorship provides young talent with guidance as well as preventing them from being overmatched early in the transition to the pro game. Those AHL veterans also can be useful as recalls when injuries hit the NHL roster.
The Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota Wild, and Montreal Canadiens recently have retooled their AHL rosters.
Sabres general manager Jason Botterill oversaw AHL player development with the Penguins before moving on to the Sabres. While his main task is shaping the NHL roster, he has determined that an important factor in success at the NHL level will stem from the work that he does at the AHL level.
"For our long-term success for our organization, it's imperative that there is a winning culture, winning environment down in Rochester," Botterill said.
Botterill saw that player development firsthand as a Rochester player for parts of three seasons. The Buffalo/Rochester partnership sent a number of important players to the Sabres, among them goaltender Ryan Miller, forwards Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek and defenseman Brian Campbell.
Since then, however, the affiliation has struggled to marry player development with a winning environment. Rochester has missed the Calder Cup Playoffs for three consecutive seasons and has not won a playoff series since 2005.
Botterill's experience with player development extends beyond the ice. He spent eight seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as a Penguins assistant general manager helping to develop high-end talent within a winning atmosphere full of playoff races and postseason runs.
Among the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton graduates that helped Pittsburgh to its second consecutive Stanley Cup championship were goalie Matt Murray, forwards Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, and defenseman Brian Dumoulin. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan got his start in the organization there as the coach.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has qualified for the AHL postseason for 15 consecutive seasons and twice been a Calder Cup finalist during that span.
Last week the Sabres hired Wilkes-Barre/Scranton assistant Chris Taylor to be the new coach in Rochester.
Botterill brought Randy Sexton with him from the Penguins to be an assistant general manager with the Sabres and oversee operations in Rochester. Forwards Seth Griffith and Kyle Criscuolo, who helped Grand Rapids (Detroit Red Wings) win the Calder Cup, were signed to help create organizational depth.
Veteran forward Kevin Porter signed with Buffalo after spending the past two seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Defenseman Matt Tennyson, who played 45 games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season, also signed.
Those proven veterans can blend with a group of prospects that includes forwards Alexander Nylander, Justin Bailey and Nicholas Baptiste, and defenseman Brendan Guhle.
Iowa, the Wild's affiliate, never has qualified for the AHL postseason and has averaged 64 points in its four seasons. To change that the Wild signed forwards Landon Ferraro, Cal O'Reilly and Kyle Rau, along with defenseman Alex Grant, whose 17 goals with Providence (Boston Bruins) ranked second among AHL defensemen last season.
Montreal will have a new AHL affiliate in Laval, which will play a short drive away from Bell Centre. Signed were forward Byron Froese and defenseman Matt Taormina, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the top defenseman in the AHL last season. Each player was with the Calder Cup finalist Syracuse (Tampa Bay Lightning) last season.
What Botterill and the Sabres are doing mirrors what many other NHL teams are doing with their AHL affiliates. It is all about finding any edge, no matter how small.
"It's just a philosophy of making sure that it's going to be a priority for us," Botterill said.
AROUND THE AHL
Utica (Vancouver Canucks) hired Trent Cull as its new coach. … Goaltender Mike McKenna, who starred with Syracuse in its run to the Calder Cup final, signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Stars. Goaltender Michael Leighton, who had been with Charlotte (Hurricanes), will replace McKenna in Syracuse. … Hartford (New York Rangers) finished last in the AHL but could have two major additions. The Rangers signed forwards Paul Carey from Hershey (Washington Capitals) and Cole Schneider from Rochester. Each player had 24 goals last season.