The American Hockey League has evolved into an operation where player development is the undisputed priority for its 30 member teams.
Even the old-school Chicago Wolves have made the transition, though the evolution has not harmed the on-ice bottom line for the St. Louis Blues' AHL affiliate.
Ivan Barbashev has three goals and eight assists through his first 11 games with the Chicago Wolves this season. (Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves)
Since moving into the AHL from the former International Hockey League in 2001, the Wolves carved out a reputation as something of an independent operation. Their Chicago location, financial clout and win-now approach made it a very attractive destination for AHL veterans. Success followed as well; Chicago won the Calder Cup in 2002 and 2008, and reached the Cup final in 2005.
But the AHL has changed and the Wolves have had to change along with it. After affiliations with the former Atlanta Thrashers and the Vancouver Canucks, the Wolves partnered with St. Louis before the 2013-14 season.
"We like to mirror our game after the Blues," Wolves captain Pat Cannone said.
Plugging into the Blues' deep talent pipeline has worked out nicely for coach John Anderson and his Wolves, who have started the season 8-1-0-1, putting them in first place in the Central Division.
A blend of young and old have led the Wolves early in the season. Heading the list is left wing Ty Rattie, the 32nd pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. Rattie had 31 goals as an AHL rookie in 2013-14. Sandwiched around five games with St. Louis this season, the 22-year-old has six goals in six AHL games.
Another second-round pick on left wing is rookie Ivan Barbashev. Fresh off scoring 27 goals with Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, the 33rd pick in the 2014 draft is already a point-per-game player in the AHL with three goals and eight assists in his first 11 games.
However, the Blues-Wolves partnership has also shown a commitment to still retain the talent and experience that AHL veterans can provide on the ice and inside the dressing room. Cannone started this season with a 10-game point streak (five goals and nine assists). Right wing Danny Kristo has six goals in 11 games after signing with the Blues in the offseason.
Add up the offensive weapons and the Wolves' 3.91 goals per game rank them fourth.
"I think you have to work well with your parent club," said Anderson, who is within one win of 400 AHL wins and has 749 professional coaching wins. "The [older veterans were signed] with St. Louis in mind. The veteran guys that we have, I feel very comfortable that if St. Louis gave them the call, they would go up and do the job the right way."
Two of those players are young veterans Jeremy Welsh and Magnus Paajarvi. Welsh joined Paajarvi in St. Louis on Sunday after the Blues recalled him.
Veterans Andre Benoit, Chris Butler and Peter Harrold bring a combined 837 NHL games to the Chicago blue line. But the Wolves have a young look in net, where second-year goaltenders Jordan Binnington and Pheonix Copley are able to learn the pro game with an experienced team in front of them. The Wolves are eighth in the AHL in shots-against per game at 27.7.
Blending the NHL and AHL organizations has been a work in progress, but it is yielding results this season in what Anderson said is "a very good symbiotic relationship."
"I think that [Blues general manager] Doug Armstrong has been wonderful," Anderson said. "We've gotten along well with the [St. Louis] coaching staff [Blues coach] Ken Hitchcock, [associate coach] Brad Shaw and [assistant coach] Kirk Muller are awesome guys that have really helped us."
Still going: The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins' record 11-game winning streak continues after surviving a close call Sunday. The Hartford Wolf Pack chased Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Matt Murray with five first-period goals; Murray entered the game leading the AHL with a .951 save percentage.
However, the Penguins overcame a 5-1 deficit with five second-period goals of their own. After Hartford tied the game 6-6 with 1:09 left in the third period, Penguins forward Scott Wilson scored the game winner 34 seconds into overtime with his second goal of the game. Kevin Porter's two goals and forward Conor Sheary's four assists led the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton attack in front of relief goaltender Tristan Jarry.
The win wrapped up a wild weekend for the Penguins, who started it by shutting out the rival Hershey Bears 7-0 last Friday. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton outshot the Rochester Americans 42-16 for a 3-1 home win last Saturday.
Wilson, 23 and a seventh-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, has nine goals and six assists in 12 games this season. He had 19 goals as an AHL rookie last season after turning pro out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Sheary, also 23, spent four seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and went undrafted. As a rookie last season, he scored 20 goals in 58 games.
Not the first: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's win at Hartford was the second time in fewer than 24 hours that a team won a game on the road after trailing by four goals.
The St. John's IceCaps overcame an early 3-1 Toronto Marlies lead, scoring five times in the second period and eventually building an 8-4 lead. But the Marlies used four third-period goals to send the game into overtime at 8-8, tying the AHL record for the highest-scoring regulation tie in the league's 80 seasons.
William Nylander gave the Marlies their seventh win in nine road games when he scored 1:15 into overtime for a 9-8 win. Nylander also had three assists.
Marlies teammate Mark Arcobello added two goals; he has six goals and four assists in six games since the Toronto Maple Leafs assigned him to the AHL. The well-traveled Arcobello, who spent time with four NHL teams last season, has a 21-game regular-season points streak (10 goals and 22 assists) since the 2012-13 season when he was an Edmonton Oilers prospect.
AHL Game of the Week: The 8-1-4-0 San Antonio Rampage welcome the defending Calder Cup champion Ontario Reign, who have started 8-2-2-0, to AT&T Center on Friday. San Antonio defeated Ontario twice in overtime at the end of October in California. The Rampage are tied for fifth in the AHL with 3.38 goals per game. Ontario's 1.58 goals-against per game leads the AHL. Recalls to the Colorado Avalanche have hit San Antonio lately. Captain Ben Street, top goaltender Calvin Pickard and defenseman Zach Redmond each remain in the NHL.
Around the AHL: The AHL named Sheary its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. Sheary had a goal and seven assists in three games…The Bridgeport Sound Tigers (12-4-0-0) are tied with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the AHL lead at 24 points. (10-3-0-0) are tied for the AHL lead with 20 points…After a 2-4-1-0 start, the Milwaukee Admirals have won their past six games…Bridgeport's Joe Whitney retains the AHL scoring lead with 20 points (five goals and 15 assists)…Whitney's Bridgeport teammate, AHL veteran Bracken Kearns, has 10 goals, tying him for the AHL lead with rookies Hunter Shinkaruk of the Utica Comets and Frank Vatrano of the Providence Bruins. Shinkaruk and Whitney each are on NHL recall…San Diego Gulls rookie Brandon Montour leads all defensemen with 15 points (three goals and 12 assists)…Ontario goaltender Peter Budaj leads the AHL in goals-against average (1.28), save percentage (.947) and shutouts (four), and is tied for the league lead with eight wins…Three more AHL players debuted in the NHL last week. Lehigh Valley Phantoms forward Taylor Leier, Bridgeport defenseman Adam Pelech and forward Kurtis Gabriel of Iowa brought the season total to 39 AHL players.