The 82nd season of the American Hockey League begins Friday.
Player development remains the top priority for the AHL, and the numbers back up that mission. Last season, 121 AHL players made their NHL debuts, and 88 percent of NHL players last season had spent time in the AHL.
Look no further than the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins for proof. Goaltender Matt Murray and forward Jake Guentzel, each a cog in the championship, passed through the AHL recently. Sixteen members of the 2017 Stanley Cup champions spent time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh's affiliate.
With another AHL season, there is another new crop of young talent that will learn the pro game in the AHL. Here are five AHL newcomers that could make a big impression:
Zach Aston-Reese - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pittsburgh)
Pittsburgh has an extensive history of finding talent outside of the top two rounds of the NHL Draft and refining it in the AHL; Aston-Reese could be the next player to take that path to Pittsburgh, joining Murray along with Guentzel and forward Conor Sheary. Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old forward, was not drafted and played four seasons at Northeastern University. He played briefly with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of last season and had eight points (three goals, five assists) in 10 regular-season games. He had 31 goals and 63 points with Northeastern as a senior, leading the NCAA in each category. He was Hockey East Player of the Year as well as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
Thomas Chabot - Belleville (Ottawa Senators)
Ottawa management envisions Chabot as a major part of their future, but that will wait for now for the 20-year-old defenseman. An AHL assignment for the Senators' first-round selection (No. 18) in the 2015 NHL Draft will provide him with ample playing minutes and less pressure than trying to learn the pro game in the NHL. Last season with Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he won the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the top defenseman in the league and was also named its most valuable player in the playoffs. Along with a trip to the Memorial Cup, he also won a silver medal for Canada at the World Junior Championship.
Luke Kunin - Iowa (Minnesota Wild)
Minnesota selected the forward in the first round (No. 15) of the 2016 NHL Draft. He turned pro at the end of last season after two seasons at the University of Wisconsin (NCAA); he scored 41 goals in 69 games while in the NCAA and was a Hobey Baker Award nominee last season. He does not turn 20 until Dec. 4, so time is on his side. Last season with Iowa, after turning pro, he had eight points (five goals, three assists) in 12 games for a team that was long out of playoff contention. Minnesota management extensively overhauled the Iowa roster in the offseason and brought in considerable veteran talent that can complement, as well as shield, if necessary, Kunin in his transition to the rigors of the heavier AHL schedule.
Nick Schilkey - Charlotte (Carolina Hurricanes)
This speedy forward had 27 goals in 35 games last season with Ohio State University (NCAA) and was named a Hobey Baker Award nominee. However, that was not enough to earn him an NHL contract, so he went to development camp with the Hurricanes, impressed, and signed an AHL contract with Charlotte. At 23, and a captain for two seasons at Ohio State, he brings maturity to go along with a sneaky shot. This past weekend in preseason play against Lehigh Valley, he had seven points (four goals, three assists) in two games, including a hat trick.
Mike Vecchione - Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia Flyers)
After being a Hobey Baker Award finalist in his senior season at Union College (NCAA), the 24-year-old forward was courted by several teams. Philadelphia won the competition, adding yet another piece to their ever-growing stockpile of young talent. He had 29 goals last season, and his 63 points tied Aston-Reese for the most in college hockey. However, he brings excellent two-way play as well. Lehigh Valley has one of the deepest rosters in the AHL to start the season, and Vecchione will be a big piece of a team expected to contend for the Calder Cup.
Need to know: Grand Rapids (Detroit Red Wings) won the Calder Cup last season for the second time in the past five seasons.
What is new: The Montreal Canadiens (Laval), New Jersey Devils (Binghamton), and Ottawa Senators (Belleville) each will have a new AHL affiliate. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights will partner with Chicago. The St. Louis Blues do not have an affiliate and will assign their prospects to a number of AHL teams.