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NHL reaps benefits from relationship with AHL

Growing commitment, investment in top development league paying dividends

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

UTICA, N.Y. -- The numbers make the case for the relationship between the NHL and its top development league, the American Hockey League.

Last season 88 percent of NHL players were AHL graduates. Sixty AHL players have made their NHL debuts this season. Bruce Boudreau, John Hynes, Peter Laviolette, Todd McLellan, Joel Quenneville, John Tortorella, and Barry Trotz are among the NHL coaches who are AHL coaching alumni.


That kind of successful production continues to spur even more investment by NHL teams in the AHL, as they seek every possible edge.

"The investment that is being made now in AHL teams and AHL players by the National Hockey League is dramatically different than it was even 10 years ago," AHL president and chief executive officer Dave Andrews said at the AHL All-Star Classic annual address Monday.

"Having a strong development system at the AHL level is really a critical part of sustaining high-quality play [with] the NHL [team]. With that level of investment by NHL teams, they want to be able to see those [prospects] daily.

"They want to monitor their progress, they want to get to practices, get to their games with [NHL] senior management."

Here is a look at three NHL organizations and their increased commitment to the AHL.


Closer to home

Add the Colorado Avalanche to the growing list of NHL teams bringing their AHL prospects much closer to home. 
Thirteen NHL teams have made AHL affiliation changes since 2015. The AHL will have a record 31 teams next season.

"We are stabilizing our geography, and that stabilization is centered around our teams being closely geographically connected to their NHL partners," Andrews said.

Geography fueled that decision for the Avalanche. They will move the Colorado Eagles, their ECHL affiliate, to the AHL next season. That will put their AHL prospects in Loveland, Colorado, a 50-minute drive from the Pepsi Center, and allow management to make regular trips to see them in a market where the ECHL team plays to 94.8 percent capacity.

The move will also allow the St. Louis Blues to have their own AHL affiliate. The Blues will be the new parent team for San Antonio, replacing the Avalanche. The Blues, who are scattering their prospects with three AHL teams, signed a five-year affiliation agreement with San Antonio that starts next season.


Development days

The Los Angeles Kings call them "development days," and the concept is simple.

In 2015 the Kings relocated their AHL affiliate from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Ontario, California, a short drive from Staples Center. That change created a significant opportunity for Kings prospects.

Kings director of player development Nelson Emerson (771 NHL games) along with development coaches Glenn Murray (1,009 NHL games), and Jarret Stoll (872 NHL games) all make regular trips to Ontario to provide prospects with personal instruction.

Goaltending development coach Dusty Imoo works most days with Ontario rookie goaltender Cal Petersen, a fifth-round pick (No. 129) in the 2013 NHL Draft.

"There is a whole whack of them," Ontario captain Brett Sutter said of the traveling contingent that arrives from Los Angeles. "You get to see familiar faces come down almost daily. Those guys that make the drive from L.A., there are a lot of them. It's hands-on, and they're always there for questions. It has been an amazing experience."


From Marlies to Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a very homegrown roster.

Forwards Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Josh Leivo, William Nylander, and Nikita Soshnikov came to the Maple Leafs after playing in the AHL. Defensemen Connor Carrick, Jake Gardiner, and Morgan Rielly made the same journey, while forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Travis Dermott have been the latest recalls.

Maple Leafs prospects can expect considerable hands-on instruction along with a winning AHL environment. Under coach Sheldon Keefe, the AHL-leading Toronto Marlies are 32-11-1, have an 11-game point streak (10-0-1), and are on their way to making the Calder Cup Playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.

"The biggest thing the [AHL] represents is opportunity," Keefe said. "It's all about opportunity."

Keefe, 37, who played three seasons in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning, can recall a much simpler development template. The Maple Leafs have built a premier AHL setup, but Keefe notes there is ample competition from other NHL organizations.

"I just think the amount of time, money, manpower that is put into development of players and coaches is just far greater than when I played," Keefe said. "There was maybe one assistant coach, max. No video coaches, no full-time goalie coaches, no skills coaches. It was almost a holding tank for players. Now I believe it's true development. I think the players really feel that.

"I think all of this has become such a huge priority now, and that's a game-changer."

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