Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall has been restocking his prospect pipeline since arriving in 2013.
Hextall learned the management side of the game with the Los Angeles Kings, an organization that built a strong, deep American Hockey League roster that eventually fueled success at the NHL level. Surrounding a strong core of young talent with AHL veterans in key roles spawned development in a winning environment for Kings prospects.
However, success had eluded the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. They have not reached the Calder Cup playoffs since 2009.
With a talented group of prospects ticketed for Lehigh Valley this season, Hextall needed veterans to complement them.
Hextall went to work constructing his AHL roster during the summer, bringing in veteran defensemen TJ Brennan and Will O'Neill. Brennan, 27, won his second Eddie Shore Award last season with the Toronto Marlies after scoring 25 goals and 68 points. While Brennan led all AHL defensemen in scoring, O'Neill finished third with 50 points for the rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Brennan and O'Neill can ease some of the burden on top defense prospects Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim. Morin, a second-year pro, was Philadelphia's first pick (No. 11) in the 2013 NHL Draft and Sanheim was chosen 17th in 2014. Robert Hagg, who is also in his second AHL season, was a 2013 second-round pick (No. 41).
Up front, the Flyers signed proven AHL forwards Andy Miele, Mark Zengerle, Greg Carey and Jordan Weal. They join Nicolas Aube-Kubel, a 2014 second-round selection (No. 48), and Taylor Leier, a fourth-round pick (No. 117) in 2012. After back-to-back 38-goal seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Aube-Kubel turned pro this season and Leier has become a top recall option for the Flyers. Danick Martel, an undrafted player, had 22 goals as an AHL rookie and three goals in five games in his second season.
"The perfect situation would be like [Los Angeles]," Phantoms coach Scott Gordon said. "When they finally won the [Calder Cup], the guys that were the veterans were the guys that were the guys that didn't make it. It truly was a complete development system for them from player No.1 to player No. 23."
Before the 2015-16 season, the Flyers took a similar approach with adding AHL experience. But injuries and recalls along with a thinner group of prospects led to a mix that never quite panned out.
"The biggest change for me [this season] isn't so much the quality of vets, it's the quality of prospects," Gordon said. "There's no comparison this year. There are some growing pains, but that's what we're here for."
Hextall's AHL investment has gone beyond the ice as well. Gordon brings NHL coaching experience to the Lehigh Valley bench. The organization also added former NHL defenseman Kerry Huffman as an assistant coach and have some of the best off-ice facilities in the AHL.It is all geared to player development.
"There is so much depth in every organization," Gordon said. "There are no easy games.
"I know that in our [dressing] room, they're not ready right now. But there are at least five guys [who] are going to play in the NHL, guaranteed, and probably closer to eight."
ON THE BRINK
Marlies forward Brendan Leipsic leads the league in scoring with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in eight games. The 22-year-old is in his third pro season and skated in his first six NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. He plays an aggressive, energetic game at 5-foot-9 and is a strong candidate for NHL time.
The 6-1-0-1 Marlies are first in the AHL with 13 points and a .813 point percentage. They had a league-leading 54 wins in 2015-16. … Anthony Mantha of the Grand Rapids Griffins has the AHL lead with seven goals. … Goaltender Zane McIntyre remains on recall with the Boston Bruins, but his 0.44 goals-against average for the Providence Bruins leads all goaltenders. His .977 save percentage tops all goalies who have played more than one game.
GAME TO WATCH
Ontario Reign at Tucson Roadrunners (Nov. 4) -- The Arizona Coyotes' new affiliate is off to a fast start at 4-1-0-0. Top forward prospect Christian Dvorak joined Tucson this week.
Iowa center Jordan Schroeder was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. He had four goals and three assists in three games, earning him a recall to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. … Leipsic won the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for October. Marlies teammate Antoine Bibeau won the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for going 5-0-1 with a 1.64 GAA, .944 save percentage and two shutouts. Tucson defenseman Kyle Wood earned the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month award. Wood, 20, had two goals and six assists in five games.
AROUND THE AHL
The defending Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters are off to a 3-5-0-0 start that puts them last in the Central Division. Cleveland picked up goaltender Joonas Korpisalo on loan from the Columbus Blue Jackets. … Tucson sold out its home opener Oct. 28, when 6,521 fans saw a 6-5 win against the Stockton Heat. … Binghamton is missing their top two goaltenders with Chris Driedger and Matt O'Connor on recall with the Ottawa Senators. … The Ottawa affiliation will relocate to Belleville, Ontario, for the 2017-18 season and play as the Belleville Senators, providing Ottawa with an affiliate 2 ½ hours away. Belleville made its first major hire this week, naming St. John's IceCaps executive Rob Mullowney as chief operating officer. … Iowa has added a major offensive weapon in forward Teemu Pulkkinen from Minnesota. Pulkkinen, 24, had 34 goals in 46 games for Grand Rapids in 2014-15.