In any given season, the American Hockey League is a good league. It’s the second-best league in North America and one of the better leagues in the world. This season, it’s going to be a little better.
With the NHL lockout ongoing, several players who would have been in the world’s top league are now in the AHL, and that means the level of play in the American League will rise.
Texas forward Toby Petersen has been down this road before. He played in the AHL during the 2004-05 lockout, and knows how the league will change with the influx of NHL players.
“I was looking around the locker room and there weren’t many guys that experienced that,” Petersen said. “This is not going to be the AHL they are used to. This is the real deal. It’s close to the NHL now. You get some players that normally wouldn’t be here and it makes a difference.”
Petersen was in the Edmonton Oilers system back then and played for the Oilers’ AHL affiliate at the time, the Edmonton Roadrunners. Among the players who suited up in the AHL that season were budding NHL stars such as Jason Spezza, Eric Staal, Patrice Bergeron, Mike Cammalleri and Jay Bouwmeester.
“You had some big name blue liners, some big name forwards and goaltending was elite on almost every team,” Petersen said. “It will be an interesting season.”
It will be much the same this season. The skill level in the league has gone up at all positions and the game will be a little quicker. And once again, there are several bright young stars suiting up for their parent team’s AHL squads.
Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle will play for the Oklahoma City Barons, a divisional rival of Texas. Edmonton forward Taylor Hall, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, is expected to join the Barons soon. Charlotte, another divisional rival of Texas, will feature defenseman Justin Faulk, who was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team last season. Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils will play in the AHL this season, as will Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes. Those are just a few of the notable names, and there are several other NHL-ready players on rosters throughout the league.
Texas will benefit from the additions of Tomas Vincour and Cody Eakin, who are expected to play for Dallas this season. Having defenseman Brenden Dillon is a boost as well, since he was considered a strong contender for an NHL spot. And Texas has signed veteran NHL defenseman Cam Barker to a professional tryout contract.
“You look at rosters around the league and I am sure teams look at our roster, and you’ve got to see if you can play against the best,” said Texas Stars GM Scott White. “We just all agree that it’s an opportunity to play against the best.”
And that’s what White and the Texas coaching staff have been emphasizing since the beginning of training camp – this is an opportunity for players to see how they stack up against a higher level of competition.
“Lots of times in life, people will say they never got a break, (wondering what) if they would have gotten a break or if something good would have happened. To me, this is a break,” said Texas head coach Willie Desjardins. “If you want to prove you can play against NHL players – because, if you are in the American League, you want to prove you can play in the NHL - this is your break. Don’t miss it. Breaks don’t happen very often. If you want to show you can play against NHL-caliber players, this is your time to do it.”
And that message hasn’t been lost on the Texas players, who are ready to seize the opportunity to raise their level of play.
“I want to be in the NHL and I want to be there this year,” said Dillon, who has played in one NHL game. “You want to play against the best players and I think that makes everybody better as a whole. Hopefully the NHL lockout is over sooner rather than later, and that will help us get up to the NHL level.”
“I’m excited. If I get a chance to play against guys who have 200 games in the NHL, that’s a bonus. They were there for a reason. That’s good for me,” said Texas forward Francis Wathier, who has 400 minor league games and nine NHL games under his belt. “If I am able to shut it down, beat that defenseman to the net, beat the goalie, that means I can fit in up there.”
“You want to play against the best from other teams to show what you can do,” said Texas goaltender Jack Campbell, who is in his first full professional season. “There’s a bunch of high-level guys that wouldn’t normally be down here, but they are and it’s great to show what you can do against those guys.”
And the players know there will be a lot more eyes than usual on the AHL, and that pushes the stakes a little higher.
“It’s a great league to begin with. There are top-notch players here at all times and now you’re adding some guys who have proven they can be dominant at the highest level. It makes you want to step up and prove you can play at that level,” said Texas forward Colton Sceviour. “There are going to be a lot more guys watching the AHL. There are going to be brass in the stands all the time, so if you can’t get motivated to play games, then there is something wrong.”