One of the few silver linings of the 2004-05 lockout was that it gave some young players a chance to star in the AHL rather than play a secondary role in the NHL.
Jason Spezza is a prime example. The Ottawa Senators center was a hockey prodigy with big-league experience, but hadn’t achieved full-fledged star status with 76 points in 111 NHL games from 2002-04. Then came the lockout. Spezza tore up the AHL in ’04-05 – leading the league in scoring with 117 points – and followed up with a breakout NHL season with 90 points in 68 games. He’s been the Senators’ No. 1 center ever since, and helped lead Ottawa to the Stanley Cup final in 2007.
Of course, not every top prospect boasts the talent and pedigree of Spezza, the second overall draft pick in 2001. But nearly every NHL team is hot-housing its future stars in the AHL during the lockout, hoping that the extra ice time and responsibility in what is currently the best league in North America will pay off in an accelerated development and perhaps even a big-time breakout.
Here are the six NHL teams with the best chance at a Spezza-style payoff (Starting Lineup), and 11 more clubs worth watching (The Bench).
Edmonton Oilers (Oklahoma City Barons) The Oilers’ future is on full display in the AHL. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle have already proven they’re ready for prime time, and the chance to light it up in the minors should help them step forward into NHL superstardom. But it doesn’t stop there. Edmonton signed highly sought defenseman Justin Schultz in free agency last summer, and his transition from college to the pros has gone pretty good: he’s leading the AHL in scoring, a nose ahead of Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins. The Oilers are also hoping Magnus Paajarvi can realize his potential and Colten Teubert can blossom into a top-four blue liner.
Philadelphia Flyers (Adirondack Phantoms) Brayden Schenn is Exhibit A of a player who could greatly benefit from a full session of AHL seasoning. Regarded as a top-flight No. 1 center-in-the-making a couple years ago, he’s bounced back and forth from junior to the minors to the NHL. A key part of the trade that sent Mike Richards to Los Angeles, Schenn is among the AHL scoring leaders and it would be no surprise to see him carry over that success into the NHL. The Flyers also have 19-year-old Sean Couturier, who flashed his prowess as a two-way force in the NHL last season, and scoring winger Eric Wellwood down on the farm.
New Jersey Devils (Albany Devils) Adam Henrique scored two playoff series-clinching goals in overtime and probably learned more during the Devils’ drive to the Stanley Cup final last spring than he will in a full season in the AHL. But some front-and-center time never hurts, right? Perhaps the bigger beneficiary will be Adam Larsson, who played 65 NHL games – and five more in the playoffs – as a 19-year-old defenseman. He’ll get as much quality ice time as he can handle in Albany as New Jersey grooms the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2011 for future lynchpin duties. Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson, the Devils’ first-rounders in 2008 and ’09, respectively, could also turn their AHL stint into bigger NHL roles down the road.
Calgary Flames (Abbotsford Heat) Get to know the name Sven Baertschi. The left winger scored three goals in a five-game NHL call-up last season – from the major junior ranks, no less – and he got off to a hot start in the AHL this fall. He’s cooled off a bit, but give the 20-year-old rookie pro some time to mature. Roman Horak spent the majority of 2011-12 with Calgary, scoring three times in 61 games; he’s vying for the AHL goal lead with 10 in 15 games. And the Flames are loaded in net in Abbotsford, with Barry Brust and Leland Irving trying convince Calgary’s brain trust that they’re ready to back up – and eventually replace – Miikka Kiprusoff.
Buffalo Sabres (Rochester Americans) A few short years ago, Cody Hodgson (drafted 10th overall in 2008) was seen as the best prospect outside the NHL. Then he missed the majority of 2009-10 with a back injury, didn’t see eye-to-eye with the Vancouver Canucks on his treatment and rehab, and was stuck behind star centers Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler (among others) when he finally made it back onto the ice. Hodgson was a bit player during the Canucks’ run to the 2011 Cup final, and graduated to the third line last season with 16 goals and 33 points in 63 games. But his big break came when Vancouver traded him to Buffalo for Zack Kassian. Hodgson could be the Sabres’ No. 1 center before you know it; in any case, he’ll get more than a fair chance at the job, something that wasn’t going to happen in Vancouver in the foreseeable future. So far, so good; he’s averaging an assist a game in the AHL. The Sabres also have winger Marcus Foligno and defenseman Brayden McNabb in Rochester, both of whom acquitted themselves well in NHL auditions last season.
Tampa Bay Lightning (Syracuse Crunch) Brett Connolly was drafted sixth overall in 2010 despite a knee injury that limited him to 16 junior games. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said Connolly would’ve been in the running for first overall if he had’ve been healthy, and the big center followed that praise with 46 goals in 59 WHL games the next season. Connolly cracked Tampa Bay’s roster in 2011-12, but managed just four goals and 15 points in limited ice time in 68 games. Don’t be surprised if he makes his mark in the AHL this season and keeps it going in the NHL. And Tampa’s goaltending woes could be over, too, if Dustin Tokarski and/or Riku Helenius find their footing. Tokarski was a big part of the Norfolk Admirals' record 28-game win streak last season, not to mention the their run to the Calder Cup championship. (Editor's note: Syracuse became Tampa's AHL affiliate in the summer.) Helenius, drafted 15th overall by Tampa in 2006, has played for nine teams in five leagues in the past five years and he’s only 24. A little stability and regular playing time can only help.
Nashville Predators (Milwaukee Admirals): Ryan Ellis and Jonathan Blum are a big part of Nashville’s top-four future on defense, and Gabriel Bourque has promise as a secondary scorer.
Phoenix Coyotes (Portland Pirates): Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 21, has 130 NHL games to his credit and scored 13 goals and 32 points for the Coyotes last season. He’s well on his way to elite status.
New York Rangers (Connecticut Whale): Chris Kreider went from the NCAA to the NHL playoffs with the Rangers last spring and didn’t look out of place.
Winnipeg Jets (St. John’s IceCaps): Alex Burmistrov, 21, has already played two full NHL seasons and boasts a tantalizing skill set.
Vancouver Canucks (Chicago Wolves): Zack Kassian has the makings of a fearsome power forward, and Chris Tanev is a solid defender waiting for full-time NHL duty.
Carolina Hurricanes (Charlotte Checkers): Maybe no sure things here, but take a deep breath and try to keep up. Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman appear destined for scoring-line duty in Carolina, and Zac Dalpe isn’t far behind. Two-way defenseman Justin Faulk is also ready and will be a blue line regular, and Marc-Andre Gragnani has great power-play skills. Jerome Samson and Brett Sutter are trying to prove their worth for depth duty, while Bobby Sanguinetti’s first-round luster is fading. Justin Peters isn’t about to supplant Cam Ward as the Hurricanes’ starter, but he could cement an NHL backup job.
Toronto Maple Leafs (Toronto Marlies): The jury’s still out on Nazem Kadri, but he’s been on an AHL tear since being benched in early November and has the skill to be a No. 1 center. Jake Gardiner spent the majority of last season in the NHL and is a smooth operator on defense. Ben Scrivens is closing in on NHL-readiness as a backup. Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton, like Kadri, have promise as top-line forwards, while Korbinian Holzer is a rock-steady rearguard.
Ottawa Senators (Binghamton Senators): Most NHL teams would be happy to have one top-notch goaltending prospect in the minors. The Sens have two, with Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner eying a post-Craig Anderson world in Ottawa.
New York Islanders (Bridgeport Sound Tigers): Nino Niederreiter managed one goal in 55 NHL games last season, but is near the top of the AHL scoring race and playing the power game that made him the fifth overall draft pick in 2010. Defenseman Travis Hamonic is a nice blend of talent and toughness, and the Isles need all the help they can get on the blue line.
Chicago Blackhawks (Rockford IceHogs): Marcus Kruger, Brandon Pirri, Andrew Shaw, Jeremy Morin and Kyle Beach could all be ’Hawks forwards the next time there’s NHL hockey, with Nick Leddy on the blue line.
Los Angeles Kings (Manchester Monarchs): It’s good to be Kings. Three players who took a regular shift in the playoffs last spring – defenseman Slava Voynov and banging fourth-liners Dwight King and Jordan Nolan – are back working on their game in the AHL, and so is talented winger Andrei Loktionov.