The National Hockey League is without a doubt the premier hockey league in the world. From the beginning of their hockey lives, players from all over the world dream of one day making a name for themselves on the game’s largest stage. Each NHL player’s journey is different, but the majority of them end up in the American Hockey League at some point in their career. The minor league released an interesting statistic before the 2017-18 campaign began; 640 AHL “graduates” found their names written on an NHL lineup sheet for game 1 of the regular season. Those 640 players made up roughly 82% of the total players from 31 NHL teams.
The Penguins relied heavily on recent AHL grads in each of the past 3 seasons, yielding positive results. But does individual player success in the AHL directly translate to success at the NHL level? The same can be asked of entire organizations, not just individual players. How much does AHL success impact the success of its parent team in the 2 or 3 years immediately after?
Before discussing the Penguins, (Wilkes-Barre or Pittsburgh) some context on the AHL landscape would provide some valuable insight for everyone.
On June 14 of this year, the Toronto Marlies won their first ever Calder Cup over the Texas Stars. The Hershey Bears have the league record for Championships with 11 of them and are the league’s oldest club. This season, the Marlies took the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the league’s regular season champions, with the Penguins winning it the year before. In the past 10 seasons, the regular season champion has made the Calder Cup final 6 times, losing in that final only once (Manitoba Moose lost to Hershey Bears 08-09). In that same time span, the NHL’s regular season champion has only appeared in the Stanley Cup finals twice, winning it once (Chicago in 2013).
The 2012-13 AHL season is a good example of individual player success leading to NHL careers. The league MVP was awarded to Tyler Johnson, who has since proven himself one of the most threatening offensive players that the Tampa Bay Lightning possess. Johnson led the Syracuse Crunch to an appearance in the Calder Cup finals, where they fell 4 games to 2 against the Grand Rapids Griffins. The playoff MVP? Tomas Tatar, now a top-6 winger and 4-time 20 goal scorer. Another notable performer that season was none other than Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz, who won the award for defenseman of the year with Edmonton’s AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City.
There are those AHL players who are simply that; AHL players. They may find themselves in an NHL uniform a handful of times in the middle of February when half of the regular players are injured, but their production peaks in AHL competition. But the fact that over 80% of NHL players came through the AHL is difficult to ignore and should not be ignored. A good farm team is important to have as an NHL franchise. They don’t have to win the Calder Cup in order to have value though. Case in point: Wilkes-Barre Scranton. Since entering the AHL in 1999, the Baby Pens have appeared in the Calder Cup Final 3 times (2001, 2004, 2008), but never won. The important thing is that they have been a continuous contender, missing the playoffs only twice in their nearly 20-year history.
The proof is in the Cups.
These are the names of young players fresh out of Wilkes-Barre who played major roles in Stanley Cup victories. Other Penguins like Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury had already established themselves in the NHL but still came through the minors just like Rust and Murray.
So to answer the questions posed earlier, no, AHL success does not guarantee NHL success for an individual player. However, the players who have found themselves to be successful in the NHL are likely to have come through the minor league. As for team success, it’s a bit more difficult to quantify. A Calder Cup Championship does not guarantee a Stanley Cup in the following years. Sometimes the most mediocre NHL teams can have championship affiliates. But if a franchise has an affiliate that stays relevant and promising, it can mean the future is in good hands. Championships won with homegrown players are all the more impressive.