Loosely speaking, the AHL’s prospects skating can be sliced and diced into three separate categories.
There are the sure-fire, can’t-miss prospects, types like Jason Spezza, Eric Staal and Chuck Kobasew.
Then there are the types that with the right circumstances, development and opportunity have a legitimate shot at earning full-time NHL work. Such players are spread far and wide across the AHL.
Then there are the real projects, players who have been mined from deep and from all corners of the hockey landscape.
Philadelphia Phantoms head coach John Stevens has had plenty of all three types of prospects. It is fitting, then, that Stevens is also behind the bench of the Canadian AHL All-Stars for this week’s 2006 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic at the shiny new MTS Centre in the heart of downtown Winnipeg.
The Canadian roster, after all, stretches from 38-year-old Manitoba netminder Wade Flaherty to top prospect Braydon Coburn, a 20-year-old defenseman making the adjustment to the highly demanding pro game in Chicago.
Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, that incredible tandem that stepped right into the 2005 Calder Cup Playoffs and helped push the Phantoms to a Calder Cup, arrived mostly needing only a few final finishing touches from Stevens and his trusty sidekicks, assistant coaches Kjell Samuelsson and Craig Berube.
The next group down might feature a player like Antero Niittymaki, who evolved from a so-so rookie season into an AHL force by his third and final AHL season. Now he is pushing Robert Esche for the starting job with the Philadelphia Flyers, a member of the Finnish team for the Turin Winter Olympic Games and could be in the Flyers’ net for years to come. Lump the likes of former Flyer Patrick Sharp, Ben Eager and R.J. Umberger into that group, too.
Then there are names like Randy Jones and Freddy Meyer, free agents who were dug out from deep within the hockey world, sent to Stevens for developmental work and turned into, if not a diamond, at least a gem capable of selling on the NHL market.
And alumni of that third group extend beyond the Flyers. Jim Vandermeer went from a highly unproven project to a capable NHL defenseman whose name has been thrown around for a possible captaincy with the Chicago Blackhawks at some point. Todd Fedoruk came to Philadelphia a very raw prospect, eeked his way into the NHL in a limited role and then found himself back in the AHL last season. Stevens helped whip Fedoruk’s career back into shape, and the former WHL prospect now earns an NHL living in Anaheim.
Stevens has helped send members of all three groups into the NHL loop for full-time work since being named head coach of the Phantoms prior to the 2000-01 season, a definite shift in approach from that employed by the Phantoms prior to his becoming a head coach.
In years gone by, the Phantoms were largely a veteran squad that piled up big points and big numbers from season to season. Armed with a healthy abundance of financial resources, the Phantoms were able to compete with and usually beat out other NHL organizations for proven AHL-level top talent. In a competitive sports marketplace like that in Philadelphia, winning hockey was needed to sell AHL hockey in that city and to earn the Phantoms a permanent spot in the city’s stable of pro teams.
But that checkbook has since been put aside, and the Phantoms and the parent Philadelphia Flyers have subsequently shown that they can compete with any NHL organization for developing and churning young NHL-ready talent, especially since Ken Hitchcock‘s arrival.
Besides, in the new NHL financial marketplace, sound and top-notch player development at the AHL level is critical for long-term NHL organizational success.
Why has Stevens worked? As even-keeled as they come, he is a not a yeller, not a screamer, and his subdued personality often leads to him blending into the woodwork.
But that same calm, even-keeled approach is a good fit for today’s young player, a different group from Stevens and his peers some two decades ago when he began his AHL career with the Hershey Bears.
"It’s night and day," Stevens said of today’s brand of young player. "The game has evolved, and the players have evolved. The whole way of bringing our kids up is different from when I was a kid. It’s a different product of player nowadays. Athletics are so much more structured today."
In the Philadelphia organization, players are put in a position and well-suited roles to succeed. Young Flyers prospects are told to ask themselves what exactly it is that is going to get them to the NHL.
Once that question is answered, the process of preparing a player for NHL work can begin. Players in other organizations can find themselves being AHL scorers who are then asked to switch gears entirely and to fill strictly third- and fourth-line roles in the NHL.
Some, like Tampa Bay centerman Tim Taylor, are able to make that tricky transition. Taylor and others like him are success story for that NHL pathway, but there are plenty of players who followed similar tracks and did not survive the AHL-to-NHL leap.
But in Philadelphia, by and large, roles are very similar between the NHL to the AHL levels. In other words, Umberger and Eager both fill similar roles with the Flyers. that they did last season with the Phantoms.
Carter is young, but he has been slotted into more or less the same role with the Flyers that he occupied with the Phantoms. Richards fills the gritty, down-and-dirty script this season that he did last season in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
"We try to get these guys to identify weaknesses," Stevens explained, "make (those weaknesses) stronger so that they’re not weaknesses and try to continue to improve on the things that they are good at."
"That doesn’t matter what (type of) player we have. We want all of our players to have the hope and dream that they are going to play in the NHL."