NHL expansion means more jobs for AHL’s best

JustSports Photography/AHL

by Stephen Whyno, Associated Press

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) – Cory Conacher knows all too well how quickly a hockey player appears old.

Conacher is only four years removed from being a Calder Trophy candidate as NHL rookie of the year but has been in four different organizations and spent time in Europe since then. He sees the sport getting younger and faster — and more players his age getting squeezed out.

“I wouldn’t have thought myself to be old, but I’m 27 and now that’s considered almost too old,” Conacher said Monday at the American Hockey League All-Star Game. “You see some of these guys going on waivers and playing in the AHL (to make room for) the younger guys.”

That trend isn’t likely to change, but Conacher and other top AHL players are in luck. Aside from new owner Bill Foley, fans in Las Vegas and the 30 other NHL owners cashing in on expansion fees, no one will benefit more from the addition of the Golden Knights than the best of the best in the minors.

Many AHL stars are too young to be eligible for selection by Vegas in the expansion draft, but a 31st team means 20-plus more NHL roster spots that need to be filled beginning next season.

“It’s just more jobs for guys in the NHL and that’s all these guys’ goals to play in the NHL,” said goaltender Michael Leighton, a veteran of 126 NHL and 487 AHL games. “If it’s with an expansion team or a guy gets picked up (by Vegas) and he moves up, that’s great for everyone.”

It could be particularly great for AHL top scorers Kenny Agostino, Jordan Weal and Jake Guentzel, defensemen Matt Taormina, T.J. Brennan and David Warsofsky and goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Anton Forsberg. Players like Jordan Subban, brother of P.K., aren’t thinking much about expansion, but if the Vancouver Canucks lose a defenseman to Vegas, he could be a full-time NHL player sooner rather than later.

So-called “tweeners,” like baseball players who are too good for Triple-A but not good enough for the majors, often go back and forth from the NHL to the bus rides in the AHL. But as the NHL has prioritized speed and skill and pushed out old-school enforcers, there’s no shortage of depth in the pool of talent available.

“You look at this league and just about every player came from this league,” Arizona Coyotes prospect Christian Fischer said. “There’s 48 guys here that probably could play in the NHL and there’s not enough spots. Now there’s going to be more spots open. … There’s plenty of talent down here.”

Eighty-two per cent of players on NHL opening night rosters played in the AHL, which could also see the trickle-down effects of expansion. President and CEO David Andrews said Monday that the AHL would like to expand to 31 to match the NHL next season and will almost certainly get there by 2018-19.

Even though the AHL will lose some talented players because of expansion, Andrews has talked at length with Vegas general manager George McPhee and considers it a good thing for his league in part because of the influx of youth that’ll be coming.

“The expansion process will stock them with a core group of players to play in the NHL, but their first entry draft will be this year,” Andrews said. “Our league is very much a young league with young, developing players that have been drafted by organizations. The Las Vegas franchise in the NHL, in order to have young players available, is going to have to sign a lot of free agent players out of college or players from Europe.”

Former Hershey Bears GM and AHL Hall of Famer Doug Yingst pointed out that Vegas will need 40 players under contract. With 30 expansion draft picks, at least a handful should be minor leaguers who are exempt from waivers and can fill in spots on the farm team. Andrews doesn’t yet know where that farm team will be, but there’s plenty of optimism about all the extra jobs available.

“That’s definitely one benefit of another team coming in the league here,” Brennan said. “It’s really good for the game that they’re expanding like that. I’m sure it’ll open up some eyes and maybe give some players some good opportunity and that they’re more than likely to be rewarded.”