Examining What It Means To Have A Great AHL Team

While the Devils struggle in the NHL, the Utica Comets are tearing up the AHL. Here is a look at how really good AHL teams have affected the future of their NHL clubs in recent years.

As Devils fans, looking at the current NHL standings does not exactly fill us with joy; quite the opposite actually. Yet we can look down to the AHL and see that our minor league team is off to a historically good start. The Utica Comets, the Devil’s AHL affiliate, started this season with a 13 game win streak, an AHL record to start a season. They have continued to roll since then and currently sit atop the AHL with a 16-1-2 record. This is obviously a stark contrast to the big club in New Jersey, who is struggling just to be a .500 team in the NHL. This has got me thinking about whether or not having a great AHL team translates to NHL success in following years. To do this, I am going to look at the AHL’s best teams from 2015 to 2019 and see if their parent clubs have gotten any better or worse in the following years. I am also going to look at some of the top performers on those AHL teams and see what of any impact they had on the NHL team.

In 2015, the AHL’s best team was the affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, the Manchester Monarchs. They went on to win the Calder Cup in 5 games over the then Vancouver Canucks affiliate, and the AHL’s second best team, the Utica Comets. Since this AHL championship, the Kings have made the playoffs just once, a first round exit in 2018. The Canucks have not been much better, making the playoffs just once, a third round exit in the 2020 playoff bubble, since having the second best team in the AHL. Of those top six AHL teams from 2015, the 4th place Hershey Bears parent club, the Washington Capitals, have been the most successful, making the playoffs every year and winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. The Grand Rapids Griffins were, and still are, affiliated with the Detroit Red Wings who have had one playoff birth, a first round exit in 2016, since this 2015 season. the Rockford Ice Dogs were, and still are, property of the Chicago Blackhawks, who have been to the playoffs twice since 2015, but did not get past the second round either time. The San Antonio Rampage of 2015 were affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche, who have been to the playoffs four times since 2015, including a trip to the third round in 2020. Now lets look at some of the top scorers from the 2015 AHL season.

Top scorer Brian O’Neil made his NHL debut in the 2016 season with the New Jersey Devils. He played 22 games, recorded 3 assists and was a minus three. He also played 42 games with the Devils AHL team that season, and scored 32 points. O’Neil went to the KHL the next season and has not played in North American since. Andy Miele, the second leading scorer in the AHL in 2015, has not played in the NHL since the 2014 season with the Arizona Coyotes. Spread over three seasons, Miele has played 15 NHL games and earned just two assists. Since the beginning of the 2017-2018 season, Miele has played in Sweden, and the KHL, as well as one season in the AHL. Jordan Weale and Johnathan Marchessault are the only two players in the top 10 scorers that season who have played more than 60 games in a single NHL since then. The rest of the top 10 have either remained mostly in the NHL or gone to play in Europe. This shows that despite being the NHL’s main development league, success in the AHL does not correlate with sustained success in the NHL. In fact, none of the AHL’s top 10 scorers from 2015 are with the same organization this year. Furthermore, none of Manchester’s five top scorers from 2015 are still in the Kings organization today. Likewise, none of the top five Utica scorers from 2015 are with the Canucks organization today and none of the Griffins five top scorers are with the Red Wings organization in 2021. Now I think we should look at the AHL’s goalies in 2015.

Of those top 10 goalies, only Matt Murray and Jacob Markstrom became full time starters in the NHL. Of these top 10 goalies, none of them are still with the same organization today as they were in 2015. So between the skaters and goalies, none of the twenty most impactful AHL players from 2015 are helping those same organizations be successful at the NHL level in 2021.

The 2016 AHL season ended with the Toronto Marlies as the best regular season team, and the Lake Erie Monsters sweeping the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup finals. The Marlies parent club, the Maple Leafs, have not been able to win a playoff round since 2004. The Monsters parent club, the Columbus Blue Jackets, have made the playoffs four times since 2016 but have never been out of the second round. The Albany Devils had a good year in 2016, but the New Jersey Devils have only made the playoffs once since 2016, a first round exit courtesy of the Lightning. The Milwaukee Admirals parent club, the Nashville Predators, have made the payoffs every year since 2016, but never gotten out of the second round. As mentioned earlier, the Hershey Bears parent club, the Washington Capitals, won the 2018 Stanley Cup and have been a constant presence in the playoffs. Also, the Ontario Reign had relocated from Manchester and remained as the LA Kings farm team. The Kings have made the playoffs once since 2016 but were eliminated in the first round.

The top scorer in the 2016 AHL season was Chris Bourque. Bourque has not played an NHL since the 2012-2013 season and has been playing in Germany for the last three seasons. The second best scorer in the AHL that season, Seth Griffith, played sporadically in the NHL from 2014-2018 but has played exclusively in the AHL since the 2017-2018 season. Of the top 10 AHL scorers from 2016, only Mikko Rantanen is currently an NHL star and he is also the only one still with the same organization he was with in 2016. Of the Toronto Marlies top five scorers in 2016, only William Nylander is still with the organization. None of the 2016 Lake Erie Monsters’ top five scorers are still a part of the Blue Jackets organization. All five of the 2016 Hershey Bears top scorers have since moved on from the Washington Capitals organization as well. Now we will look to the best AHL goalies from 2016 and what impact, if any, they have had in the NHL since 2016.

Of those 10 goalies, only Peter Budaj and Matt Murray would go on to become starting goalies in the NHL. Budaj was the starter for the LA Kings in 2016-2017 and played well but the team missed the playoff and Budaj has not played in the NHL since the 2018-2019 season. Matt Murray helped lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 but has since been traded to Ottawa and sent back down to the AHL. So none of the AHL’s top 10 goalies from 2016 are still with the same organization and only two ever became NHL starters. Through the first two years we have looked at, AHL success is rarely correlating to NHL success for the players or franchises.

The 2017 Calder Cup was won by the Red Wings affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins when they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate Syracuse Crunch in the finals. The best team in the regular season was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Sharks affiliate San Jose Barracuda, Ducks affiliate San Diego Gulls, Flyers affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms and the then Blues affiliate Chicago Wolves were some of the other best teams in the AHL that year. Since this 2017 AHL championship, the Red Wings have not made the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning however have won the Stanley Cup twice since their AHL team went to the Calder Cup finals in 2017. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2017 while their AHL team was one of the best in the league, but have won only one playoff round since then. The Sharks were eliminated in the second round of the 2018 playoffs and made the conference finals in 2019. However they haven’t made the playoffs in either of the last two years. The Ducks have made the playoff once, but haven’t won a playoff series since the Gulls were one of the AHL’s best teams in 2017. The Flyers have been to the playoffs twice since 2017 and made the third round in the 2020 bubble. The 2017 Chicago Wolves were affiliated with the St. Louis Blues, who have won the Stanley Cup and made three playoff appearances since 2017. The best AHL teams from 2017 have had a good deal of success the last few years in the NHL, including the last three Stanley Cup Champions.

The top scorer in the AHL in 2017 was Kenny Agostino, who has played 86 career NHL games spread over six seasons and currently plays in the KHL. He was not a part of the Blues 2019 Stanley Cup championship. The second most prolific scorer in the 2017 AHL, Chris Terry, has not played in the NHL since the 2017 season, when he played 14 games with Montreal. He has spent the last five seasons in the AHL and KHL. Chris Mueller has not played in the NHL since 2015. Wade Megan has played only 15 NHL games since 2017, spending most of his time playing in the AHL. Of the top 10 AHL scorers from 2017, none of them are still with the same organization and none have become impact players in the NHL. So even though the AHL’s best organizations from 2017 have had championship level success since then, many of the top players have not. Of the top five scorers on the Calder Cup champion Griffins, Eric Tangradi is the only one with the Red Wings organization today and he has not made an impact in the NHL since 2017. The 2017 Calder Cup finalist Syracuse Crunch are a little different. One of their top scorers, Yanni Gourde, went on to be a big contributor to the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021. However, none of the Crunch’s other top five scorers from 2017 have become NHL regulars since 2017. Of the top five scorers on the 2017 AHL Penguins, only two have seen regular playing time in the NHL. Oskar Sundqvist has played mostly for the Blues and Dominik Simon has been in the bottom six for Pittsburgh. Now let’s take a look at the top goalies from the 2017 AHL season.

Of those top 10 goalies, Jaroslav Halak has been the most successful., However I am not sure he should count as an AHL goalie in this conversation because he played more games in the NHL than he did in the AHL during the 2017 season. Halak was also an established NHL starter in the several years prior to 2017. Of the other goalies on this list, only DeSmith, Jarry and Rittich have played a significant number of games in the NHL. Of those three, only Rittich has been the primary starter for one season or more.

In 2018, The Toronto Marlies won the Calder Cup when they defeated the Texas Stars in the finals. Since 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs are yet to win a playoff series, despite being there each season. The Dallas Stars were eliminated in the second round of the 2019 playoffs and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2020 before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Of the other top AHL teams from 2018, the Phantoms parents, the Flyers, missed the 2019 playoffs, were eliminated in the third round of the 2020 playoffs and missed the 2021 playoffs. The Roadrunners parent club, the Coyotes, have made the playoffs once since 2012, when they were eliminated in the second round of the 2020 playoffs.

Of those top scorers from the 2018 AHL, only Mason Appleton and Daniel Sprong have become NHL regulars. The other eight players on that list either currently play in Europe or the AHL and have made little to no impact on the NHL since 2018. This yet another year where the AHL’s best players are yet to meaningfully contribute to an NHL team.

Of the top 10 AHL goalies of 2018, one name stands out. Jordan Binnington led the Blues to the 2019 Stanley Cup and has remained their number one goalie when healthy ever since. Adin Hill is also making an impact in the NHL this season as he has been splitting time in the Sharks net with James Reimer. The rest of the goalies on this list however are either still playing in the minor North American leagues or playing overseas. Yet again, another list made up mostly of players who were successful in the AHL but have yet to make any meaningful impact in the NHL.

Lastly, let’s look at the AHL in 2019. The Calder Cup was won by the Charlotte Checkers when they defeated the Chicago Wolves in the finals. The Checkers parent club, the Carolina Hurricanes, are currently one the best teams in the NHL and have been to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. The Wolves parent club in 2019 was the Golden Knights, who have been to the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. The Rochester Americans parent club, the Buffalo Sabres, are currently on the longest active playoff drought in the NHL and it looks like that will continue this season. The Sound Tigers parent club, the New York Islanders, have been to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons but are currently struggling mightily this season.

Of the top 10 AHL scorers from 2019, only Carter Verhaeghe has become a productive NHL player. He contributed to the Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup win in 2020 and currently has 20 points in 25 NHL games played this season. No one else on this list has made a significant NHL contribution since 2019. Guys like Verhaeghe who can transition successfully from the AHL to the NHL seem to be the exception to the rule.

Since 2019, Alex Nedeljkovic has played a lot for both Carolina and Detroit. He is currently Detroit’s number one goalie and has a save percentage of .915 in 18 NHL games played so far this season. No other goalie on this list has made a significant NHL impact since 2019. Just like the skaters, it seems like success transferring from the AHL to the NHL is pretty uncommon.

I wrote all this not to be a downer or try to discredit what Utica is currently doing. It is obviously never a bad thing for your AHL affiliate to be successful. However, I do think we as Devil fans need to temper our expectations for the players currently in Utica. Just because Chase De Leo, Riley Walsh, Nate Schnarr, Graeme Clarke and Fabian Zetterlund are leading the Comets to AHL dominance now does not mean they will do the same for the Devils in the NHL in the coming years. I hope they do, but I think realistic expectations are important. I think we should hold off on anointing Nico Daws or Akira Schmid as the next great Devils goalie until we see a substantial NHL sample size. Hopefully the Comets of today buck the trend and seamlessly transition their success in Utica into success as the Devils of the future. It will be interesting to see how they progress. Let’s Go Devils!

Follow me on Twitter @Patboooooth

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