Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Will AHL Success Translate to NHL Superiority?

Justin Faulk Hurricanes
Barring a shocking lockout resolution after today's "secret" bargaining session, the closest thing to NHL hockey is taking place in AHL rinks across the continent.

And although AHL hockey is great, it can't replace NHL hockey. Sure, I want to see the Marlies do well, but I don't hang on every shot like I do with the Maple Leafs. In fact, I'm largely watching the AHL to see if the players can eventually help the Leafs.

Many Leafs fans clung to the fact that the Marlies made last year's Calder Cup Final as evidence that the future was bright for the parent club. A slow start to the season doesn't have everyone putting the same stock into results, which made me wonder how predictive AHL success is of NHL success.

Today's post at The Good Point looks at how well AHL success translates into NHL success. Do NHL teams that have good farm teams eventually become better teams themselves? Is the relationship between the two stronger after a lockout?

Click the link to find out!

But...I also have some additional content on the matter. If a strong AHL team means a strong NHL team, which teams will follow the path set by their AHL counterparts and blaze a trail into the playoff? More specifically, which NHL teams that were bad in 2011-12 (ala Toronto) will reverse the trend and play hockey in the spring?

After the lockout killed the 2004-05 season, five teams made the playoffs after sitting out in 2004.

One of those teams, the Edmonton Oilers, did not have a good AHL team, and in reality, weren't that much of a surprise playoff inclusion in 2006. The Oilers were coming off a streak of six playoff appearances over the previous seven seasons, so even though they failed to break the top eight in the West in 2004, the fact that they did so in 2006 was not astounding.

Another team, the New York Rangers, did have a quality AHL team during the lockout, but one that did not help the post-lockout NHL squad in any way. The three best players the Rangers plucked from their farm team were Blair Betts, Dominic Moore, and Fedor Tyutin, some real superstars. The Rangers' success is almost wholly attributable to the arrival of Henrik Lundqvist and Jaromir Jagr scoring 123 points.

All three of the remaining teams had strong farm clubs during the lockout and were able to build off that success to break their playoff-less droughts.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Lowell Lock Monsters, a team made up of prospects from Carolina and Calgary, made the AHL playoffs, primarily because two players—Cam Ward, who had a sparkling .937 SV%, and Eric Staal, who scored 77 points, were dominant.

Those two maintained their dominance in the NHL—Staal ended the season with 100 points and Ward ended the season with the Conn Smythe Trophy—helping Carolina win the Stanley Cup in the team's first playoff appearance since 2002.

Anaheim Mighty Ducks

The Ducks had missed the playoffs four times in five seasons (the one appearance being highlighted by a fluke trip to the Stanley Cup Final thanks to J.S. Giguere) by the time they made an unpredicted Western Conference Final run in 2006.

The Ducks, much like the Hurricanes, benefited from owning a good AHL team during the lockout. The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks finished third in the West Division and had Joffrey Lupul, Chris Kunitz, and Ilya Bryzgalov make meaningful contributions to the NHL Ducks' success in 2005-06. Another player, Dustin Penner, would arrive a year later and score 29 goals, helping that squad win the Stanley Cup.

Buffalo Sabres

Finally, the Buffalo Sabres saw a 15-win increase the first year after the lockout, and that jump has a lot to do with the players that developed with the Rochester Americans during the lockout.

The Americans were the best team in the AHL that season, netting 112 points, and were loaded with players who played for the Sabres in 2005-06. Four of the Amerks' top five scorers were Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, and Paul Gaustad (who would combine for nearly 150 points in their first year in Buffalo). The other main AHL-to-NHL transfer was Ryan Miller, who won the starting job in Buffalo after the lockout. The Sabres essentially gained their entire second line and their starting goalie from their farm team.

So looking at these case studies, which NHL teams recently feeling the cold of a playoff-less spring should have the most hope once the lockout ends?

1. One with a strong AHL club

Four of the five teams that made the playoffs in 2006 after missing in 2004 had AHL teams make the playoffs during the lockout.

2. One with NHL-ready prospects in the AHL/Junior

The Sabres, Hurricanes, and Ducks all received sizeable contributions from players who had little or no NHL experience before 2005.

3. One who made important signings/trades heading into the season

The Ducks signed Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne; Carolina signed Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney, plus traded for Justin Williams at the end of the 2004 season; and Buffalo signed Teppo Numminen and traded for Toni Lydman. Each of these players made large contributions for their teams.

If I had to name one team that hits all these criteria and is poised to shoot up the NHL standings once play resumes, I would select the Carolina Hurricanes.

Although the AHL season is young, the Charlotte Checkers are out to a blazing start, leading the league with a 7-2-0-1 record. They have young talent like Justin Faulk, Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Marc-Andre Gragnani, and Zac Dalpe who are playing well and could play secondary (and in the case of Faulk), leading roles for the Hurricanes. Conceivably, Jeff Skinner could join the team as well if the lockout drags on and he could be a second-coming of Staal, a player who dominates the AHL and subsequently does so in the NHL.

Moreover, the Hurricanes made a big splash in the off-season when they traded for Jordan Staal and signed Alex Semin.

Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, the Hurricanes have only made the playoffs once. But just like in 2006, it might be a lockout that prompts the team's revival.

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