Friday, August 13, 2010

AHL at 19

It's happened before so it's not exactly ground breaking but with a couple of NCAA players recently signing contracts to apparently play in the AHL as 19-year-olds, is this the start of a new trend?

And more importantly, is it a wise move for NHL teams to make?

CHL players are forbidden to play in the American Hockey League until they are 20 - it's a policy established more to protect the competitiveness and relevance of the Major Junior circuit. If junior aged players were given clearance to skip right to the AHL, the CHL would be littered with average players dropping the quality of the "development" part of the league.

Still, that doesn't mean there aren't players under that age playing in the AHL. It happens much more frequently with Europeans as they aren't subject to the CHL restriction. Some NHL teams will choose to have a Euro they have drafted play in the AHL as opposed to their homeland because the league is as good or better than most overseas plus they'll have the ability to work much closer with said prospect.

Ladislav Smid (left) was drafted by Anaheim and, at 19, was playing for their AHL affiliate in Portland instead of repeating a fourth go around with his pro club team in the Czech Republic.

Andrei Loktionov, drafted out of Russian by the LA Kings, played a year in the OHL and then moved to the AHL as a 19-year-old.

Detroit prospect Tomas Tatar was 19 last season while he played for the Grand Rapids Griffins - a major step up from his league back in Slovakia.

But what we're seeing now is a little different. Two NCAA players, with just a freshman year of college hockey under their belt, have signed entry level contracts with the apparent destination being the AHL (or the NHL should the unlikely happen and either make their team in September).

Defenceman Nick Leddy (photo: Minnesota Golden Gophers), drafted in the 1st round of 2009 by Minnesota but since traded, has left the Golden Gophers to join the Chicago Blackhawks. Should he fail to crack the NHL roster he is probably bound for the AHL's Rockford IceHogs.

Now the Hawks have scaled back a lot of their Stanley Cup wining roster so people might think there's a solid chance of him making the team. Well a look at the depth chart shows the Blackhawks still in possession of a top 4 of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Plus the team signed tough guy John Scott and acquired Ivan Vishnevskiy in the off season. Jordan Hendry is still with the team plus prospects Shawn Lalonde and Brian Connelly are competing for the same opening (if there even is one).

There is a very realistic chance that Leddy doesn't make the team, especially considering he only played 30 games last year with the Gophers. There has been zero mention of the Tri-City Americans in the WHL, the club that listed Leddy some time ago.

Earlier this week the Toronto Maple Leafs inked RPI standout Jerry D'Amigo to a entry level contract as well and various reports suggest the player has little to no interest in the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, the team that holds his CHL playing rights.

D'Amigo, a 6th round pick in 2009 with just 35 ECAC games and an impressive week at the 2010 World Juniors for USA on his résumé, hopes to stick with the Leafs or the Toronto Marlies.

Looking at it from the player's perspective - sure the AHL is the silver lining if they don't stick with the NHL team. It's attractive because they'd be earning a professional salary and would potentially be one phone call away from the NHL. What's not to like about that scenario if you're a promising 19-year-old hockey player?

Yet looking at it from the NHL team's vantage point, unless these two very inexperienced players highly impress at training camp in the Fall, I have no idea why the General Managers wouldn't send them to the CHL instead of the AHL.

Again, let me be clear on this: If Nick Leddy and Jerry D'Amigo attend camp and come within a whisker of making their respective NHL club, terrific for them and I would understand an AHL reassignment. If they can realistically contribute at the NHL for, let's say... 25-40 games based on recalls from the farm due to injury or for excellent AHL performance then great.

However, if the NHL team cuts them from camp and they don't appear in the league during the 2010-11 season, then what sort of asset management would that be?

A full season in the AHL as a 19-year-old might seem like a challenge that would benefit development, and it might be just that. However I would argue that Leddy playing in Tri-City for the Americans and D'Amigo suiting up with the Kitchener Rangers (both considered contenders in their respective leagues) are two excellent opportunities for development this year.

Both players saw less than 40 games in 2009-10. They'd play twice that many this year on teams expected to go deep in their league playoffs.

Both players would burn a year off of their 3-year entry level deals if they stay in the minors but that wouldn't be the case if they were reassigned to their CHL team. (NOT the case according to Scott Reynolds, see comments section.)

Leddy was a guest on The Pipeline Show earlier this week and expressed quite clearly that he would love to play in the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo. I have to assume that D'Amigo would like to do the same since it was in winning the gold medal last year where his stock really hit a new level.

Playing junior would guarantee their availability and while playing professionally wouldn't preclude it, especially since the NHL club would have complete say in the matter, it seems easier for teams to let their junior players go. John Carlson's appearance last year was an exception to the rule.

The Anaheim Ducks signed 19-year-old Kyle Palmieri earlier this month. The New Jersey native would end up in Syracuse if he doesn't stick with the Ducks. A few people have let me know that his CHL rights are held by the OHL's Guelph Storm (email and comments section).

By comparisson, the Montréal Canadiens recently signed Harvard's leading scorer, Louis Leblanc, to an entry level deal as well. The difference is that the Habs will send Leblanc (and his 31-games of NCAA experience) to the QMJHL for the 2010-11 season.

I don't think that playing the year in the AHL would be harmful to either guy but I do believe that the positives of spending the coming season in the CHL would be better for both Leddy and D'Amigo.

I would be interested to hear what you think.


Mark-Ryan said...

Well... unless Tyler Pitlick struggles at that level, I would hope the Oilers also plan to move him to pro hockey at 19 years of age. Ditto for Martin Marincin.

Come to think of it, Hamilton will have played 4 seasons and will have to turn pro at 19 years old.

All three of the second round picks...

Ultimately the AHL is a much tougher league and better prepares legit prospects for NHL action. I see no reason not to exploit the loophole if the players good enough to stick with the farm and not AA.

Can't say as I see ECHL action any better than CHL action.

Guy Flaming said...

burning a year off the entry level contract seems pointless to me if you can avoid it.

forbes said...

Palmieri's rights are owned by Guelph, the same OHL team that Peter Holland plays for. Holland being the other first round pick that Anaheim selected in 2009.

Brock Otten said...

However, Forbesy, the Storm have apparently been told that Palmieri will be a no go for them. The Ducks feel he is strong enough and ready to handle playing at the AHL level.

The Guelph Mercury ran a story about it recently.

That being said, it says if he struggles there might be an opportunity for a demotion to the CHL. But he's definitely starting the year in Syracuse.

Scott Reynolds said...

The team doesn't burn a year off of the ELC if the player is 19 and plays in the AHL (unless he appears in at least 10 NHL games). The player is paid the AHL salary he is due in the first year of his ELC (plus any signing bonuses), but the contract "slides" to the next season (minus any signing bonuses). Tomas Tatar, for example, still has three years left on his ELC despite playing last season in the AHL. With that in mind, I don't see why NHL teams would want their better prospects playing in the CHL instead of the AHL. It seems better to offer players a challenge than it is to let them run roughshod over weaker players.

Guy Flaming said...

Thanks Scott... you learn something new everyday.

forbes said...

Yep, that's correct Brock.
Just helping fill in information.