NHL teams rely heavily upon player development at the AHL level.
Story by Mark Newman
Players in the AHL are one step away from playing in the National Hockey League. How large that step is depends upon the affiliation between their team and the NHL parent club.
In other words, your mileage may vary.
The Worcester Sharks, for example, must board a plane and travel 3,093 miles to play for San Jose in NHL.
The Toronto Marlies, on the other hand, could easily walk the two miles that separate their rink at the Ricoh Coliseum and the home ice of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Air Canada Centre.
The average travel distance for the 29 AHL clubs and their affiliates is just under 750 miles, although the philosophical distance separating the clubs can sometimes seem greater than anything that can be measured in miles.
“The most important thing for an affiliation is that there is common ground in respect to common goals,” said Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. “You need to have an understanding of what’s expected of both organizations.”
Indeed, a successful affiliation is one that is mutually beneficial. In that sense, the Griffins organization feels it has a strong relationship with the Detroit Red Wings, a partnership that is in its eighth season.
“You want to be able to develop players in a certain way,” McNamara said. “Detroit’s philosophy is they want their players to develop in a winning environment.
“From our perspective, we want to develop players for the Detroit Red Wings, but we most certainly want to win as well. It’s that common goal of getting the players to develop a winning, ‘hate-to-lose’ attitude that makes us successful.”
Some organizations do not share the Red Wings-Griffins’ winning philosophy. Some NHL teams insist their prospects play as much as possible, regardless of how it affects the team’s win-loss record.
“There are certain affiliations where it’s not as important to win in the AHL as it is to get a lot of ice time for the young players and to allow them to develop in that sense,” McNamara said.
McNamara talks with Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill “at least every couple of days” to share status reports on their respective teams, as well as to ascertain how players are performing and whether there might be a potential call-up due to injury.
“By the same token, (Griffins coach) Curt Fraser is on the phone with (Red Wings coach) Mike Babcock all the time, so there’s communication at all levels, whether it’s management or coaching staff,” McNamara said. “You need constant communication to be successful.”
Unfortunately, lines of communication can sometimes be strained. Last May, the Iowa Chops organization was informed its affiliation with Anaheim had ended after only one year via a letter received at the same time that a terse statement was posted on the Ducks’ web site.
Anaheim is currently the only NHL team out of 30 organizations without a formal affiliation agreement at the AHL level.
Without commenting directly on the Iowa-Anaheim separation, McNamara suggests that it’s vitally important for affiliates to be on the same page.
“I’ve seen some situations where there is not a lot of communication between the teams and it does a lot to detract from the success of both organizations,” McNamara said.
Geographical distance between the clubs is important, but not a deal breaker, according to McNamara. “If you can make all of the other things work, the distance doesn’t matter,” he said.
“At the same time, the fact that we’re only two hours and 20 minutes down I-96 provides Detroit with the opportunity to monitor the development of its players very closely.”
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland has described having an affiliate in Grand Rapids as an ideal situation.
“Grand Rapids is such an important part of the long-term success of the Detroit Red Wings,” Holland said. “We’re in the salary cap world and we’re moving young players out of juniors and out of college, and (Grand Rapids) is their first taste of the pros.”
The proximity of the two teams certainly has its advantages.
“From my house to (Van Andel Arena) is two hours – Jimmy Nill and I live in the same area – and we can leave at 4 o’clock and be here by 6 o’clock for the game at 7,” Holland said.
“When the game is over, we work our way through the dressing room, talking to coaches and the players, and we can still be in bed by 12 or 12:30 and be back in the office the next morning.”
Holland, who spent nine seasons in the AHL as a player, said no one should underestimate the role that a strong affiliation can play in the success of an organization.
“I believe what we have here is a mentor program,” Holland said, alluding to the practice of veteran players taking younger players under their wing.
In Detroit, there have been numerous examples: Steve Yzerman-Henrik Zetterberg, Igor Larionov-Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Chelios-Brett Lebda, Nicklas Lidstrom-Niklas Kronwall and Mike Vernon-Chris Osgood.
In a successful affiliation, younger players learn what it takes to excel.
“All players are expected to earn their ice time,” McNamara said. “Nobody comes in with a sense of entitlement, whether they were drafted in the first round or last round, undrafted, or as a free agent from another organization. Everybody starts with a clean slate.”
Unlike some organizations that mandate how much some prospects play, the Red Wings allow the Griffins coaching staff to make their own lineup decisions.
According to Holland, there are very few players who fit the category of “sure thing.” Last season, 210 youngsters were selected in the seven rounds of the NHL Entry Draft conducted by the 30 teams.
“Out of those 210 kids, about 15 are going to become NHL players – it doesn’t matter who drafted them or where they play or whom they play with. They’re just gifted and just better than everybody else. They’ve got it mentally, emotionally and physically,” Holland said.
“Out of the other 195 players, a certain percentage are not going to make it, but you’ve got to give them the opportunity, and I believe their success is going to depend upon player development.”
The Red Wings are adamant that they want their prospects to ripen in the minor leagues. Rushing a player to play at the NHL level is out of the question.
“Their philosophy is they want players to be NHL-ready so when they step into the lineup, they can have an impact,” McNamara said. “They don’t want a young guy who’s only going to play three or four minutes and not hurt them. They want guys who are going to play significant roles.”
The Red Wings had only 13 recalls during the 2008-09 season, the second fewest in the NHL. While that statistic can be influenced by the health of the parent club and salary cap considerations, the Red Wings don’t call a player up just to have an extra body around.
“They want guys who are ready to step in and make an impact,” McNamara said.
Last season, Griffins players Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino all made significant contributions to the Red Wings’ playoff drive. Each had at least two points in the Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins.