The AHL will showcase a number of NHL-caliber players this season
Story by Mark Newman. Photo by Getty Images.
Unless youve been sleeping, chances are youve heard something about the labor impasse that delayed the start of the National Hockey League season.
If the Rip Van Winkles among us wake up and rub their eyes, theyre likely to see stars a whole lot of young stars performing in the American Hockey League this season.
You wont see the biggest names in hockey theyre either in Europe, playing exhibition games in Canada or cooling their heels at home, waiting for the phone to ring but fans will be able to catch some of the finest young talent on ice this side of the Arctic Circle.
The talent in the league this year is going to be outstanding, says Griffins head coach Danton Cole.
The league has always been very competitive but this year its going to be like a mini-NHL.
In 2003-04, 235 players who had been selected in the first or second round of the NHL Entry Draft saw action in the AHL, an all-time high in the league's 68 years of existence.
That number could easily be surpassed in 2004-05, as NHL teams send even more of their top prospects to their AHL affiliates in order for them to continue their development, despite the NHL work stoppage.
Were going to see more NHL-caliber players in the league as evidenced by some of the assignments that have been made to the AHL in recent weeks, says Griffins general manager Bob McNamara.
For proof, witness that five of the top seven selections in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft were among those ticketed for AHL training camps.
Marc-Andre Fleury, the No. 1 overall pick, is expected to toil in Wilkes-Barre for the Pittsburgh Penguins top farm club. Fleury, 19, had a whirlwind 2003-04 season, including 22 NHL appearances, a silver-medal performance for Canada at the World Junior Championships and a trip to the Calder Cup finals with the Baby Pens.
Second pick Eric Staal has been assigned to Lowell after picking up 11 goals and 20 assists for the Carolina Hurricanes last season. The talented 19-year-old playmaker appeared in 81 NHL games as a rookie.
Nikolai Zherdev, 19, played in 57 games with Columbus last season after the Blue Jackets took the talented Ukrainian with the fourth pick in the 2003 draft. Zherdevs super skills he has been compared to Pavel Bure will be on display in Syracuse this season.
Thomas Vanek, who was selected by Buffalo with the fifth pick, will see plenty of ice time in Rochester after two standout seasons at the University of Minnesota. Ryan Suter, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin when Nashville drafted him seventh overall, will start his pro career in Milwaukee.
The league has always been competitive, but everybodys going to be a little bit better this year, Cole says. Itll be up to us to make the adjustment and keep up with everybody.
Other 2003 first-round selections in the AHL this season will include Andrei Kostitsyn (10th, Hamilton), a forward for Russias Central Army team, who is the top prospect of the Montreal Canadiens; Dustin Brown (13th, Manchester), a right winger who played 31 games for the Los Angeles Kings last season; and Zach Parise (17th, Albany), a highly touted prospect of the New Jersey Devils, who was a top scorer at the University of North Dakota.
As impressive as the group from the 2003 draft appears to be, the list of high 2002 draft picks may be even more impressive, as eight of the first nine selections are going to give AHL fans something to cheer about.
Kari Lehtonen, the No. 2 pick who posted a 1.25 goals-against average while winning all four of his NHL starts for the Atlanta Thrashers a year ago, is back with the Chicago Wolves after being honored as an AHL All-Star last season.
Jay Bouwmeester, who was assigned to San Antonio, has certainly proven himself since the Florida Panthers selected the big defenseman with the third overall pick. His resume includes 143 NHL games and a World Cup championship all before the age of 21.
Scottie Upshall, the sixth overall choice in 2002, has returned to Milwaukee after helping the Admirals win their first Calder Cup championship last season. The Nashville prospect saw action in seven NHL games with the Predators a year ago.
Joffrey Lupul is in Cincinnati after a surprisingly strong rookie season with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The seventh overall pick recorded 13 goals and 21 assists in 75 NHL games last year.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard has skated in 111 games with the Minnesota Wild since 2002. The 20-year-old right winger from Sherbrooke, Quebec, will look to further develop his skills in Houston.
Houston, in fact, appears to be loaded with young talent.
The Aeros opened the season with nine of the top 10 prospects in the Wild organization and two of the Dallas Stars top 10 prospects. Houstons training camp roster also showed 14 players with a combined 908 games of NHL experience, including 11 players who took to NHL ice in 2003-04.
Among the Aeros handful of rookies is the heralded Junior Lessard, the 2004 Hobey Baker winner. The French-Canadian right winger established himself as the best player in college hockey by recording 32 goals and 31 assists for Minnesota-Duluth last season.
The Aeros also have their eyes on Mikko Koivu, the sixth overall pick in 2001, who is making his long-awaited arrival in North America after three years of grooming in his native Finland. Significantly bigger than his older brother, Montreal captain Saku Koivu, he reportedly plays a strong two-way style.
Houston also has a pair of highly touted goaltenders: Josh Harding, the 38th overall pick in the 2002 draft, and Mike Smith, now one of the top prospects in the Dallas Stars organization following the trade of Jason Bacashihua to St. Louis.
Notables among the draft class of 2001 are Binghamtons Jason Spezza (2nd, Ottawa), who registered 22 goals and 33 assists in 78 games for the NHLs Senators last season, and Dan Hamhuis (12th, Nashville), who is back in Milwaukee after playing 80 games with the Predators a year ago.
The list of prospects is endless. Theres Stanislav Chistov, who appeared in 79 games with Anaheim during his rookie campaign in 2002-03; Johnny Pohl, a St. Louis Blues prospect who was the nations leading scorer with the 2002 NCAA Champion University of Minnesota; and Keith Ballard, a two-time NCAA champion who is beginning his pro career in Utah.
A coach scouring rosters for players to watch this season will sound like a name dropper when singling out all the young stars on AHL teams at the start of the 2004-05 season.
You throw a couple of these guys on every team and it bumps a few other guys out of the picture, Cole says. All of a sudden, second-liners have dropped to the bottom of some depth charts.
Indeed, almost every team has at least one or two players who could be playing in the NHL. The Griffins list of prospects starts with defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who the Red Wings consider a top-six defenseman.
Fans are going to see some great hockey this season, Cole reaffirms, especially with the influx of so many guys who would otherwise be playing in the NHL. Its bringing a lot of talent and speed into our league.