Monday, June 13, 2016

Does AHL Success Translate To NHL Success?

As per my usual Monday routine, I spend the whole day in my cubicle consuming content online about sports and Game of Thrones. One of my weekly reads is Sean McIndoe's Weekend Report - now hosted on Vice Sports - which is, of course, hockey-related things. Here's an excerpt that made me curious:
Top Five
Celebrating those who've had the best week.
The Lake Erie Monsters—The Penguins weren't the only team to win a title over the weekend. The Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate completed a sweep of the Hershey Bears on Saturday to capture the Calder Cup. That completed a dominant playoff run in which the Monsters went 15-2.
Minor league championships can be tricky—sometimes the best AHL team is the one stacked with veteran and fringe pros, not necessarily prospects with NHL futures. But the Monsters are a reasonably young group, one that includes top prospects like Zach Werenski and Oliver Bjorkstrand (who was named playoff MVP). Their success is good news for a Blue Jackets organization that could certainly use some after another tough year at the NHL level.
Does this mean the Blue Jackets are going to have an influx of talent in the coming years? I mean, we know their forward group is very top-heavy with expensive guys over the age of 30. Could some young, cheap, talented guys join the mix and turn them into a real threat in the Metropolitan Division?

It's going to depend on two things.

Thing One: The Lake Erie Monsters

The question: Was this Calder Cup-caliber team made up on young up-and-comers or guys who just weren't good enough to play in the big league?

The answer: Every single player on the roster was either acquired this year or last year. The team is made up of two teenagers, two 20-year-olds, three 21-year-olds, three 22-year-olds, five 23-year-olds, two 24-year-olds, three 25-year-olds, and nine players 26 or older. I drew the line at 25 because it's a nice round number and if you can't crack the NHL by 26, you're probably not going to be a huge factor in a Stanley Cup run.

Of the 20 players who made my cut, let's look at who actually contributed to the team's success this season/postseason:

  • TJ Tynan (24) led the team with 46 points (6 goals, 40 assists) in the regular season, but scored just 6 points (1 goal, 5 assists) in 17 playoff games
  • Daniel Zaar (22) led with 21 goals during the season (plus 22 assists for 43 points), and added 7 goals and 5 assists in the playoffs
  • Michael Chaput (24) also cleared the 40-point threshold with 16 goals and 29 assists, and then he added 2 goals and 6 assists in the playoffs
  • Josh Anderson (22) and Alex Broadhurst (23) finished the season with 39 and 36 points, respectively, and then they each contributed 12 points in the playoff run
  • Youngsters Sonny Milano (20) scored 14 goals and 17 assists in just 54 games during the season, and he also contributed 4 goals and 4 assists in the playoffs
  • Almost-As-Young-As-Sonny-Milano Oliver Bjorkstrand (21) scored 29 points in just 51 games during the season, and then led the team with 10 goals and 16 points in the playoffs
  • Lucas Sedlak (23) tied Bjorkstrand's playoff point total, but did it with 9 goals and 7 assists
  • The Youngest Guy On The Team Zach Werenski (18) played just 7 games with Lake Erie during the season, but he contributed 5 goals and 9 assists in the playoffs
  • Markus Hannikainen (23) totaled 20 points during the season and 10 points during the playoff run
  • Kerby Rychel (21) led the younger half of the team with 0.74 points per game in the regular season, but scored just 1 goal and 5 points in the playoffs
It'd be tough to say that anybody really set the league on fire during the regular season or playoffs, especially since playoff point totals can be flukey. But there are some decently-big-name prospects in the mix, and their entire roster contributed pretty evenly during the regular season and playoffs. 

There aren't any "slam dunk" prospects, but Zaar, Anderson, Broadhurst, Milano, Bjorkstrand, Werenski, Anderson, and Hannikainen are a solid group to choose from and Tynan/Rychel can't take too much flack for their lackluster playoffs. Those nine are six wingers, two centers, and one defenseman. 

Mix that group in with the young core already in the NHL - Saad, Atkinson, Jenner, Wennberg, Karlsson, Murray, and Seth Jones - and the third pick in this upcoming draft and you have, potentially, a very solid team. 

Also, quick side note/fun fact combo about the Monsters. They play in the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Future NBA Finals Losing Cleveland Cavaliers. No word on how this affects these Monsters in their potential NHL careers, but my gut says it's not great.

Thing Two: Does A Calder Cup Win Translate?

The question: Is there any correlation between the AHL championship and the NHL championship?

This is what I was really excited to look at, and then I fell down the rabbit hole of looking at Columbus' AHL affiliate's roster and stats.

The logic here is simple: a young core that wins an AHL title is going to probably play together in the NHL a few years later, and they should be competitive at the NHL level too. Let's go back and look at some old Calder Cup winners to see if this translates:

2004-05 Philadelphia Phantoms

Ah, the Carter/Richards/Sharp/Nittymaki Phantoms. What a great place to start. Those three skaters combined for 59 points in 21 games, and Nittymaki ran through the playoffs with a 0.943 save percentage. The Phantoms lost just 5 games total, and they brought back Philly's first hockey championship since 1975.

Five years later, the Flyers played the Blackhawks in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. The series was eventually cancelled due to a power outage throughout the entire United States, and nobody ended up winning the Cup. The end.

2005-06 Hershey Bears

This one is going to fall under the category of Fluke/Stolen By A Hot Goalie. Yes, the Bears are the AHL affiliate of the powerhouse Washington Capitals. No, this Bears team did not have anybody important from any of those Caps teams.

This was led in scoring during the regular season by Tomas Fleischmann, Lawrence Nycholat, Eric Fehr, Joey Tenute, Boyd Kane, Mike Green, and Graham Mink. Goalie Frederic Cassivi won all 16 games for the Bears (an AHL record, because it's impossible to win more than that), again losing just five games total in the whole playoff.

And, because it's fun to mention, the Capitals have not advanced to a Stanley Cup Final since this Calder Cup victory.

2006-07 Hamilton Bulldogs

Here's another fun fact for you: this AHL Bulldogs team plays in Hamilton, Ontario. There is also a Hamilton Bulldogs (in Hamilton, Ontario) that plays in the OHL. They have the same name, the same home arena, and the same logo (but the colors are different). I hope they have a Hamilton Derby where they play each other and cause a blood feud between their fans.

Update: cancel that whole paragraph. The AHL Bulldogs that we're talking about in this section moved to St. Johns in 2015, and that's when the OHL Bulldogs moved to Hamilton and took their place. I apologize for the confusion, and I am still really hoping for the blood feud.

This 2007 run was led by a pair of future NHL goalies, Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Price carried the load in the playoffs, and this was a borderline repeat of the 2006 Stolen By A Hot Goalie storyline. Hamilton/St. John's is the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, and there was not a single non-Price Bulldog to play for the Habs in their 2013-14 Eastern Conference Finals run.

2007-08 Chicago Wolves

It's important to note that the Wolves are not the AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks (that's the Rockford Ice Hogs), but rather the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues have had some rough luck since this Calder Cup win, running into the Blackhawks and Kings in the playoffs at the wrong times and ultimately never advancing past the second round until this past season. But, for the purposes of this post, we should look at any players that have contributed to the Blues' regular season success.

There is nobody. The only names I recognize are Kari Lehtonen (now a Dallas Star) and Ondrej Pavelec (now a Winnipeg Jet). Maybe this whole "AHL --> NHL" thing isn't really correlated at all.

Update: this isn't actually my job, but god damnit I am bad at my job here. The Wolves, in the past half-decade, have been affiliated with the Thrashers, Jets, Canucks, and Blues. My point remains, though - nobody on this 2007-08 Wolves team has won a Cup in the big league.

2008-09 Hershey Bears

We're back to the Junior Caps again, but with some new talent mixed in. Three of the Bears' top four scorers were 27 or older, and the youngsters that contributed most were Chris Bourque, Kyle Wilson, and Mathieu Perrault.

Current Caps Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, and John Carlson joined Current Former Cap And Current Flyer Michal Neuvirth. So those are some names that featured prominently in the Flyers-Capitals series this year, but those three combined for just 3 goals and 6 assists in the 2009 Bears playoff run.

2009-10 Hershey Bears

Who knew that the Bears had a little dynasty going in the AHL? This roster was, predictably, similar to the previous year's. However, the Alzner/Beagle/Carlson trio became a little more important for the team and youngster Braden Holtby made his first appearance for the organization.

2010-11 Binghamton Senators

Quick shoutout to Upstate New York here, sort of a hockey hotbed, no big deal.

Here's all you need to know about this B-Sens translating to NHL success for the O-Sens: the 2007-2011 section on the Ottawa Senators is titled "A team in decline" and the 2011-Present section is titled "Rebuilding."

So, overall, I'd say things haven't been great in Ottawa after this minor league championship.

2011-12 Norfolk Admirals

Let's get back to some teams/players who have had some recent success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Admirals were associated with the Lightning up until this Calder Cup win, and have been associated with the Anaheim Ducks since the summer following the championship. The team moved West and is now called the San Diego Gulls.

This 2011-12 team, because it was the Tampa farm team at the time, is comprised primarily of guys who were in the Lightning system. And there are some really big names, most notably Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Radko Gudas (kinda kidding on him but not really). That's two thirds of The Triplets, another top-six player, and a defenseman that they eventually traded for a top-four defenseman.

This is the best example so far of teams bringing the core of their AHL roster up to the NHL level. Obviously the whole team isn't going to graduate to the big club, but a few key pieces can be the difference between an early exit and a deep run.

2012-13 Grand Rapids Griffins

Hey, look at that, another good example!

The Griffins are the minor league affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, and this Calder team included current Wings Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, Andersson, Glendening, Dekeyser, and Mrazek.

Again, following the previous season's Admirals, it's guys who contribute to the big club but aren't superstars. If you can plug them into a solid established core like the Lightning or Red Wings, you can have some success. If you put them with Erik Karlsson and nobody else, that's a recipe for disaster.

2013-14 Texas Stars

These Stars, of course, are the farm team of the Dallas Stars. This was the first season that the NHL Stars really had any postseason success, and they did it with contributions from Former AHL Stars Curtis McKenzie, Colton Sceviour, Brett Ritchie, Justin Dowling, Brendan Ranford, Jamie Oleksiak, and Radek Faksa.

As the NHL Stars, led by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, continue to improve and develop the ability to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you'll likely see more of these names become more mainstream. And, like the Admirals and Griffins, it's complementary pieces that will play alongside the superstar-caliber players.

2014-15 Manchester Monarchs and 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters

The Kings (the Monarchs' NHL affiliate) and Blue Jackets (same for the Monsters) did not make a ton of noise this postseason, as one got knocked out in the first round and the other was in the lottery. Only time will tell if the boys from the Calder Cup championship teams will ever serve the same purpose on a Stanley Cup championship team.

I went over the Monsters in detail above, and I'll just throw the Monarchs' big guns here so I can eventually say I Told You So when Drew Doughty's Kings win another cup:

  • Forwards: Jordan Weal, Mike Mersch, Nick Shore, Nic Dowd, Zach O'Brien, Justin Auger, Adrian Kempe
  • Defensemen: Colin Miller, Andrew Bodnarchuk, Vincent LoVerde, Kevin Gravel, Derek Forbort
  • Goalies: Jean-Francois Berube, Patrik Bartosak
This post essentially took up my whole afternoon at work today, and I'm glad I went back through these teams. The end result is really just proof of some basic logic. The core of a great NHL team will be uber-talented players who have been the best player on every team they've ever played on. If that core is complemented by younger players who have had recent success in a slightly lesser league, that's probably a recipe for success. On the flip side, if you try to use an AHL team as your NHL team, you're probably going to end up in a pretty shitty spot. But if you maximize the capabilities of your entire system, you should be able to rotate generations of players through and see continued success*. 

*Until you run into a hot goalie, because then you're fucked and there's nothing you can do to avoid it or prevent it. 

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