You have to hand it to AHL president Dave Andrews: he takes the old “campsite rule” very seriously. Because when Andrews retires this June, he will be leaving the league in much better shape than when he first got there.
The most recent good news comes from Palm Springs, where the California resort town is poised to become the league’s 32nd franchise and NHL Seattle’s farm team for the 2021-22 season. But we’ve still got a lot of time before the Fightin’ Coachellas take to the ice. In the here and now, the AHL promises to be filled with exciting talent this year, even more so than usual.
While the majority of NHL players still come through the AHL first, it seems like this season is particularly fruitful. One factor is the amount of European kids who are coming over to North America earlier in order to get their bearings in the different rinks and cultures that make up the sport here. They all have NHL dreams, and spending time in major junior or the USHL or the NCAA before turning pro allows them to get used to life on this side of the pond.
Because of this trend, we’re seeing high-end teens or players who just turned 20 in the AHL. Vitali Kravtsov (New York Rangers) in Hartford, Rasmus Kupari (Los Angeles) in Ontario and Lucas Elvenes (Vegas) in Chicago are a few examples of guys getting their first North American experience. But if you want a team that really embodies the excitement in the AHL this season, look to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Detroit’s farm team has been blessed with an abundance of talent, including 2019 first-round draft pick Moritz Seider. The 18-year-old defenseman decided to stay in North America instead of returning to Germany, where he would have played big minutes for Adler Mannheim in the DEL. Seider was part of the Red Wings’ entry that won the Traverse City prospects tournament this September, an eight-team affair in Michigan hosted by Detroit. Also on that squad were 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno and both of them started the season with the Griffins, too. Toss in high-end prospects such as Michael Rasmussen, Evgeny Svechnikov, Givani Smith and star goalie Filip Larsson, and you’ve got a very fun team to watch.
Veleno is particularly interesting because he is the rare 19-year-old Canadian allowed to play in the AHL. Veleno was the first player in QMJHL history to gain exceptional status, which means he played for the Saint John Sea Dogs as a 15-year-old in 2015-16. So even though major junior players aren’t supposed to join the AHL until they’re 20, Veleno had already exhausted his four years of duty (ending with Drummondville).
Now, I could certainly open up a can of worms about why more 19-year-old Canadian kids could easily play in the AHL even without playing four years of major junior, but column space is precious, my friends, and I simply don’t have the inches. So let’s just appreciate the fact Veleno managed to be the exception to the rule.
As the Red Wings rebuild, they will need their youngsters to battle each other for spots. Internal competition is the first barrier to overcome and, by having so many suitors for a couple spots in the NHL, the Griffins will (hopefully) get everyone’s best effort each night.
With so many youngsters making NHL rosters these days, you would think the AHL would be adversely affected, but that has not been the case. If anything, you’re getting more college kids like Oliver Wahlstrom (New York Islanders) and Joel Farabee (Philadelphia) leaving school earlier because they think they’re up for the challenge of the pro game – and that’s great news for Bridgeport and Lehigh Valley, respectively. If these kids can hang, then the second-best league in the world is the place to be.
If these trends continue, the AHL is going to be wildly fun for a long time. I hope Palm Springs is ready for it.