Lost in the recent trend of prospects going straight from the draft podium to the NHL is the fact the American League still provides an invaluable service for players on the rise.
Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Drew Doughty, Matt Duchene…the list of teens who went right to The Show grows longer every year, but some of the brightest talents have also had pit-stops in the AHL along the way.
Last season, a number of young stars made their pro debuts by suiting up for AHL squads, some of which did so once their college seasons (and hence, careers) had come to a close, including Joe Colborne and Jordan Schroeder. Colborne, a Boston Bruins pick and former Denver Pioneer, will likely skate again with the Providence Bruins this year, given the load of talent Boston already has up front. Schroeder, on the other hand, left the University of Minnesota for Manitoba and a roster spot in Vancouver is a distinct possibility, especially since fellow prospect Cody Hodgson has been saddled by back issues.
“Being able to get my feet wet and have success in Manitoba was huge for my play,” Schroeder said.
The stocky winger, who has scored more points than any other American at the world juniors, tallied nine points in 11 games for the AHL Moose last season before faring even better in the playoffs (six points in six games). The speedy Minnesota native posed plenty of problems for AHL defenders and lauded his NCAA experience for the assist.
“It’s pretty similar to college hockey; playing against older guys, stronger more physical guys,” he noted. “The main difference is you see a lot more smarter players. The guys know how to play and they understand the game.”
Kyle Beach spent the past four years wreaking havoc in the Western League, but also got two stints with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. Now he’s gunning for a spot on the Chicago Blackhawks, who took the rambunctious scorer with the 11th pick overall in 2008.
“It’s something you can’t trade, it’s a great experience,” Beach said. “It’s a time where you have to really absorb everything, take it in, get used to the pro level, the pro game.
“In junior I was one of the biggest guys, out there I’m like everyone else.”
And that’s a major factor in jumping from the junior ranks to the ‘A.’ Not only does the game move at a quicker pace, but those ain’t lanky 17-year-olds on the forecheck anymore.
Colorado Avalanche vice president of player development Craig Billington recalls a conversation he had with 6-foot-2, 228-pound power forward Chris Stewart after the emerging star suited up for the Lake Erie Monsters in 2007-08.
“He came up to me in the dressing room,” Billington recalled, “and said ‘Boy, are these guys big.’ And I don’t know if you’ve met Chris Stewart…”
But yeah, if that hulking dude was surprised, he wouldn’t be the only one. And that sort of realization is very important for a prospect’s development, even if it’s only for a short amount of time.
“What does that two to four weeks at the end of a season matter?” Billington mused. “I think it matters. You have pre-conceived notions of the pro game and you don’t really know it until you touch it.”
That’s why Florida is hoping phenom goalie Jacob Markstrom racks up some starts with Rochester this season and why Detroit sent Slovakian center Tomas Tatar to Grand Rapids instead of major junior last year. Jeremy Morin may join Beach in Rockford this season for Chicago, while Jerry D’Amigo has to decide whether to suit up for the Toronto Marlies or the Ontario League’s Kitchener Rangers. Needless to say, his bosses with the Maple Leafs would love if he could thrive in the AHL at his age.
Development comes in all sorts of timelines, but even a peek at the pro game in the AHL can do wonders for hockey’s next generation.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.