Properly utilizing a farm system is a relatively new thing for the Avs organization so I figured we should take a look at what the AHL is and how it is useful for the NHL teams and the Avs in particular.
The rules framework mirrors the NHL's except in one aspect. It is a development league and thus has limits on how many veterans can dress for each game. Of the 18 skaters, 12 must have less than 260 games as a pro and 1 must have less than 320 games as a pro. (Pro = NHL, AHL, Major Euro Leagues) Minimum age is officially 18, but players that have rights held by CHL Junior teams may not play until age 20 except after their teams have completed the CHL season.
The style of play is markedly different from the NHL. It is much more open offensively, there are a lot more penalties/power plays and fighting is much more prevalent. Watching from an NHL perspective, the games have a very "3rd line" feel, more gritty physical scoring and capitalizing on the opponent's mistakes than finessing or outright overpowering.
What kind of players come out of the AHL? Even the best defensemen in the NHL generally spend at least one season in the A developing. Just about all your bottom-6 forwards spend several seasons there, what you don't see is a lot of top-6 forward talent because it's pretty much NHL ready right out of the box.
For comparison, here are the Avs with their draft round and AHL games played:
Duchene - 1 - 0
Landeskog - 1 - 0
MacKinnon - 1 - 0
O'Reilly - 2 - 0
Stastny - 2 - 0
Tanguay - 1 - 5 (as an ATO)
McGinn - 2 - 116
Talbot - 8 - 122
McLeod - FA - 133
Malone - 4 - 145
Bordeleau - 4 - 227 (includes 29 during the lockout)
Mitchell - 5 - 246
Cliche - 2 - 341
Parenteau - 9 - 450
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Johnson - 1 - 1
Hejda - 4 - 5 (also played ~400 in the Czech/Russian leagues from age 18 on)
Wilson - FA - 72
Barrie - 3 - 93 (includes 32 during the lockout)
Sarich - 2 - 94
Holden - FA - 295
Benoit - FA - 319 (includes lockout games)
Guenin - 4 - 441
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There's a rough correlation between time spent in the AHL and draft position and also role. It's a little more pronounced on the Avs because of the lottery years (nothing like EDM and their 9 1st rounders tho'), but most teams are similar.
So for Avs fans that lament the fact we don't have any can't-miss top-6 talent waiting in Lake Erie, don't worry about it, nobody else does either. The guys in the A that might develop into talented scorers all have flaws that need to be worked out. Too small, not filled out yet, never had to play defensively in Juniors, don't listen to coaches, whatever.
Looking at the players above and around the league, many of our AHL prospects are ahead of schedule. Injuries and callups have given them opportunities to play bigger roles that most young guys are offered. None of the rookies like Smith, Meurs, Cheek or even Hishon have played a half a season yet. Heard is at 54 games, Sgarbossa 68, Carey 107 and Aggz 114 with 40 left on the schedule this year.
On the defensive side, most D spend a good 2-3 years in the minors before coming up to the NHL. The Canadian Olympic team defense averages about 70 games in the AHL each, and that's with 3 guys that didn't play there at all. Elliott is at 102 games in the AHL, Stollery 110, Beaupre 71, Lauridsen 64, and Duncan Siemens just 16. It will be interesting to see what these guys look like when they get around 150 games of development under their belts.
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Playing in the minors is more of a stigma to fans than it is to players and coaches definitely look at it as a positive. Developing talent in the AHL is how it's supposed to be done unless you're trading for Edmonton or Florida's first every year. The Avs development system was a black hole for way too long and it's still a few years away from being truly effective and churning out more assets than we have room for.
Covering the Monsters, I see the young and raw talent we have buying into the system, learning it and becoming better hockey players. I see coaches that teach and management folks that stop by to check on the progress. Proof that things are working comes when Karl Stollery gets plucked off a road trip and fits into the Avs lineup without any practice.