You don’t have to look hard in the Twittersphere to find a debate about the value of an AHL playoff run on the long-term development and success of the parent club.
The prevailing theme of the opinions is that there's no correlation between AHL success and NHL success. With Belleville still having a chance to make the playoffs and Ottawa long out of contention, it would seem development is all we have left.
I still recall the Binghamton Senators championship run in 2011 captivating the Ottawa market. Players that had performed in Ottawa down the stretch before being returned to Bingo like Zack Smith, Erik Condra, Colin Greening and Robin Lehner played key roles in that run and gave optimism that the Sens were headed in the right direction.
Did the Senators ever win a championship with those players? Clearly not. I am not suggesting an AHL title or even a deep playoff run is a stepping-stone to a Stanley Cup run. I simply find it hard to believe there is no correlation or benefit to the prospects that ultimately are meant to play on the parent club or the parent club itself by enjoying AHL success. Hopefully we can all agree there is no harm in the development of prospects by going on a lengthy AHL playoff run? To suggest otherwise, to me, seems highly cynical.
Belleville hasn’t seen a playoff game in its first four seasons and during that time, neither has the parent club. Is that a coincidence?
Right now, the B-Sens are in a dog fight for a playoff spot in a league where the format is very convoluted. If you are on the website, you will see the Senators are sixth in a seven-team division. The teams are not ranked by points but rather by winning % as not all teams will play the same number of games. The playoff format has been expanded this season to allow for all but two teams to make the playoffs in each division. This means Belleville needs to finish in the top five to qualify. The top three teams in their division will get byes directly to the division semi-finals. First round series will be best of three. Division semi finals and finals will be best of five and the league semi-finals & finals will be a best of seven.
All of this was enacted this year by the league’s board of governors to allow more teams and their prospects to participate in meaningful playoff hockey. No doubt the NHL clubs had input on this. Aside from the obvious revenue gains of playoff hockey, clearly somebody feels that playoff hockey is a valuable developmental experience.
As far as Belleville goes, the race is so tight they could finish anywhere from third in their division, and earn a bye in round one, to sixth and miss the dance altogether. Assuming they finish fourth or fifth, going the distance and playing the maximum in every round means potentially playing 24 playoff games. I can’t think of a better way for Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Dokker, Egor Sokolov, Mark Kastelic, Parker Kelly, Filip Gustavsson and Mads Sogaard to spend the spring.
Those players have already played for the parent club and are projected to be important pieces of the puzzle moving forward.
Let’s look at the six most recent Stanley Cup winners and see if there is anything we can extrapolate.
2019-20 & 2020-21 – TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Obviously, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman came straight to the NHL and never played in the AHL regular season and playoffs.
However, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow all benefited from at least one lengthy playoff run in the AHL and were all major contributors to both of their Stanley Cup runs. They weren’t all in the Lightning farm system, but AHL development is AHL development.
Coincidence? I think not. Oh, and lest we forget, their coach, Jon Cooper, was head coach of the Calder Cup champions in Norfolk in 2012-13.
2018-19 – ST. LOUIS BLUES
The only players on this roster that played a lengthy run in the AHL playoffs were Robert Bortuzzo and Jar Bouwmeester. However, Jordan Binnington garnered 13 games of playoff experience over three playoff appearances on his way to the show.
Craig Berube also won a couple of playoff rounds as an AHL head coach as well.
2017-18 – WASHINGTON CAPITALS
It goes without saying that Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov never saw the AHL.
I was surprised to note that John Carlson (29), Matt Niskanen (12), Brett Connolly (18), Jakub Vrana (38), Jay Beagle (44), Chandler Stephenson (36), Christian Djoos (33) and Brooks Orpik (30) all played deep into several runs in the AHL playoffs.
Only Niskanen, Connolly and Orpik did it in other organizations.
Head Coach Barry Trotz won the Calder Cup in 1993-94 in Portland as well. Interestingly, Troy Mann coached Vrana, Stephenson and Djoos in Hershey during their playoff experience.
2015-16 & 2016-17 – PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Obviously, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin skipped the AHL.
Conor Sheary, Chris Kunitz and Brian Dumoulin were on both teams and played meaningful playoffs runs with Sheary and Dumoulin did it in the Pens farm system in Wilkes/Barre-Scranton. Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury were also on both teams and played at least 10 games in the AHL playoffs during their development. Each also took a turn leading the team to the Stanley Cup.
The Head Coach in Wilkes/Barre-Scranton in those development years in the playoffs? Current Nashville Predators Head Coach, John Hynes.
Ben Lovejoy was on the 2015-16 team, and he played 35 career AHL playoff games for Wilkes/Barre-Scranton and lost in the finals in 2007-08.
I could go on and on.
If you look at the list of Stanley Cup Champions and Calder Cup Champions, it is tough to discern any pattern that correlates AHL championships to NHL championships. If that is the pattern that people are using to dismiss the value of AHL playoff success, then I find that thinking a little short-sighted. It’s important to define success.
In the development leagues, the top priority is the development of players to help the parent club win. Any player whose game takes steps forward that ultimately allows them to transition to the NHL either more quickly or smoothly, has to be considered a success story. They don’t have to win the Calder Cup or even make the finals to enjoy success. They need to have a meaningful impact on the outcome and get a feel for winning and playing in big games that could serve them at the next level.
Does winning an AHL championship mean your team is projected to win an NHL title? Absolutely not. However, does having your prospects enjoy success in an AHL playoff run translate into better performance and results at the NHL level which can ultimately lead to a Stanley Cup title? I think the examples above clearly show a pattern of developmental success leading to success in the show.
The data also shows something of a pattern in terms of coaching development in the minor leagues as well. The fact that Jon Cooper and Barry Trotz won Calder Cups as Head Coaches can’t be ignored. John Hynes has yet to enjoy a deep playoff run in the NHL. However, neither did Barry Trotz and Jon Cooper when they first came to the NHL.
So, what does all of this mean for Sens Nation? We should be taking a very keen interest in the last seven games of the Belleville Senators and the performance of the of the key prospects. Assuming they qualify for the post-season, Ottawa should offer bus packages to playoff games in Belleville to drive interest.
I am particularly intrigued by Filip Gustavsson and think a trip to the playoffs and playing in that environment would serve him extremely well. Don’t forget Carey Price led Hamilton to an AHL championship in 2007 and things worked out fairly well for him. I am not suggesting he is the next Carey Price. I am suggesting, however, that Price’s AHL playoff run put him on a path to quicker and great NHL success. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he is in Belleville right now while Mads Sogaard backs up most of the games for Anton Forsberg. Gustavsson is playing all of the games and is feeling the heat of a playoff run down the stretch. Anything to get him back in the groove is a win for the parent club as I am getting an uneasy feeling about the health and future of Matt Murray.
Finally, if a good playoff run happens then it might be time to start thinking about having Troy Mann move up to the NHL bench as an assistant. He will have worked closely with a lot of the players, and he has already coached a team to the finals in the AHL before. If the Senators don’t want him to move on to greener pastures, they might want to provide a path for him to follow.
Let it be said, AHL success can and has led to NHL success. It’s just a matter of how you define success in the AHL. One thing is for certain, any prospect player or head coach who enjoys AHL playoff success on their way to the show is almost certain to carry that experience to the NHL.
That’s what they call a WIN WIN outcome! Go Baby Sens!
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey