Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Texas Stars Report: What's the Point of an AHL Team?

The American Hockey League is a business where you have to compete to succeed, but it's also the top development league for the NHL. How do you balance those two divergent goals on a nightly basis?
Julius Honka (Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Normally I don't publish the entire Defending Big D Texas Stars Report on 100 Degree Hockey, but this one is a little different. I think it's a big topic, and everyone should read it.

Last week's post about the struggles of Jack Campbell brought to light a lot of questions about the structure and purpose of the top development league for the NHL. So the question is, "What's the point of an AHL team?"

The first thing to understand is that the AHL is a business. It is a business that is separate from the NHL. While many AHL teams are owned by NHL affiliates, the American Hockey League is its own entity from the NHL.

So, at the end of the day, the league needs to make money on its own to stay in business, and they do that by selling their product, the teams and the games those teams play in. The teams also individually need to make money to succeed too. Of course, there's merchandise and all those other things, but at the end of the day, the teams playing games is what drives the whole thing. Without the games, you can't have all the other things surrounding them.

You can't have games without the teams. As a fan, you want your team to win. You want to cheer for a team that wins regularly, if possible. If not, you definitely want a team has a skill level that is able to compete with the league on a nightly basis. If you don't have that, you don't generally get attendance (especially in non-traditional markets), and you find your city on the list of defunct AHL teams Wikipedia page.

So all you need is a quality product with guys that will be able to skate with the rest of the teams in the league. Got it.

But you also need to play the kids. The AHL is the top development league of the NHL. As Dallas fans are very familiar, players who aren't quite ready for the NHL but have aged out of their junior or college programs go to the AHL.

OK, so now we have a conflict. We need to have a quality product that wins games and puts butts in seats while also serving the purpose of taking raw talent from juniors and college and molding it into NHL quality stuff. Raw talent, as you may know, is a mercurial thing: amazing one night and horrid the next. That up-and-down swing is not conducive to consistently winning hockey games.

What came to light in last week's discussion that I think is illuminating is this conflict and the fan understanding of it. Many advocated that Jack Campbell, crowned by many as Dallas' next great goaltender, should play 60 games this season for the Texas Stars regardless of how many games he wins. Those fans might be more familiar with the baseball minor league system, where a guy with a .124 batting average gets the start ahead of someone else who is objectively better and gives the team a better chance to win. The .124 guy gets the start because he has a major league deal.

The AHL does not work like that.

On any given night, Derek Laxdal and the 29 other coaches of the AHL are tasked with the dual roles of winning the game in front of them tonight and making that raw rookie blue liner ready to take on the next Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby in five years.

Kurt Kleinendorst, who won a Calder Cup with Binghamton in 2011 but was fired this month from his coaching role with the Iowa Wild, said it best in his interview with Michael Russo.
"... the hardest league to coach is the AHL in my opinion. No. 1 you've got a bunch of guys that don't want to be here and a bunch of them who don't think they should be here. That's an interesting dynamic in itself.

"You've got guys at all different developmental levels. You've got your veteran guys that get it, you've got your middle of the road guys that some get it and some don't but think they do, and you've got your young, developing guys that are just happy to be in the locker room. I mean, it's a tough, tough league to coach, and that's what makes it such a great challenge."
So this is why Jussi Rynnas is playing in net with Jack Campbell. It's part of why Cristopher Nilstorp against St. John's instead of Campbell coming right off injury into the Finals. It's why Curtis McKenzie and Colton Sceviour were centered by Travis Morin instead of Radek Faksa. It's why Maxime Fortunus was paired with Jokipakka for much of last year. The old guys help the young guys learn how to be pros and also help them win. (Remember, of course, that those 'old guys' are 30 years old. Perspective.)

There is also the maxim that winning is the best development. According to Jim Lites, the Dallas Stars organization views the Calder Cup run for the Texas Stars as the equivalent of half of season of regular season games. In the best case scenario, you win it all by playing the kids and everything works out in your favor. That's what Texas got last year. However, when things aren't going so great in the NHL or the AHL for an organization, that's when tough questions start to pop up about the purpose of an AHL team.

I think you'd have to agree; it's a split personality league.

Read the full report at Defending Big D...

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