Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Chicago Wolves Win Calder Cup

The Chicago Wolves won the Calder Cup last night as AHL champions. Here is a look back at the AHL playoff first round, second round and third round.

Chicago defeats Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 4 games to 2 The Chicago Wolves are the Atlanta Thrashers AHL affiliate and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the Pittsburgh Penguins affiliate. Chicago proved they are the dominant AHL team this year. Jason Krog too the Jack Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP with 38 points in his 24 playoff games. Chicago also had significant offensive contributions from Darren Haydar and Joel Kwiatkowski. Their goaltending was provided by Ondrej Pavelec. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton were led by defenceman Alex Goligoski (who led them in scoring - setting an AHL playoff record with 28 points from defence) and Tim Brent. John Curry delivered solid goaltending.

One might be tempted to think that the future looks bright in Atlanta since their affiliate won the Calder Cup. Afterall, last year the Hamilton Bulldogs won and they provided their affiliate Montreal with Carey Price, Kyle Chipchura, Maxim Lapierre and Jaroslav Halak who all played significant roles in the NHL this season. In fact, much of Montreal's improvement can be credited to the emergence of these young players. The Chicago Wolves are not a particularly young team. Their top three playoff scorers Jason Krog, Darren Haydar and Joel Kwiatkowski are 32, 28 and 31 respectively. They are not NHL prospects. They are men who have failed to make the jump to the NHL who have become career AHL players. The only significant prospect on the Calder Cup champion Wolves is goalie Ondrej Pavelec.

This is one reason that Atlanta has struggled. Their farm affiliate in Chicago has consistently been stocked with older career AHL players. They have been consistently one of the top teams in the AHL, but have not produced many useful players for Atlanta. This is one reason that Atlanta GM Don Waddell should be replaced. He has a weak team and allows an AHL arrangement where career AHL players get precedence over any Atlanta prospects. Perhaps the Thrashers could look to Wolves GM Kevin Cheveldayoff as Waddell's replacement. He has been rumored to have been a candidate for some other GM openings in the NHL and seems to always scrounge up talent that appears to have NHL ability but is stuck in the AHL.

The Chicago Wolves won the Calder Cup as AHL champions. They did it with a roster of older career AHL players who have little value to the Atlanta Thrasher (their NHL affiliate) organization. The Chicago Wolves success is a good thing, but it does nothing to help the Thrashers. The Thrashers would be helped more with an AHL affiliate that develops their prospects, even if it means they likely won't win Calder Cups.

What about first round draft pick Bryan Little???

Or Brent Sterling???

Or Colin Stuart??

Or first round draft pick Boris Vlabik???
What about them?

My point is not that the Chicago Wolves do not have any Thrasher prospects on their roster. They do. The problem is the key players are not Thrasher prospects. They are the depth players on the team. Atlanta would be better served if they were the key players on the team instead of losing ice time to career minor leaguers.

The top scorer in the playoffs among the players you listed was Bryan Little. He scored 13 points in the playoffs. If we look at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (as an example of a successful playoff team that actually depended upon prospects) that would have tied him for 7th in playoff team scoring. Every one of those seven players is younger than Darren Haydar who is the youngest of the three career AHL players who led the Wolves in playoff scoring.

The Wolves have placed too high an emphasis on winning and that has forced the Thrasher prospects to take a backseat to career AHL players with essentially no value to the Thrasher team.
There was also a complaint among Toronto hockey (read: Maple Leafs) fans that coach Greg Gilbert was relying too much on veterans, particularly by riding veteran goalie Scott Clemmensen at the expense of Justin Pogge. This indicates that this isn't just a Chicago Wolves problem, but one faced by many AHL teams.

The real problem is that there's a conflict of interest regarding the purpose of the AHL. From the perspective of the NHL parent club,
it should be a developmental league. However, independently owned AHL franchises need to win to put fans in seats and ensure their financial survival, and AHL coaches need to win to keep their jobs.

There are a few things that could be done across the board to force AHL franchises to develop NHL players. Currently, AHL teams can dress only five veteran players, which forces teams to give prospects ice time. Maybe the number of allowable veteran players could be lowered further, or maybe there could be set limits regarding the ice time given to veterans and prospects (although this would be nightmarish to enforce). Or, the waiver rules could be relaxed, allowing talented prospects to travel between parent and farm teams without fear of being lost, which would allow less reliance on veteran players over subpar prospects (for example, Jeremy Williams didn't get a chance to play for the Toronto Marlies in the AHL playoffs for fear that he'd be plucked off waivers).

However, there's a problem with forcing AHL franchises to develop NHL prospects at the advantage of career minor leaguers: If the number of jobs or the amount of available ice time is reduced for AHL veterans, more of them will choose to play elsewhere, such as the new Continental Hockey League in Russia. This won't be a big deal to NHL teams in the short run, since most of these minor-leaguers can't crack an NHL lineup anyway. But the exodus of North American players can only result in a gradual rise in the quality of competition overseas. This could eventually lead to a genuine alternative to the NHL, one that could entice European NHL stars to play at home.

It's a sticky situation. Maybe the NHL should just expand by a couple of teams and open up the number of jobs available to all.
The Chicago Wolves are more interested in career minor leaguers than most AHL teams. That is why they win. It is also why Atlanta doesn't.

A good GM at the NHL level will see that his AHL affiliate plays his prospects over the career AHLers.
But how can an GM at the NHL level force the AHL affiliate to play his prospects when the AHL affiliate is independently owned?

The Toronto Marlies, for instance, are owned by Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment, just like the Maple Leafs are. But while the Atlanta Thrashers are owned by Atlanta Spirit, LLC, the Chicago Wolves aren't. The Wolves are owned by Don Levin and Buddy Meyers, and they're the ones signing the cheques of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach John Anderson. So, what leverage does Thrashers GM Don Waddell have here to make sure the Wolves play his prospects?
Atlanta needs to find an affiliate that will give their prosoects more playing time. That probably means they will have to end their relationship with the Chicago Wolves.
Like PHS says, the last-ditch option is to drop the affiliate. Some NHL teams that share affiliates (Florida and Buffalo used to share the Rochester Americans, for example - maybe still do) wind up with double the problems because one team's prospects may get short shrift. Those teams are usually trying to find or even create a new team to serve as their farm team. And if your AHL franchise isn't getting first-rounders from one (or even two) teams, it isn't going to be a very good team for long.

As much as I like Peter's idea of adding a couple of waiver-exempt spots, I don't think the NHLPA would go for it. The players to be most affected by such a rule would be those who would likely be snagged by another team, offering those players a better shot at ice time - any limit on player mobility likely would not be positive from the NHLPA's point of view.

Slightly off-topic but intriguing - it would be nice if the NHL had something similar to ML Baseball, in that a player coming off IR could go down to the minors for a rehab stint without being exposed to waivers. If the league did permit two or three waiver-exempt slots for such a purpose, they could mandate that only players coming off IR and of a certain time of service could be eligible.
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