AHL Development

With the NHL in full lockout mode a lot of the hockey world’s focus has shifted to the AHL. Edmonton Oiler fans are very interested in the Oklahoma City Barons. With Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Paarjarvi playing there already and Hall practicing with the team it makes a lot of sense. Throw in first year pro Justin Schultz and all the other prospects on the team and we are talking about many of the young blue chip studs the Oilers have in their system. I am sure Oilers management is hoping the current Barons lineup will be all over the Oilers roster in the years to come.

I get asked by fans all the time about when Player X or Player Y will be ready for NHL prime time. I am always surprised when fans seem to think players put in the minors will just improve because they are in the AHL. Comments like ‘he just needs a couple of years in the minors and then he will be ready’ or ‘he is just being put there so he learns to respect the NHL’ are not accurate at all. It isn’t like you are waiting for a New York strip steak to age… a lot of work needs to be done by the player to improve to an NHL playing level.

A great thing about playing in the minors is the way schedule is set up. Weekend games are a priority in the AHL to increase attendance. Three games from Friday thru Sunday often mean no games Monday thru Thursday. With this type of hole between games, a player can really work on the parts of his game that need improving.

But will he have the discipline to work on his game?

Having three games in a row is tough especially when you throw in travel. I remember playing in that third game in three days and my legs being absolutely fried. No jump, no gas in the tank. Mondays you are super tired and it is often an off day to recover. I always thought it was a great day to get the gym and work on strength. Young players need to take advantage of down time to get stronger.

Extra time to work on skills is always available in the minors. There is no rush to get on a plane after practice or a game every other day to worry about. The head coach will go through his practice plan and then the ice is open. My second year in the AHL our team, the Kentucky Thoroughblades were so lucky to have Vasily Tikhonov as an assistant coach.

He worked with all the defencemen. Right at the beginning of the year he sat us down and said we work on our skills a little each day after practice, ten minutes was all that was needed, if we were dedicated. Not one hour after practice once a week. That approach doesn’t work. He wanted us to chip away at getting better. It was such good advice for all of us to hear at that age. We all improved big time. 

Most AHL teams now have on ice skill coaches and strength trainers. What great resources for a prospect to take advantage of if they are dedicated to improving! That is the big issue however… are they good professionals?

We never had anything like that twenty years ago. My first year in the minors my head coach Jimmy Roberts told me I should take boxing lessons to learn how to fight. He sent me to an old trainer with one eye and a heavy limp! I was so scared of this guy I listened very closely but it didn’t improve my stickhandling!

Playing in the minors is a lot of fun. Everyone is the same age pretty much and you are all making money for the first time in your lives. You also are free to do what you like. No billets watching over your shoulder making sure you eat right, no college coach telling you to work out every day. With all this freedom comes responsibility. The player’s career path lies solely on his shoulders!

Will he make the right decisions to improve his game? Will he eat right? Get sleep? Take advantage of all the coaching available?

The Edmonton Oilers have an incredible development team in place. There is constant feedback from them letting the individual players know what should be worked on. What a gift! Ask any retired player and they will tell you they would have killed for that!

I think the Oilers have done a good job assembling talent in the system through the draft. They have surrounded these players with the resources required to get to the NHL. Now it is truly up to the individual players. For some they will get in the program right away, be focused and move up to the NHL. For others, the years will tick by and they will not go anywhere.

Five years from now look back on today’s Barons lineup. You will know who was committed and who was not.

Previously by Jason Strudwick