Does the NHL need a Second Minor League?

This is Serge Savard, age 20. The young defender had completed his junior career and began the long climb up the Montreal Canadiens depth chart. The Habs (and other NHL teams) had long since discovered many prospects were unable to adjust to the rigors of the AHL, so a second league was placed in the American south. Some of the best NHL players of the 1970’s made their pro debuts in cities like Houston, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The NHL might be wise to have another long look at the idea of a second professional league.

In the early 1960s NHL GMs noticed that the pipeline between the minors and the NHL had slowed down alot. There were several reasons for it (the WHL was gearing up to become a second major league, which was shot down by the 1967 expansion) but a lot of the problem came when new pro’s fell out of the AHL because the step up was too difficult. The bottom line was that something had to be done to bridge the gap.

The NHL developed a second minor league, the CPHL (Central Professional Hockey League). It was a de facto development league. The clubs built all kinds of roster requirements (each club carried only 15 players and 10 of those had to be under 23) in order to fast track the cream of each organization to a higher tier. The result was a much better average in terms of developing young talent, as these kids had somewhere to go once they turned pro.

That 1966-67 Apollo team Savard played on delivered an enormous number of quality players to the NHL. Danny Grant, Jacques Lemaire, Pat Quinn, Rogie Vachon, Mickey Redmond and Carol Vadnais were some of the names that would eventually find their way to the NHL. Even considering expansion (and 120+ new jobs), the CPHL allowed many quality players to transition successfully during this time.

  1. Isn’t that what the ECHL does? No, not really. The Oilers didn’t send any top end prospects to Stockton last season. The best Oiler player on their roster was probably Cody Wild. The best player who was there all season might have been Jordan Bendfeld. The "AA" league might look like it did in the 60s: 10 young prospects and a few veterans to help the process. That means all teams would be providing much better prospects.
  2. Which Oiler prospects last year would have been candidates? A lot of them. Among the D, Johan Motin, Alex Plante and Taylor Chorney would have been candidates. Up front, Slava Trukhno, Bryan Lerg, Geoff Paukovich. Liam Reddox did spend his first pro season in the ECHL and would be an example of the type of thing I’m talking about in the new development league. For the coming season, Phil Cornett and Jeff Petry might be examples of players who could benefit from this league.
  3. What would be the positives for the players? They’d be getting playing time at the pro level and developing in a league where about 70% of the opposition is in the same age range. Their status as regulars (and the small roster size) would guarantee playing time. We don’t have TOI totals for the AHL, but it is a certainty that someone like Paukovich would have played more in the ECHL (and had a bigger role) than he did in the American League. A player like Petry might be able to get his bearings during a 20-game stay and then move up to the AHL without getting run over ala Taylor Chorney. That has value to player and team.
  4. What would be the positives for the team? Teams would be able to sign more minor league veterans and therefore have better depth in the organization if injuries occur. The overall quality of the league would be better since the depth would be much better. The batting average might improve in terms of drafting success (fewer failures) and their AHL clubs would be stronger and better able to overcome a rash of injuries.
  5. Anything else? Yes. I think the second tier might be a good spot for junior players who are overqualified for the CHL but are ineligible to play in the  AHL. It would require a rule change, but the NHL does that kind of thing to suit their needs all the time (getting Lou his rifleman being the latest example).
  6. What leagues would be affected? Aside from the CHL (mentioned above), the Euro leagues would be impacted at some level since NHL teams would be adding as many as 15 roster spots.
  7. From the current group of Oiler pro players, recent pro signings and CHL/Euro/college bound prospects, which 10 players would you nominate for this season’s experiement? G: Bryan Pitton. D: Johan Motin, Jeff Petry, Jordan Bendfeld, Kyle Bigos. F: Phil Cornet, Milan Kytnar, Teemu Hartikainen, Toni Rajala, Anton Lander.
  8. From the current group of Oiler pro players, which 5 players would you nominate in the "veteran" group for this season’s experiment?  D: Jason Strudwick, Josef Hrabal. F: Chris Vande Velde, Matt Marquardt. The fifth veteran would probably be a goaltender.
  9. You’ve listed some very good young prospects, like Vande Velde, Hartikainen and Petry. If those players can’t make the AHL as rookie pro’s then there isn’t much hope for them. It is a matter of changing your perspective. Lets take Johan Motin as an example. Last year, he was sheltered in the AHL at age 20 (he played his first 2 AHL games at 19) and might have been better served by playing more minutes at the pro level against players (mostly) his own age. You can make the argument it would have been better for his development. More sorties, more knowledge.
  10. Can you give examples of players who "got away" who might have benefited from this kind of thing? This summer, the Oilers sent away Bryan Lerg, Slava Trukhno, Josef Hrabal and Geoff Paukovich. A prospect’s failure is a shared blame: player, but also scouts, coaches, injuries, shared affiliates (GM), not spending the dollars required to sign these kids in a timely manner (ownership) and a few more I’m not thinking of at this moment. But I think some of the blame for the Oilers kids (especially the AHL group) is that this decade’s prospects simply didn’t play enough once turning pro. A second team–at a lower level–makes certain the club gives each signed pro prospect a better chance to succeed by adding a rung to the development ladder. Or at least that’s what I’m suggesting.

NOTE: I’ve written on this subject a few times before, but this particular post was inspired by an item at Oilers Republic. If you have the time, give it a read.

  • BigE91

    Good post and a good idea. I can see where this would be beneficial for all NHL teams but how much of the Oilers current predicament has to do with them mothballing their AHL team several years ago and then resurrecting it in recent seasons? It’s been said that the lack of an AHL affiliate really hurt Delauriers development, how many others were affected?

  • Lowetide

    uber: Well the NHL teams are bleeding talent now to various leagues (most notably the KHL) and one way around that is to grow your own. One of the most successful teams during this summer’s free agent season was SKA St Pete: Evgeni Nabokov, Maxim Afinogenov and Denis Grebeshkov.

    Even a solid NHL defenseman developed on the cheap would mean a major investment + for an NHL team.

    • ubermiguel

      Ducey makes some great points about why a new North American league won’t fly. Add to that: the NHL is running a loss with enough of their major pro teams; they don’t need to be running a loss with an entirely new league.

      I agree with you about losing talent to other leagues. I would rather see those three players in NHL uniforms. But you’ve identified an over-supply of talent, not a demand for more hockey leagues.

      SKA St Pete is a sign that there is a demand for more pro-hockey and there is available ownership with deep pockets but it is not on this continent.

      I suggest of a new development league, but make it in Europe/Russia and make it parallel to the AHL. Reasoning:

      – demand (new market, new fans, new money)

      – willing owners (i.e.: up-front capital)

      – young European players can stay close to home (maybe allow easy transfer of players between NA and Euro leagues; I could see “you get to play in Europe and stay in our organization” as a real incentive to a young player)

      – increased brand presence in Europe (need to kill the lure of the KHL, re-establish the NHL as the pre-eminent league)

      Edit: I see PabstBR55 agrees with me, and is faster at typing his reply too.

      • PabstBR55

        Exactly.

        If you are Brayden Schenn, wouldn’t you rather play in Stockholm against men than in Brandon against teenagers?

        And if the NHL brands and monetizes it, it would be far more lucrative for the league and players than the Dub.

        Edit: Or rather than create a new league, NHL teams should try to build partnerships with European clubs. For example, the Oilers would have a partnership with Cologne of the DEL, while the Flames partnered with Helsinki of the Finnish league … kind of like sister clubs. The NHL would have to build an outline for reciprocity, but the agreement would have our top young prospects develop in a more competitive environment. It would also be assumed that call-ups would be less frequest for these players.

  • ubermiguel

    Interesting idea for development of players, but at what point do we reach a saturation point for hockey leagues? Is there enough hockey support/fans/money out there for yet another league? I don’t see many markets that are under-serviced with semi-pro hockey and have owners lining up to finance it. Unless the NHL owns this new league wholly and is willing to take a 100% loss on it I can’t see it happening.

    From a business standpoint a more likely scenario would be the NHL reaching an affiliation agreement with one or more of the existing leagues to align their roster rules and transfer agreements as you suggest. If they’re smart they do the same in Europe if only to stop the KHL from growing its prospects and fan base.

  • Ducey

    I think it will beneficial to change the rules of ECHL than creating a whole new league.
    I like the idea which you have. But then CHL teams and Euros will be quite against it. Also, players might not be open to it. If they are playing in the AHL, they have the belief that they can be called up anytime. So why then shall a player leave SEL and join this new league?

  • Ducey

    Great idea LT but too much money and politics to wade through.

    The CHL would be negatively impacted as many of the higher round guys (say Eberle last year) not ready for the NHL would be gone. Those owners (some of whom are NHL owners) would scream.

    US colleges would be pissed because a bunch of their good players would choose to be involved in a developmental league instead of playing 30 games a year.

    It would essentially kill the ECHL who still sells the myth that their players are on the way to the show (when only goalies really are).

    An easier way? Increase the draft age to 19. Sure you miss a player or two every year who is ready to make it to the show. But a higher drafting age would increase the odds of teams getting the right guys and would put less pressure on immature 17 yr olds. It would also increase the quality of the CHL product (so they would be for it).

    If you have the same rule that 19 yr olds couldn’t get into the AHL in their first year after being drafted, guys would be going to the AHL when they are 20 and physically and mentally more able to withstand it.

    The only people who stand in the way of a 19 year old draft is the NHL – who are too stupid and greedy to do otherwise.