The AHL is sometimes referred to as the "second best professional hockey league in the world." As the NHL's top developmental league, many a star and role player have come through its ranks, and many others have finished careers there. It can be hard to determine a franchise's future from their AHL franchise's success as more often that not an NHL franchise at the top of its game may very well trade their AHL prospects for an established player to "put them over the hump." Several notable trades between the Panthers and Blackhawks in the past several seasons exhibit this tendency perfectly: The Panthers acquired Jack Skille, Brandon Pirri, Dylan Olsen, and Jimmy Hayes all from the Chicago's farm team in Rockford (or in the case of Skille, from the 'Hawks after repeated and temporary call-ups from the IceHogs). The Blackhawks roster has been so full of established players who are also still young, that their younger players in Rockford had no shot at earning full time roles in Chicago. It's this jam that led the 'Hawks to trade away Pirri, the AHL's leading scorer from a year ago for draft picks. Other prior notable 'Hawks came through Rockford on their way to Chicago as well, including Cam Barker, Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland, Brandon Bollig, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien, Corey Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Antti Niemi, Antti Raanta, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Ben Smith, Kris Versteeg, and James Wisniewski (to name but some).
Is it any surprise then, that last season's Calder Cup champion was the Detroit Red Wings affiliate in Grand Rapids? Since 2003, Detroit has moved Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Chris Kelly, Kyle Quincey, Jimmy Howard, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Kopecky, Joey MacDonald, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Ville Leino, Jakub Kindl, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Brendan Smith, Danny Dekeyser and a host of other players up through the Griffins organization. The majority of the Red Wings young NHL players spent a minimum of two seasons in the AHL, such as Nyquist, (two seasons), or Tatar (four seasons).
The team Grand Rapids defeated for the Calder Cup, the Syracuse Crunch, were also the 2012 champion Norfolk Admirals, who are affiliated with the Tampa Bay Lightning (Tampa moved their team to Syracuse after the 2012 season). Tampa's affiliate played for back to back Calder Cup championships, winning one and losing one. Small wonder that hockeysfuture.com ranks Tampa Bay's as the top farm system in the NHL. Many of their young stars and top prospects are playing or have played in Syracuse. This includes a whose who of some of the Bolts top youngsters including Vladislav Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette, Nikita Kucherov, Tanner Richard, Nikita Nesterov, Philippe Paradis, Dmitry Korobov, and Jonathan Marchessault. No exploration of Tampa's relationship with its AHL affiliate can be complete without also including their present coach, Jon Cooper, who was their coach in Norfolk prior to being hired with the NHL club.
The Panthers AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, have not made the playoffs since 2011-12, which was also their first season with the Panthers after their move from Rochester, which transferred to an affiliation with Buffalo (a lot of movement in the AHL eh?). A look at the Panthers prior affiliation with Rochester shows some impotent distinctions with the AHL teams mentioned previously. Most important was the lack of future NHL talent that came through Rochester from 2006-11 (the years affiliated with Florida) for the Panthers.
The 2010-11 Americans sported future NHL players like Michal Repik, Kenndal McArdle, Colby Robak, Scott Timmins, Evgeny Dadanov, Eric Sellek, Hugh Jessiman, Tim Kennedy, Keaton Ellerby, current Senator Cory Conacher (who was traded to Milwaukee), and Jacob Markstrom. Not surprisingly, the team did not make the playoffs. In 2009-10, the Amerks sported a similar cast of names, with the additions of Jason Garrison and Shawn Matthias, in a season when the team would make a first round exit from the AHL playoffs. In 2008-09, the team missed the playoffs, but also had future NHL regular Tanner Glass playing for them. In 2007-08, the team missed the playoffs and had future Panther Kamil Kreps playing with Tanner Glass on the team. In 2006-07, the team (which was shared with Buffalo) lost in the first round of the AHL playoffs and had players such as David Booth, and Rostislav Olesz along with Glass and Kreps. There is little reason to go further back, as Florida's poor drafting and free agent signings throughout the period when the NHL team struggled through years of Mike Keenan, Jacques Martin and others would cripple the AHL team as well as the Panthers.
In 2011-12, the Panthers moved their AHL affiliation to the San Antonio Rampage. That season the team lost in the second round of the playoffs, and the first sighting of future Panther prospects and Panthers could be had. Drew Shore and Quinton Howden made appearances that season, along with Robak, Alex Petrovic, Jonathan Hazen, Garrett Wilson, Michael Caruso, and Tyson Strachan (although many of the prospects played very few games for the Rampage). 2012-13 would find the Rampage out of the playoffs, but featuring Shore and Howden, Robak, Petrovic, Hazen, John McFarland, Wilson and Strachan, David Pacan, Caruso, Jonathan Racine, Wade Megan, and Josh McFadden. This past season saw other snippets of Panther prospects playing in the AHL, with Shore, Howden, Vincent Trochek, Petrovic, Robak, Caruso, Racine, Wilson, Megan, and McFadden all getting AHL time, along with a pair of try-out signings in Tyler Barnes and Connor Brickley making their first appearances. Also getting time with the Rampage were goalie prospects Rob Madore and Michael Houser.
Yet, like so many other seasons, the Panthers would end up calling up Trochek, Howden, Robak, and Petrovic for long periods of time. Some expect that several, if not all, of these players will be with the Panthers full time next season and that brings us to the real point of all this, which is that this franchise is in (and has been) in a position where they have been forced to rely on youngsters without giving them a period of time to mature and learn in the AHL. Due to how poorly the NHL team has played for so long, Florida's top prospects have always ended up in Sunrise early. Look at past Cats "top talent" to see just how true this is:
Name: AHL Seasons:
- Michael Frolik: 0
- Nathan Horton: 21 games
- Stephen Weiss: 1 season (NHL lockout year in 2004)
- Rostislav Olesz: 4 games
- Jay Bouwmeester: 1 season (NHL lockout year in 2004)
- Erik Gudbranson: 0
- Jonathan Huberdeau: 0
- Dimitry Kulikov: 0
- Keaton Ellerby: 2
To be fair, there are other Panther draft picks who played lots of AHL seasons, such as first round pick Anthony Stewart, who took quite some time before making it out of the "A" for a couple of years in the bigs. Also, in the interest of fairness, there are issues with players drafted from the CHL, as they cannot play in the AHL until they reach the age of 20 by December 31st of that season or have played four years of juniors. Thus, a player like Gudbranson or Huberdeau could not have played in the AHL due to their age and years in juniors. But the bigger issue has been that unlike the franchises noted earlier with established rosters and longer term success, the Panthers have needed their prospects immediately at the NHL level.
Changes are coming though. As the Panthers hold on to good players for terms of years (like Huberdeau, Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Brian Campbell, Olsen, etc. ), they will be able to keep developing players in the AHL for a longer period of time. This is most notable so far at defense, where the team is happy to allow Michael Matheson to return to Boston College for his junior season to continue his development. With the defensive depth the Panthers have on the cusp of being NHL-ready or now NHL-seasoned, as well as plans to sign two UFA defensemen this off season, players like Petrovic, Racine, Matheson, MacKenzie Weegar, Michael Downing and Ian McCoshen may be brought along more slowly, like Robak was. Ultimately, the goal should be to have three or more of these prospects playing in the AHL at the same time. The same could be true at center, where the Panthers appear ready to enter next season with Barkov, Bjugstad, and Trochek ready to lock up spots, and the possibility of a free agent signing to fill the fourth, if Shore is indeed moved to wing. This, however, exposes where the changes must come.
With the aforementioned centers now on the NHL team, there is little left at the position in San Antonio. A truly successful franchise will have at least one high-caliber center developing in the AHL to follow, replace, or push the centers at the NHL level. This is not to say that the Panthers do not have center depth, as both Kyle Rau and Rocco Grimaldi are listed as centers (who can both play wing), and Brandon Pirri is also a center who can play wing.
At the wing position this is even more true, as the Panthers are severely lacking in top quality wing depth in both the NHL and AHL.