An American Hockey League coach’s main task is to develop players for the NHL.
Blue-chip prospects dominate much of the hockey chatter but it’s the AHL head coach that can convert raw prospects into NHL players or revive the career of a sagging veteran.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have long taken AHL player development seriously, and they made a big addition this past offseason to further that commitment.
The Lightning hired Benoit Groulx to pilot their affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, back in May. The 48-year-old brought an extensive resume to Syracuse after arriving from the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. He replaced Rob Zettler, who missed the postseason in 2015-16.
In 13 QMJHL seasons, Groulx went 460-293-18-59, winning three league championships. He also has high-profile experience having coached Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship in 2014 and 2015. His 2015 team rang up a 7-0 record en route to a gold medal.
So far, the move has paid off both in generating bodies for Tampa’s NHL roster and grooming prospects in a winning AHL environment. The Crunch began the weekend 7-3-0-1 under Groulx while they’ve already sent captain Luke Witkowski and top blue line prospect Slater Koekkoek to Tampa in the first month of the season.
Groulx’s to-do list this season features a little bit of everything. There are players like Witkowski, who are serving the NHL team on an as-needed basis, and high-end talent like Koekkoek who can use the AHL as a final stop for fine-tuning.
Mixed in are players whose careers need a jolt and those finding their way in the pro game.
THE ROOTS OF NHL SUCCESS
Additions to the NHL lineup like Witkowski and Koekkoek are why NHL teams invest millions of dollars in player development.
Life in the salary cap era has ensured that there are no shortcuts to sustained NHL success. General managers and head coaches need a steady supply of young and affordable talent to learn the pro game quickly and effectively.
The roots of the Lightning’s success go back several years. Their previous affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, won the Calder Cup in 2012. After affiliating with Syracuse the following season, the Lightning prospects went back to the Calder Cup final before coming up short against the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Lightning centre Tyler Johnson, undrafted coming out of the Western Hockey League, used the AHL to turn himself into an NHL player. He had 68 goals in 137 AHL regular season games, including a league-leading 37 goals in 2012-13 with Syracuse.
Nikita Kucherov, whose nine goals in 17 games tie him for the Tampa Bay lead, needed only 17 AHL games with Syracuse in 2013-14. His 13-goal output sent him to the NHL for good. Other players have needed more AHL seasoning. Kucherov’s fellow Russian and linemate, forward Vladislav Namestnikov, registered 134 AHL regular season games before sticking with the Lightning to stay last year. Forward Ondrej Palat played 117 AHL games before his call-up.
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman used a 17-game AHL stint to bring Jonathan Drouin back into the organization’s good graces last season after the then 20-year-old forward was unhappy with his NHL role and subsequent assignment to Syracuse.
Less-heralded Tampa Bay forwards J.T. Brown and Alex Killorn also needed AHL time after NCAA careers before graduating to full-time NHL duty.
THE NEXT STEP
Now Groulx’s task is to shepherd the next wave of prospects into NHL duty. The Crunch play the same up-tempo, pace-heavy game that the Lightning employ.
“I think we’re a work in progress,” Groulx said Friday before the Crunch met the Hershey Bears. “When we play with pace, I think we’re an exciting team to watch, a tough team to play against. Overall it’s a good start.”
There is also a raw prospect like goaltender Adam Wilcox, a 24-year-old taken in the sixth round by the Lightning in 2011. He has emerged as an intriguing prospect early in the season and has taken control of the Syracuse net from Kristers Gudlevskis.
“We like him very much,” Groulx said of Wilcox, who is 5-2-0 in seven games with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. “He’s competitive.”
Then there’s a reclamation project in veteran forward Cory Conacher, who was the AHL’s most valuable player in 2011-12 with Norfolk before winding through the NHL and Switzerland prior to landing back with Tampa Bay. Conacher is 3-8-11 in nine AHL games this season.
“He is a hell of a player,” Groulx said. “He plays with a lot of confidence, a lot of poise, [has] skill. I can’t say enough about him.”
Be they a first-round pick, a diamond in the rough, or a reclamation project, Groulx’s focus has been to foster internal roster competition.
“We have a solid group of players,” he said. “We try to implement [internal competition] on our team. We want to have that. I think that slowly but surely it’s coming.
“I really like the organization. They know how to do things. They know how to treat people. We have access to all the resources that we need. So far it has been great. We’re all excited to be working for an organization like that.”
1. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (10-3-1-0, 21 points) – The Penguins’ defence (a league-best 1.71 goals-against per game), Tristan Jarry’s goaltending (1.88 GAA, .932 save percentage), and a stout number-one penalty kill (91.1 per cent) have carried the club to 21 points in 14 games, most in the AHL. They also own an experienced blue line with AHL veterans Cameron Gaunce, Stuart Percy, Chad Ruhwedel, and Tim Erixon. But the Penguins and their puck possession game are also scoring at 3.21 goals per game. Rookie Jake Guentzel has six goals in 14 games to lead the team.
2. Tucson Roadrunners (7-1-2-0, 16 points) – The Arizona Coyotes’ AHL affiliate withstood the loss of veteran netminder Justin Peters to an NHL recall. Rookie Adin Hill has taken advantage of the opportunity, posting a 2.70 GAA and a .917 save percentage. They welcome the Manitoba Moose for a two-game series in the desert this weekend.
3. Milwaukee Admirals (9-2-1-1, 20 points) – Already the Admirals have endured instability in net with Marek Mazanec and Juuse Saros alternating roles with the parent Nashville Predators. After 12 goals in 54 games last season, Matt White has seven goals and 12 points in his first 10 games this season. They have allowed 2.54 goals per game, sixth-best in the AHL.
4. Lehigh Valley Phantoms (9-3-1-0, 19 points) – A 2-3-1-0 start has given way to a seven-game winning streak. The Phantoms handled rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, winning 4-1, at home on Wednesday. Can the Phantoms survive the departure of number-one goaltender Anthony Stolarz who is with the Philadelphia Flyers in the wake of Michal Neuvirth’s lower-body injury? The Lehigh Valley net is in the hands of rookie Alex Lyon now.
5. Toronto Marlies (8-3-1-0, 17 points) – The Marlies came through a six-game road trip that went 3-2-0-1 and featured stops against the likes of Lehigh Valley, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and the Albany Devils. Another team that can play a strong puck possession game, the Marlies are 10th in goals per game (3.25), seventh in goals allowed (2.58) and their 26.9 shots allowed per game is fourth overall. They lead the North Division and play six of their next nine games on home ice.
AWAITING THE CALL
Bakersfield Condors winger Taylor Beck endured a trying 2015-16 season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and San Antonio Rampage. The campaign featured a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the New York Islanders, injury problems, and an eventual late-season trade to a San Antonio team that was buried in the Western Conference standings. But signing this past summer with the Edmonton Oilers has paid off for the 25-year-old, who has 88 NHL games to his name. He offers size at 6-2, 203 pounds and an ability to fill a bottom-six NHL role. He has 16 points in 10 AHL games for the Condors and has already received one NHL recall this season.
THE BIG GAME
The Marlies and St. John’s IceCaps continue their season series with a pair of games at Ricoh Coliseum starting Saturday. They split a two-game battle at St. John’s two weeks ago. By the end of this weekend, the IceCaps will already have endured two six-game road trips. They began this weekend 7-7-1-0, good for fifth in the North Division, but a strong weekend will set them up well for an eight-game homestand next week. However, they will be without veteran winger Chris Terry, who started Friday tied for third in AHL scoring but is on recall to the Montreal Canadiens. Forward Charles Hudon and his league-best nine goals also is with Montreal.