NHL ex­pan­sion to Las Ve­gas has trickle-down ef­fect on AHL’s best

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY STEPHEN WHYNO THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cory Conacher knows all too well how quickly a hockey player ap­pears old.

Conacher is only four years re­moved from be­ing a Calder Tro­phy can­di­date as NHL rookie of the year but has been in four dif­fer­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions and spent time in Europe since then. He sees the sport get­ting younger and faster — and more play­ers his age get­ting squeezed out.

“I wouldn’t have thought my­self to be old, but I’m 27 and now that’s con­sid­ered al­most too old,” Conacher said Mon­day at the Amer­i­can Hockey League All-Star Game. “You see some of these guys go­ing on waivers and play­ing in the AHL (to make room for) the younger guys.”

That trend isn’t likely to change, but Conacher and other top AHL play­ers are in luck. Aside from new owner Bill Fo­ley, fans in Las Ve­gas and the 30 other NHL own­ers cash­ing in on ex­pan­sion fees, no one will ben­e­fit more from the ad­di­tion of the Golden Knights than the best of the best in the mi­nors.

Many AHL stars are too young to be el­i­gi­ble for se­lec­tion by Ve­gas in the ex­pan­sion draft, but a 31st team means 20plus more NHL ros­ter spots that need to be filled be­gin­ning next sea­son.

“It’s just more jobs for guys in the NHL and that’s all these guys’ goals to play in the NHL,” said goal­tender Michael Leighton, a vet­eran of 126 NHL and 487 AHL games. “If it’s with an ex­pan­sion team or a guy gets picked up (by Ve­gas) and he moves up, that’s great for ev­ery­one.”

It could be par­tic­u­larly great for AHL top scor­ers Kenny Agostino, Jor­dan Weal and Jake Guentzel, de­fence­men Matt Taormina, T.J. Bren­nan and David War­sof­sky and goal­tenders Tris­tan Jarry and An­ton Fors­berg. Play­ers like Jor­dan Sub­ban, brother of P.K., aren’t think­ing much about ex­pan­sion, but if the Van­cou­ver Canucks lose a de­fence­man to Ve­gas, he could be a full-time NHL player sooner rather than later.

So-called “tween­ers,” like base­ball play­ers who are too good for Triple-A but not good enough for the ma­jors, of­ten go back and forth from the NHL to the bus rides in the AHL. But as the NHL has pri­or­i­tized speed and skill and pushed out old-school en­forcers, there’s no short­age of depth in the pool of ta­lent avail­able.

“You look at this league and just about ev­ery player came from this league,” Ari­zona Coy­otes prospect Chris­tian Fis­cher said. “There’s 48 guys here that prob­a­bly could play in the NHL and there’s not enough spots. Now there’s go­ing to be more spots open . ... There’s plenty of ta­lent down here.”

Eighty-two per cent of play­ers on NHL open­ing night ros­ters played in the AHL, which could also see the trickle-down ef­fects of ex­pan­sion. Pres­i­dent and CEO David An­drews said Mon­day that the AHL would like to ex­pand to 31 to match the NHL next sea­son and will al­most cer­tainly get there by 2018-19.

Even though the AHL will lose some tal­ented play­ers be­cause of ex­pan­sion, An­drews has talked at length with Ve­gas gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge McPhee and con­sid­ers it a good thing for his league in part be­cause of the in­flux of youth that’ll be com­ing.

“The ex­pan­sion process will stock them with a core group of play­ers to play in the NHL, but their first en­try draft will be this year,” An­drews said. “Our league is very much a young league with young, de­vel­op­ing play­ers that have been drafted by or­ga­ni­za­tions. The Las Ve­gas fran­chise in the NHL, in or­der to have young play­ers avail­able, is go­ing to have to sign a lot of free agent play­ers out of col­lege or play­ers from Europe.”

For­mer Her­shey Bears GM and AHL Hall of Famer Doug Yingst pointed out that Ve­gas will need 40 play­ers un­der con­tract. With 30 ex­pan­sion draft picks, at least a hand­ful should be mi­nor lea­guers who are ex­empt from waivers and can fill in spots on the farm team. An­drews doesn’t yet know where that farm team will be, but there’s plenty of op­ti­mism about all the ex­tra jobs avail­able.

“That’s def­i­nitely one ben­e­fit of an­other team com­ing in the league here,” Bren­nan said. “It’s re­ally good for the game that they’re ex­pand­ing like that. I’m sure it’ll open up some eyes and maybe give some play­ers some good op­por­tu­nity and that they’re more than likely to be re­warded.”

AP PHOTO

Bill Fo­ley, left, owner of the Ve­gas Golden Knights, speaks dur­ing an event to un­veil the name of the fran­chise in Novem­ber 2016 in Las Ve­gas.

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