With just a week to go before Sept. 15 and the potential — many feel probable — start of an National Hockey League lockout, speculation is increasing about how such a work stoppage would affect the American Hockey League, especially in terms of player ability.
There are a couple things that can be stated with certainty: In the event of a lockout, the AHL will operate as scheduled, and the rosters of most teams in the league — including the St. John’s IceCaps — will not differ greatly from what they would be if the NHL season proceeds as normal.
Yes, a lockout will almost certainly lead to some players who were NHL regulars last season suiting up in the AHL, even some prominent young stars, but there will not be a flood of AHL-bound talent unleashed by a lockout, maybe just a moderate stream.
As proof of that theory, bring your attention to the following, which has been stated in this quarter before, but bears repeating: During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, only one player who had spent the entire previous season with the Toronto Maple Leafs ended up with the AHL Leafs in St. John’s — centre Matt Stajan.
As it stands, only one player who was a full-time member of the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-12 — forward Alexander Burmistrov — will be eligible to play for the IceCaps this fall in a lockout situation, given the known eligibility rules. Even then, there is no guarantee Burmistrov will be here, since the KHL in his native Russia could be an alternate destination.
By the way, those known rules are this: Any player, such as Burmistrov, with an effective NHL entry-level contract, and who will be 20 or older at the end of this calendar year, can be assigned to the AHL. That would also involve the likes of Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Sean Couturier and Jeff Skinner, although more-lucrative European options might be available to them, too.
In 2004-05, Rick Nash and Ales Hemsky were still on entry-level deals, but were among the nearly 400 NHLers who played in Europe during the lockout.
Besides Burmistrov, there are 12 other players in the Jets organization who fall into the entry-level category. Add in the 13 players who are signed to AHL-only contracts with St. John’s, plus forward Derek Whitmore — who has agreed to a professional try-out deal with the IceCaps — and you can name no less than 26 players (listed at the end of this story) who can reasonably be expected in Corner Brook on Oct. 1 when the IceCaps open their training camp.
That leaves about a half-dozen players or so in somewhat of a limbo. These include four — goalie Mark Dekanich, defenceman Derek Meech, and forwards Ben Maxwell and Maxime Macenauer — who are signed to two-way deals, but who are subject to waivers. Also floating in the grey area are defenceman Paul Postma and forward Aaron Gagnon, who both spent the majority of last season in St. John’s, but are now signed to one-way contracts with the Jets. We’ll also include the case of Mark Scheifele, who is signed to an entry-level deal and was expected to challenge for a job with Winnipeg this fall, but who is still junior-aged (Scheifele doesn’t turn 20 until next spring).
In all these cases, in the event of a lockout, NHL teams will decide as a group what, if any, contingencies will be put in place to address such cases. It could even be that such decisions have already been made, just not revealed.
However, it would be a fair assumption that decisions in this regard (and by extension, reasoned speculation) will be shaped by common sense, precedent and financial impact.
The precedent comes from the 2004-05 lockout, when the NHL teams suspended the waiver process for players on two-way contracts (you might say they waived waivers). They also agreed at the time that any teenaged, major-junior produced player who had spent the entire previous season in the NHL (eg. Patrice Bergeron, Brent Burns), could be assigned to the AHL during the lockout. Normally, these players would have to be returned to their junior teams, if they weren’t kept on an NHL roster.
If those again would be the rules should this turn out to be a lockout season, then Dekanich, Meech, Maxwell and Macenauer will all be in Corner Brook in a couple of weeks, but Scheifele won’t.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the 19-year-old 2011 first overall pick by Edmonton, could be assigned to the Oilers’ farm team in Oklahoma City because he was NHL-employed all of last season. Scheifele, on the other hand, played just seven games with Winnipeg in 2011-12 and spent the majority of the campaign with Barrie of the OHL.
So even though it might be agreed he is ready for the pros, Scheifele may be forced back to the junior ranks. Same holds true for defenceman Dougie Hamilton, the Boston Bruins’ top prospect. The Bruins expect Hamilton to make their team this year, but if there is a lockout, he would go back to junior under the 2004-05 rules because he, too, doesn’t turn 20 until 2013 and because he played all of last year in the OHL.
There may be some thought to making new accommodations for the likes of Scheifele and Hamilton, but in that case, the NHL may be jeopardizing its well-established relationship with major junior teams and may not feel such a move is worth it.
It would seem to be easier to make allowances for the likes of Postma and Gagnon, however, this is where common sense might be applied in that it would be easy to see NHL teams agreeing that a player who spent all of last season in the American league might be made eligible to play in the AHL again this season, even if they are on one-way, NHL-only deals.
This could be done by agreeing to a temporary AHL contract with the player, if he was so inclined. It would be an ad hoc deal that would end with the lockout.
This is more than speculation. Quite a few AHL executives have at least acknowledged this possibility. When it was suggested to one that this might be circumvention of the rules, he objected to the use of the word “circumvention” because it implied getting around this rules. He preferred calling the potential changes as a way “of getting through” a situation.
If such a change is implemented, don’t expect it to be used to sign locked-out full-time NHLers to minor-league deals. NHL teams might be willing to employ 2011-12 AHLers in the AHL in 2012-13 even if they have been technically locked out, but it’s unlikely they would lock out big-league veterans only to give them work elsewhere in the organization.
That would go against the purpose, wouldn’t it?
No rule changes would be needed to sign unrestricted NHL free agents to AHL contracts, but don’t count on too many, if any, of these. You can have only so many players on an AHL roster without causing headaches and hindrance to prospect development; most of these players would qualify as AHL veterans and there are only so many official veteran quota slots available; and organizations won’t be looking to have bigger-than-usual AHL payrolls when they have no money coming in at the NHL source.
Remember, NHL teams do not make money at the AHL level — the losses are accepted as part of player development.
One more note about a particular player in particular circumstances. That would be Spencer Machacek, the IceCaps’ leading scorer last season.
The forward is a restricted free agent, who has received a two-way qualifying offer from the Jets, but who has not agreed to terms. Machacek impressed with the Jets in a late-season callup last spring and could be seen to be in line for — and therefore may be looking for — a small one-way contract in line with what Postma received.
Now this is not based on any off-the-record conversation or inside knowledge. It is simply threads of notions knit together in a scarf of plausibility, but could it be that Machacek and the Jets are waiting to see what happens Sept. 15 and then will proceed contractually based on what does or doesn’t transpire?
Just a thought.
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Can be expected in IceCaps' training camp, no matter what:
Entry-level contracts (12): Goalies — Chris Carrozzi, Eddie Pasquale; Defencemen — Ben Chiarot, Julian Melchiori, Will O'Neill, Zach Redmond, Cody Sol; Forwards — Patrice Cormier, Jason Gregoire, Carl Klingberg, Eric O'Dell, Ivan Telegin
AHL contracts (13): Defencemen — Dean Arsene, Jake Marto, Travis Ramsey; Forwards — John Albert, Kevin Clark, Norm Ezekiel, Jason Jaffray, Ray Kaunisto, Jason King, Ray Sawada, Ryan Schnell, Joey Sides, Hunter Tremblay
Professional try-out (1): Derek Whitmore (F)
Good chance of being at IceCaps' training camp:
Two-way NHL/AHL contract/currently waiver eligible (4):Mark Dekanich (G), Derek Meech (D), Maxime Macenauer (F), Ben Maxwell (F)
Potential attendance at IceCaps training camp this season come attached with question marks (lockout being biggest factor):
Entry-level contract/played in NHL last year (1): Alexander Burmistrov (F)
One-way contracts/played with IceCaps most of last season (2): Aaron Gagnon (F), Paul Postma (D)
Restricted free agent (1): Spencer Machacek (F)