A September '09 article of mine explained how NHL teams like to transition potential scoring forwards from the AHL to the NHL. Since the lockout, most teams have developed a three-season program for transitioning proven AHL producers to scoring NHL forwards. It's a fairly simple formula but it's amazingly consistent.
Once a player proves they can score at the AHL level, usually among the top-25 point scorers, the team will sign the player to a two-way contract. This second, transition year gives teams a chance to get a better read on a player's development. It's a crucial year for the player and can mean anywhere between 10 to 60 NHL games to see if they can still produce in either league, can handle the rigours of the NHL, and don't show any major NHL deficiencies. If the player avoids a major injury and continues to produce in either league they almost always get a one-way contract the following season.
The following year, which I call the breakthrough year, is when the player gets an opportunity to make the team and gets more than a few opportunities to produce in the NHL. Breakthrough doesn't necessarily mean high fantasy numbers, but it often means a 40+ point season for a forward that has top-six/power play potential and is usually under the radar. If a player is breaking through you can draft them for potential, but have a fair idea that they’ll produce something as well. Last season an average second liner scored 41 points and an average top-six forward scored 55 points. Of the 11 breakthrough players I have monitored, only two are no longer top-six prospects. Despite injuries and the two busts, the 11 players still averaged 42 points in their breakthrough season. It’s a low risk move that will deepen your pool of productive forwards.
In 2009, my candidates for a one-way contract and a breakthrough year were Cal O'Reilly, Andrew Ebbett, Rob Schremp, and Artem Anisimov. I said to wait on Anisimov because he's big, Russian and needed another year of seasoning to produce in the NHL. The Rangers, not caring about fantasy pool numbers, stuck with the formula and put Anisimov in the NHL for the entire season where he scored 28 points in 82 games. The following season Anisimov produced good second line numbers, scoring 44 points in 82 games.
O'Reilly appeared to be ready in 2009-10, but Nashville realizing smaller players develop more slowly, gave him another two-way contract before giving him a one-way deal in 2010-11. O'Reilly managed 18 points in 38 games in his NHL breakthrough season which was cut short with a broken fibula. Had he played a full season he would have been projected to score 39 points.
Rob Schremp was signed by the Islanders in his breakthrough season and produced until he tore the meniscus in his right knee. Schremp had 25 points in 44 games (a 47 point projection) before the injury and had started to score consistently after a slow start. The Anaheim Ducks also stuck to the formula giving Andrew Ebbett a one-way contract where he played in 61 games in 2009-10 where he managed 15 points.
Although the production of these players wasn't consistent due to injuries and other factors, in each case the NHL teams stuck to the formula. It's always good to know when a team is willing to give a player every chance to succeed (a one way contract) and you can do this by keeping an eye on the AHL's leading scorers. Kris Versteeg scored 53 points in his breakthrough season while Tyler Ennis had 49, David Krejci had 73, Dustin Penner had 45, Patrick O’Sullivan had 53, Rich Peverly had 44 and Jiri Hudler had 42. One caveat is to be wary of perennial top-25 AHL scorers because they will only ever see spot duty in the NHL. In most cases if a player has two high scoring AHL seasons, do not draft him...ever. It means too many quality people question his NHL ability.
This year my candidates for a transition year are Chris Terry, Rhett Rakhshani, Bud Holloway, Tomas Tatar and Zac Dalpe
Terry scored 34 goals and 64 points in 80 games for Charlotte, Carolina's farm team. He will almost certainly see time in the NHL this season because of his AHL numbers but Carolina has a lot of prospects ahead of him so he won't see much more than 10 NHL games. Watch him closely, because although he's a 5th round pick and he's 5'10, he weighs a solid 195 pounds and scored in junior as well as the minors. Right now he's a steal. Watch his AHL numbers closely and keep an eye on his average NHL ice time next season.
Rhett Rakhshani had a solid career with Denver University in the NCAA and followed it up with 24 goals and 62 points in 66 AHL games last season. He'll get a good look with the Islanders this season (20+ games) to see if his size holds up against NHL opposition. Stay away from him if he misses more than 15 games due to injury.
Bud Holloway had 28 goals and 61 points in 78 AHL games to lead Manchester (LA's AHL affiliate) in scoring for the second year running. Like Terry, Holloway is stuck behind a tonne of prospects. At 23, Holloway won't be getting much more than 10 NHL games this season and might be too old to stick in LA. He needs a big year offensively or a trade to make himself pool- worthy. If he does get traded and is still producing, grab him.
Tomas Tatar scored seven points in one AHL game, ending last season with 57 points in 70 games. Tatar clearly has the talent and the youth (20) to succeed but might not have the size. Smaller players are always risky picks no matter how talented. Tatar will see minimal time in Detroit this season because the Red Wings develop their prospects slowly. Tatar is already a little too high profile for me at this point so don’t overpay.
Unlike most on this list, Zac Dalpe has already played 15 games in the NHL. He had his AHL breakthrough year and his transition year all-in-one. Because of Carolina's depth, however, Dalpe will have yet another year shuttling back and forth between Charlotte and Raleigh. Look for Dalpe to have his breakthrough year in 2012-13, look for him to break through on the right side and look for him to break through in a relatively big way (50+ points).
Candidates for breakthrough seasons this year include Zach Boychuk, Luke Adam, David Desharnais, and Dustin Jeffrey. Although Boychuk is stuck behind Tuomo Ruutu and Eric Staal, Ruutu is long overdue for a major injury. A perennial band-aid boy, Ruutu’s reckless style of play always makes him an injury risk. If he goes down at all, look for Boychuk and not Brandon Sutter to get the top-six nod. Sutter is the perfect third line center and the ‘Canes have already seen what he can do there. If Ruutu misses 20 games, Boychuk could get 50 points. If Ruutu stays healthy Boychuk should get 30 and will eventually become a 70 point player.
Desharnais did really well in his call up to Montreal last season, notching 22 points in 43 games. Unfortunately, Desharnais is only 5’7 and I would never recommend picking up a player that size. If he stays injury free, Desharnais should come close to 50 points. That won’t happen. He’ll likely score between 25-35 points and he should be left for someone else to fret over.
Adam is in a very unfortunate position, stuck behind centers Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Derek Roy. Gerbe, only 5’5 will likely average 65 games a season throughout his career. Roy is four inches taller with a thick frame while Ennis is small and thin but tough as nails. All three are ahead of Adam on the depth chart but Adam has real potential to be the big, top-six center the Sabres need. This won’t be his year to play in the top six, but Adam has little to prove in the AHL so expect third line duty for a good chunk of this season. Pencil him in for 30+ points this year with slow progression to 75 in the next few seasons.
Jeffrey was moved to the wing which was absolutely necessary playing behind the centers in Pittsburgh. He’s the poster boy for the AHL to NHL transition as he was a low draft pick who proved he could score in the AHL, was given some time in the NHL where he held his own and is now a prospect. He will absolutely get top-six time although not all season. Expect 45 points, but realize there is some Rookie of the Year potential here if he clicks with one of Pittsburgh’s elite players.