This season, 442 forwards played 20 or more games at the NHL level. That total rises to 477 players when we count everyone who plays 10 or more games. All told, 580 forwards played at least one game in the NHL. On the blue line, 230 defencemen played 20+ games, 249 defenceman played more than 10 games and 299 defencemen played at least one game at the NHL level.
This means that in 2009-10, on average, each team used the following:
- 15 forwards who played 20+ games
- 16 forwards who played 10+ games
- 19 forwards who played at least one game
- Eight defencemen who played 20+ games
- Eight defencemen who played 10+ games
- 10 defencemen who played at least one game
I think the implications of this are fairly obvious. In addition to the 14 forwards and seven defencemen who start each year on an NHL roster, each team will see one minor league defenceman and one minor league forward play a significant role on the team. Aside from that, another forward would play 10 or more games, and three additional forwards and two additional minor league defencemen will play at the NHL level.
This means that aside from the task of developing players, an AHL team can expect to lose their best forward and best defencemen for a good portion of the season to the NHL. It also means that at some point in the season the average AHL team can expect to be without its top five forwards and three best defencemen.
More importantly, this means that NHL organizations need to be sure they have at least one NHL-calibre forward and one NHL-calibre defenceman at the AHL level to start the season, and that there should be at least six other players that they’d be okay playing at least limited minutes at the NHL level.
It goes without saying that for teams with more significant injury problems, even more players might be expected to play minutes in the NHL. At a minimum, I think an NHL manager would be well advised to have two NHL-calibre forwards in the AHL, and one NHL-calibre defenceman in the AHL, as well as being sure that his 13th and 14th forwards and his seventh defenceman are capable of playing regular minutes, because they’ll be required to at some point over the course of the season.
It’s easy to get trapped in thinking that injuries are freak occurrences, and as a result cutting a general manager slack when his call-ups are outmatched at the NHL level. I know I’ve done that fairly often over the years. But the reality is that injuries are inevitable, and that a good general manager has prepared for them in advance – particularly if he employs players with a history of injury. The logical extension of this is that when looking at a team’s AHL system, if they don’t have at least two NHL-ready players there at the start of training camp, the G.M. probably hasn’t done his job.