I was watching a video yesterday of Jordan Eberle scoring three goals for the Oklahoma City Barons in 2:43 (you can watch it here if you want to feel bad and ashamed for the Texas Stars), including the first two coming just NINE seconds apart, and I thought to myself that maybe all that scoring has to grate on the other team. No one likes to lose, obviously, but man, you gotta think the average AHLer is getting pretty damn sick of watching 22-year-old guys who were nearly a point a game in the NHL last year blow past them at 50 miles an hour and make their goalies look ridiculous.
So any progress in CBA negotiations, which seem likely to end in the not-so-distant future, has to give these guys hope. Fun as it may be to watch Justin Schultz put up 45 points in 31 games from the blue line to the average fan, it seems very unlikely his opponents feel the same way. And it’s not just an issue for whatever poor team plays Oklahoma City, which is currently sporting the third-best winning percentage in the AHL’s Western Conference because like any other Oilers team it’s dutifully giving up too many goals, the entire league is being ripped up by guys who should be playing in the NHL. Not that this should come as any sort of surprise, I guess, but when you look at it from a purely points-per-game perspective, the AHL’s best players are all NHLers on holiday. Of the 18 guys in the league who are running at a point a game or better with a decent amount of games under their belts (as of this writing), I figure just about all of them, save for Keith Aucoin, would have been at least considered for full-time gigs in the NHL were they not locked out.
And by extension the league’s best teams are all driven by these types of players. Springfield, like OKC, has five or six guys who might have made the Columbus Blue Jackets this year (no big accomplishment, I understand, but you see the point). Other teams have guys like Cody Hodgson, Jake Gardiner, Brayden Schenn, Nino Neiderreiter, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and so forth, none of whom have any particular amount of reasonable business playing in the AHL.
When the NHL opens back up again, which it apparently will before Jan. 19 if Gary Bettman’s wishes are any indication, these guys are going to vacate the AHL, and with their exits will come some semblance of equilibrium. Probably not great for the league itself, of course, because 13 or so of its top 20 scorers will immediately vanish, and with them any sort of star power that might entice the average hockey fan to watch the AHL All-Star weekend on Jan. 27 and 28. Which, even with all these well-known NHL players at the ready, still isn’t sold out. There could be a serious scramble to find guys to fill up those All-Star rosters. TSN currently lists 71 bona fide NHL players as being in the AHL, and of that number you gotta think at least a third were gonna be All-Stars (allowing for injury, underperformance, etc.).
Of course, that’s probably a nice thing for guys who toil away in the AHL and still tend to put up decent numbers. Clearing out these ringers who are posting absurd stats — and let’s not forget, stealing jobs from players who would normally be in the AHL but now have to play for half the pay in the ECHL or other similar lower-level leagues — opens up a lot of space for everyone. (The AHL’s stats list 905 players as having been through the league for at least one game this season, so 71 or so isn’t an insignificant number of jobs to be losing.)
There’s no doubt that these top-level players make the AHL more fun to watch. Because of the NHL’s absence, we’ve all seen a lot more AHL highlights this year than we probably ever thought possible or wise, and they’ve largely been enthralling. Such displays of skill, such hapless defending. Guaranteed the guys that are getting deked out of their skates by guys who shouldn’t be playing against them will be happy to see ‘em go. Of course, there’s always the very real and distinct possibility that the NHL’s CBA negotiations blow up on the launch pad, and no one would be surprised if that were the case.