With the NHL’s salary cap increasing by just $1.6 million for the 2016-17 season, teams will look to their American Hockey League system, and players on cheaper or entry-level deals to help fill out their 23-man roster come October.
Last season, 628 AHL graduates were on opening day rosters making up 84 percent of the NHL’s player pool. After winning the 2015 Calder Cup with the Manchester Monarchs, Derek Forbort, Nick Shore, Jeff Schultz and Jordan Weal all started the season with the L.A. Kings.
Here are five AHLers who could have an impact in the NHL next season:
1. Pavel Zacha, Albany Devils (New Jersey Devils)
He may have played just three regular season AHL games with the Albany Devils this past season, but all indications are Zacha will make the big club this fall. The 19-year-old winger made his NHL debut on April 9 registering two assists in a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 2015 first-round pick (6th overall) then made his AHL debut in Albany scoring a goal and two assists in three regular season games. He added one goal and two helpers in five postseason games prior to being sidelined with a concussion.
“He’s good with the puck, but his defensive awareness and his ability to play without the puck is really what impressed me,” said Albany coach, Rick Kowalsky. “There’s no question he has skill and he’s not afraid to go inside. (He) drives the net from the outside, gets in around the net, and he’s got hands. (He) protects the puck well and he’s a big body. Combine all that with the fact that he knows how to play when he doesn’t have the puck, for a young player, that leads to a bright future.”
In his third season with the Sarnia Sting, Zacha had a team-leading 28 goals and 64 points in 51 games.
2. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Lake Erie Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets)
The 2013 third-round pick scored 17 goals and 12 assists in 51 regular season games with the Lake Erie Monsters last season.
Bjorkstrand turned it up in the playoffs scoring a team-leading 10 goals and six assists in 17 games helping the Monsters win the Calder Cup. He tied an AHL record with six game-winning goals and set a new mark with three overtime goals in a single postseason. For his fine playoff performance, Bjorkstrand was awarded the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the Calder Cup playoff MVP.
“You look at Oliver, and you know he’s a gifted goal-scorer,” Lake Erie coach Jared Bednar told The Columbus Dispatch in June. “He has scored everywhere he's been. But the biggest thing … even though he’s a quiet, unassuming guy off the ice … he’s an extremely competitive person.
“He has a will to win that’s unparalleled, and that’s why he has always been successful, no matter where he’s been.”
The 22-year-old also appeared in 12 games with the Blue Jackets scoring four goals and four assists.
3. Frank Vatrano, Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins)
The 22-year-old finished his first season in Providence with 36 goals and 19 assists in 36 games – good for fourth amongst AHL rookies in scoring. Vatrano became just the fourth player in AHL history to average a goal a game while scoring at least 30. In March, he tied an AHL record scoring three unassisted goals in a game against the Portland Pirates.
The UMass-Amherst product also appeared in 39 games with Boston scoring eight goals and three assists.
With the knowledge of his first pro season under his belt, Vatrano is aiming to take another step in his development this summer.
“This year was kind of a whirlwind for me. A lot of things I accomplished were things that really surprised me,” Vatrano told The Daily Hampshire Gazette. “I put the work in last summer to have a good season.
“Going into the season you have to make sure you get stronger and faster and work on the things you can’t usually work on during the season,” he added. “I’m two steps ahead of where I was last season.”
4. Juuse Saros, Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators)
The 2013 fourth-round pick of the Nashville Predators had an impressive rookie season with the Milwaukee Admirals. Saros posted a 29-8-0 record in 38 regular season appearances.
Saros’ 2.24 goals-against average ranked fourth amongst AHL goaltenders while his .920 save percentage was good for 11th and his four shutouts ranked eighth.
With the Preds not re-signing Carter Hutton, who backed-up Pekka Rinne the past three seasons in Nashville, Saros is expected to challenge Marek Mazanec for the No. 2 role with the NHL club.
“It’s an interesting situation and a really good chance for me too. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make that spot, so we’ll see,” Saros told the Preds’ website. “Last year, there was so much new stuff with the rink size and adjusting to (North America), there was a lot of new stuff, so I’m pretty happy with where I am now.”
The 21-year-old Fin made his NHL debut with the Predators on Nov. 28, 2015 making 20 saves in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
5. Justin Bailey, Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres)
It might be a bit early for the 21-year-old to earn a spot as an NHL regular, but Bailey impressed in his first season with the Amerks. Despite a slow start to the season, the 2013 second-round pick of the Sabres scored a team-leading 20 goals and 45 points in 70 AHL games this past season.
“For me in the beginning of the season I started off slow and I don’t think it was due to lack of chances, it was just lack of execution,” Bailey told The Buffalo News. “I stuck with it. As much as I thought I played well, the numbers weren’t there. I just stuck with the plan and continued to get chances and was fortunate to have a good second half.”
The 6-foot-4, 206-pound forward, who grew up down the road from the First Niagara Center in Williamsville, NY, made his NHL debut with the Sabres on Feb. 11 recording seven shots– the most in a Sabres debut since Alexander Mogilny in 1989. Bailey appeared in 12 games with Buffalo last season.