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Players on AHL contracts can head to Olympics — here are eight candidates

AHL players on two-way NHL deals or those demoted to the minors aren't allowed to participate in the Olympics -- or at least not yet -- but players signed to AHL contracts will be allowed to participate.

Since the NHL released its schedule, announced an All-Star Game and said, quite possibly once and for all, that the league will not be sending players to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, the focus almost immediately shifted to North America’s other top league, the AHL. And on Wednesday, confirmation came that the AHL will be sending its player to the Olympics.

But there’s a catch.

According to the Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno, the AHL has delivered a memo to the league’s 30 clubs letting each organization know that players on AHL contracts can be loaned to their respective national teams from Feb. 5-26. The key there, though, is that at this point, the league is saying it’s only players inked to AHL contracts. That means any player suiting up in the AHL on a two-way contract or any player on a one-way deal who has been demoted by his NHL club will not be eligible to participate — at least according to the latest report.

That players with NHL contracts playing in the AHL won’t be allowed to play is an important distinction to make, too, because many of the top-tier talent in the minor league consists of those up-and-coming future stars who are getting pro-level seasoning in the AHL. Among the notable AHLers on two-way deals last season were Mark Jankowski, Evgeny Svechnikov, Kyle Connor and Jesse Puljujarvi. That’s not to mention some veteran talent, such as Cory Conacher and T.J. Brennan, are currently plying their trade in the AHL while on two-way NHL deals.

So, while that may seem as though it leaves national teams with slim pickings if the rules stay as they are, there are actually several players in the AHL who could be set for Olympic duty come February 2018. Here are eight players — four American, four Canadian — who could be headed to Pyeongchang:

Chris Conner, Lehigh Valley Phantoms — Team USA

Conner, 33, has consistently bounced between the AHL and NHL over the course of his career, but as he enters the later stages of his career, he’s found himself locked into AHL-only contracts, suiting up for the Phantoms in each of the past two seasons and signing on for his third in 2017-18. He’s been about as consistent as it gets in the AHL, too. Over the past two campaigns, he’s notched 38 goals and 111 points in 128 games.

On a national team that could be made up of kids from major junior and college, as well as a few European skaters, bringing Conner aboard offers some veteran scoring punch.

Darren Archibald, Utica Comets — Team Canada

Archibald, 27, had his breakout season with the Comets in 2016-17. In 76 games, the versatile winger potted 23 goals and 47 points, earning himself an alternate captaincy with now-Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green’s squad. The point total was nearly double Archibald’s previous career high, so the hope would be that he can either repeat or build upon his past performance. If he’s figured out how to use his size, he could be a weapon as a netfront presence on a second power play unit.

And while it’s not much, Archibald would also bring some NHL experience to the Olympic squad. He skated in 16 games with the Canucks back in 2013-14, scoring one goal and three points.

Chris Bourque, Hershey Bears — Team USA

A second-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2004, Bourque, 31, has never been able to catch on in the NHL, skating in just 51 games over the course of his professional career. However, he’s been about as effective as AHL players come, a consistent all-star and three-time Calder Cup champion. And he might have the best odds of any AHL-only player to end up with Team USA at the Olympics.

Bourque has scored 48 goals and 140 points in his past 146 games in the AHL, all with Hershey, and he’s no stranger to representing his country. In 2013-14, he skated in three games at the Deutschland Cup for Team USA and is a two time member of the World Junior Championship squad.

Patrice Cormier, Manitoba Moose — Team Canada

Some will recognize the name from his inclusion in the blockbuster Atlanta-New Jersey Ilya Kovalchuk trade, but Cormier, a second-round selection in 2008, has remained in the Thrashers/Jets organization ever since and carved out a spot for himself with the farm club. He’s earned some looks in the NHL over the past several seasons, playing 49 games, but his home appears to be with the Moose. The 27-year-old took on the ‘C’ in 2016-17 and brought some hard-nosed depth with a little bit of scoring.

If the Canadian club can get by his tendency to take penalties, Cormier could make a nice depth addition as a penalty killer or defensive-minded fourth-liner.

Steve Moses, Rochester Americans — Team USA

Following the 2014-15 campaign, there was serious hype surrounding Moses. His 36 goals — a record-setting total — and 57 points with KHL’s Jokerit had several NHL teams considering inking him to a contract. Eventually, the Nashville Predators brought him aboard, but things didn’t work out. By December, he had asked out of his deal and was back in the KHL suiting up for SKA St. Petersburg.

Moses, 27, hasn’t reached those heights since, and has only scored 13 goals and 26 points in his past 44 games, but his experience with Team USA at the 2015 World Championship and 2014 Deutschland Cup could make him a prime candidate for Olympic participation. Scoring touch doesn’t simply disappear, and he could be a perfect power play triggerman for the American squad.

Colin Smith, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — Team Canada

Smith, 24, is the youngest player on this list and still growing as a player, but he’s shown some offensive promise over the past two seasons. Splitting time between the San Antonio Rampage and Toronto Marlies in 2015-16, Smith was able to rack up 20 goals and 56 points in 77 games. He followed that up this past season, coincidentally split between the Rampage and Marlies again, putting up 14 goals and 47 points in 73 games. The dip in production might be worrisome, but he’s still young enough that he’s finding his consistency.

He’s not a no-doubter for the Olympic roster, but as a depth scorer or set-up man, Smith could bring some value.

Travis Morin, Texas Stars — Team USA

In 2013-14, Morin tore the AHL apart, potting 32 goals and 88 points in 66 games to capture MVP honors, later doubling down on the MVP awards by capturing the playoff trophy, as well as the Calder Cup, with a nine-goal, 22-point performance. Morin hasn’t been able to translate that to the NHL, unfortunately, but it’s allowed him to carve out a steady career in Texas, where he’s taken over the captaincy.

This past season, the 33-year-old Morin managed yet another 20-goal AHL campaign, potting 21 markers and 55 points, and he’s put up 36 goals and 109 points in his past 135 games. He’d bring some pure offensive talent to Team USA should he get the call.

Tom Kostopoulos, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — Team Canada

Kostopoulos is the elder statesman on the list, a 38-year-old veteran of nearly 700 AHL games and another 630 in the NHL. Does he fit the bill for a Canadian squad that could very well be built on speed and skill over savvy and will? Maybe not, but it’s hard to discount the fact that he’s still been pretty darn consistent in the AHL at his age. Over the past two campaigns, Kostopoulos has suited up 149 games and notched 43 goals and 106 points.

However unlikely, Kostopoulos would make for a great story, too. He’s never suited up for the national team at any level. Getting a shot at the Olympics this late in his career would be incredible.

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