With the OHL still on hiatus and much of the WHL waiting for opening night, the AHL has been injected with a ton of talent so far this season. And while it's not going to last all year, the NHL is benefitting from seeing its youngest drafted prospects play pro games against older, stronger competition.
One hot-spot for this trend has been Southern California, where two NHL teams in particular have been reaping the rewards: Los Angeles and Anaheim. The Kings have their affiliate in the nearby city of Ontario, while the Ducks' farm squad is down in San Diego. The Ontario Reign currently boast the likes of Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev, Akil Thomas and Tyler Madden. The San Diego Gulls counter with Jamie Drysdale, Jacob Perreault, Brayden Tracey and, before he got called up, Trevor Zegras.
"When we played them, you looked at the rosters and said 'Holy smokes,' " said San Diego coach Kevin Dineen. "Not only were there a lot of first-rounders, but there were a lot of first-rounders from this year and last year, which you really don't get in the AHL. I even mentioned it to the team: it bodes well for the future of hockey in Southern California. They're good players, they're entertaining and they're good people - that's the impression I get from both teams. The last game we played, there was a bucketload of talent on both sides."
Some of those youngsters would have been playing their first pro seasons anyway, but Byfield, Kaliyev, Perreault and Drysdale ordinarily would have been forced to play in the OHL due to the NHL's agreement with the CHL. The early entry has made for some great development lessons and the teams have used it to their advantage. Take Kaliyev and the Kings, for example: he's an amazing goal-scorer already, but he's been able to work on other aspects of his game with Ontario.
"His hockey IQ for scoring and offense is way above average," said Nelson Emerson, Los Angeles' director of player development. "That ability is going to help his overall game because he can use that hockey sense in his 200-foot game. That's something we're working on with him now that we have him in the American League."
Taking a look at the AHL's leaderboard and a number of players in the top-20 for scoring 'should' be in major junior right now: Carolina pick Seth Jarvis (who is leaving for WHL Portland now that the Winterhawks have a schedule) is first overall, while Drysdale, Toronto's Nick Robertson and Philadelphia/Lehigh Valley's Zayde Wisdom also rank high.
Clearly, playing in the AHL versus the OHL is a challenge, however. Perreault for example, doesn't turn 19 until next month. The hard-shooting 2020 first-rounder is now getting a unique sneak-peek at what the next level is really like.
"The pace is a lot faster - everyone is stronger, too," he said. "There's a lot less room out there and that's the biggest part, the adjustment is all time and space. It's good for my development to be able to learn these things at a young age, so I'm really lucky to be here right now."
As for the coaches, getting a cohort of major junior teens presents its own challenges and rewards, as San Diego's Dineen attests to.
"I've got three kids that age including one in the USHL (Sioux Falls' Will Dineen) and you see the difference between when he was 18 and when he was 20," he said. "It's not only the physical part, but the level of maturity that goes along with that. Yes, there are differences, but in saying that: what an advantage for these guys, not only to get exposed to this level of play, but the quality of veterans brought in to mentor them. We're all about development. There's patience and understanding that you give them to grow as people, as well as physically."
And at the end of the day, that development is the main goal. If it works out, the Kings and Ducks will once again be competing for Stanley Cups in the coming years.