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What's it like being an AHL coach during NHL trade season?

At the mercy of their parent clubs, farm-team coaches sometimes get their best players snatched away to be included in NHL trades. Adapting mid-season is part of the business – and has some silver linings.

One day, Carl Grundstrom is a key offensive contributor on a contending AHL team, etched in its history as a first-liner on the 2018 Calder Cup champion squad. The next day, he’s simply deleted from the lineup. He’s not replaced. From the perspective of the Toronto Marlies, a crucial player pretty much disappears into thin air.

It’s a uniquely ‘AHL’ experience, isn’t it? Grundstrom, regarded as one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top four prospects by most analysts and scouts, was a key piece of last week’s trade that brought blueliner Jake Muzzin to the Leafs. Grundstrom now toils for the Ontario Reign, awaiting an opportunity to break into the NHL with his new parent club, the Los Angeles Kings.

What’s fascinating on the Marlies’ end is universally fascinating any time the farm club of a contending NHL team gets involved in a trade at the NHL level: a prospect gets dealt away for someone who makes an impact on the NHL club, and the AHL club typically doesn’t get a direct replacement. We may see a rebuilding NHL team deal an impact player from its lineup with no immediate replacement, but only in the AHL can a competitive, playoff-bound team suddenly have one of its best players plucked away, completely out of its control. That makes the job of an AHL coach especially unique at this time of year. It’s not the same as an injury, which can heal, or a call-up, which might be temporary. Grundstrom is just…gone, and there’s no perfect replication for what he gave the Marlies. That puts coach Sheldon Keefe in an interesting pinch.

He does point out that a trade can help in his lineup in other ways. In this case, Muzzin arriving on the Leafs displaced D-man Martin Marincin, boosting the Marlies D-corps to offset the loss of Grundstrom up front. Keefe adds that he’s in Year 4 of his job and thus it’s not the first time he’s dealt with this. When the Leafs acquired Tomas Plekanec around the 2018 trade deadline, the trade removed left winger Kerby Rychel and defenseman Rinat Valiev from the Marlies. Keefe also illuminates the fact every farm club goes through the same thing every year, that it’s the nature of the business in the AHL.

“These things happen, and we’re not unique in the sense that we lose players,” Keefe said. “Every team that we play, it’s hard to predict what their lineup is going to look like that night because of call-ups and trades and injuries. Not just at the AHL level, but injuries at the NHL level impact the team, so constant fluctuation is just reality in the American League.”

That doesn’t make the nightly experience identical for every AHL squad, however. The farm clubs of the NHL basement dwellers aren’t likely to lose their prospects via mid-season trades and, even if their prospects get called up, they won’t be part of NHL playoff runs and will thus be returned to the AHL in time for a Calder Cup chase. The first-place Charlotte Checkers, for instance, shouldn’t expect to lose a Martin Necas or Jake Bean when their NHL parents, the Carolina Hurricanes, don’t occupy a playoff spot and can’t yet define themselves as deadline buyers.

So the situation is different for teams like the Marlies, whose NHL parents are in contender mode. Still, it’s every AHL coach’s job to understand and prepare for that reality, and Keefe sees a lot of silver linings in trades, as much as it hurts to lose a great net-crashing winger like Grundstrom.

“All you can do is look at it for what it is, which is new opportunities for others,” Keefe said. “And when I look at our team, the more change we’ve had this year, be it through NHL trades or AHL trades or injuries, our team has gotten better, and we’ve performed better as a group with new opportunities for other people.”

With the Grundstrom trade and Mason Marchment sustaining a fractured collarbone a few days ago, two top-six wingers are gone, and Keefe cites Gabriel Gagne and Michael Carcone as potential beneficiaries. Objectively, for the sake of the Marlies’ Calder Cup hopes this season, it’s been a disastrous past couple weeks, but the mentality among AHL troops is unique. It’s still a developmental league, meaning every player wants more of a chance to prove himself in hopes of ascending to the NHL. So losing a Grundstrom in a trade isn’t something for which a coach like Keefe has to console his players, hat in hand.

“There’s one less guy around, and in the AHL, everyone is looking for opportunities to play and perform and showcase themselves,” Keefe said. “Everyone thinks they’re capable of doing more, and when holes open up, then there’s a chance for them to do that. So, any sort of additional sting there might be, I think it goes away pretty quickly: one, because guys recognize the opportunity, and two, because the players themselves also know the realities of the league.”


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