Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are mortal locks to be skating in the NHL this coming season, but the McDavids and Eichels of the hockey world are rarities.
More often than not, the path to the NHL generally leads through the minor leagues or, if a player has the good fortune of being drafted to the Detroit Red Wings, their career path almost definitely sees some seasoning time in the AHL.
Thanks to the salary cap era, player development is at its peak and the competition level in the AHL is quite possibly the best it has ever been. As such, the talent level of the players has more than a handful ready for NHL rosters if they can impress in training camp. They’ll get their chance at a full-time big league job because they’ve proven they’re ready to make the jump or, in some cases, thanks to necessity.
Whatever the case may be, here are 10 players who spent more than half a season in the AHL in 2014-15 that could be spending the upcoming season in the big league:
10. Malcom Subban, G, Boston Bruins
Of the 10 players listed, Subban might be the only one who is technically a full-time pro without the workload. That is, unless Boston GM Don Sweeney sees fit to go out and acquire a backup goaltender for his Bruins. At present, however, Subban is the only real fit for the Bruins backup job.
Behind Tuukka Rask on the Boston depth chart are Subban, Jeremy Smith and Zane McIntyre. Subban is the only one who is seen to have the potential to become a full-time NHL starter, and star, some day and it’s possible the Bruins could use the upcoming season to showcase what he can do between the pipes.
9. Curtis McKenzie, LW, Dallas Stars
The Stars have more than $10 million committed to goaltending and are probably looking to add another defender to the mix through free agency. There has already been reported interest by Dallas in Johnny Oduya. Adding another defenseman won’t be cheap, which probably means the Stars are done their spending up front.
This past season McKenzie got his shot at the NHL – he suited up for 36 games, scoring four goals and five points – but he spent a fair amount of time in the AHL, as well. This season might be different, however, as McKenzie comes cheap at $675,000, can play depth minutes and offers an offensive upside.
8. Nick Cousins, C, Philadelphia Flyers
Cousins just finished his second full season in the AHL and also got his first taste of NHL action, suiting up in 11 games for the Flyers. Here’s the thing, though: outside of two penalty minutes, Cousins didn’t find the score sheet in any of his NHL action. That said, he did pot 22 goals and 56 points in 64 games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, a huge improvement over the 11-goal, 29-point season he had in 2013-14.
Cousins is still only 21 and is probably an outside shot at playing all 82 games for the Flyers this upcoming season. But on a roster that isn’t as deep as Philadelphia fans would have hoped, it could be worth seeing what Cousins can do given more playing time than the 8:49 per game he averaged in his 11 outings this past season.
7. Max Friberg, LW, Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim is going to need some depth wingers this upcoming season and it’s hard to count the 22-year-old Friberg out of the mix for one of those jobs. This past season, he matched his AHL high 40 points in 16 fewer games, scoring 15 goals and 40 points in 58 contests with the Norfolk Admirals. He also saw fourth-line action in a December game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Friberg is the kind of player the Ducks definitely want to have in the lineup to develop, not watching from the sidelines. If any of the depth forwards on the roster struggle to score and can be easily replaced, Friberg is a prime candidate.
6. Mark Pysyk, D, Buffalo Sabres
The 23-year-old Pysyk has already had two part-time shots at the NHL, but it’s time for him to get a full-time spot this season. In 2012-13 and 2013-14 combined, Pysyk skated in 63 NHL games, but, save seven games, he spent the past season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. One of the top defensive prospects in the Sabres’ system, Pysyk scored two goals and three points during his seven-game stay with Buffalo in 2014-15 and averaged more than 18 minutes per game.
It was surprising when he was demoted last season and it would be even more shocking were he to not get his chance in 2015-16. Buffalo’s signing of Carlo Colaiacovo might have Pysyk frightened about his shot at the big club, but it’s likely he has nothing to worry about.
5. Jordan Weal, C, Los Angeles Kings
First thing’s first: Weal is still a restricted free agent. That doesn’t mean a deal won’t get done before the season begins, though, and there’s a good chance part of that deal could be a one-way contract.
Over the past three seasons with the Manchester Monarchs, Weal has been one of the club's premier scorers. Alongside Brian O’Neill, Weal helped lead the Monarchs to the Calder Cup this past season and notched 10 goals and 22 points in 19 post-season games. During the regular season, he scored 20 goals and 69 points in 73 games.
He’s yet to get his shot at the NHL, but once he does, don’t expect him to go back down.
4. Stephen Johns, D, Chicago Blackhawks
Johns becoming a full-time NHL isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Right now, the Blackhawks will need Johns to be able to make the jump to the NHL, because the only big league blueliners they have under contract are Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, David Rundblad and Trevor van Riemsdyk. However, there’s the possibility Oduya is back in the fold, which complicates things for Johns.
That said, Johns could potentially bump Rundblad out of a spot. While it may be unlikely because coach Joel Quenneville seems to like familiarity, something he has with Rundblad, Johns has all the makings of a big league blueliner and many were considering him a fill-in should the Blackhawks need one in the Stanley Cup final.
3. Teemu Pulkkinen, LW, Detroit Red Wings
The knock against Pulkkinen has continually been his skating ability, but when you rip off 34 goals and 61 points in 46 games in the AHL, people tend to forget about things like that. While he only managed five goals and eight points in 31 appearances with the Red Wings this past season, Pulkkinen has a rapport with new Detroit bench boss Jeff Blashill and that could be a big help for the 23-year-old winger.
Pulkkinen has posted back-to-back 30-goal campaigns in the AHL and some picture him as a small Brett Hull. He could be a big time power play weapon for the Red Wings and it would make sense if the upcoming season is the first full-time NHL year of his career.
2. Andy Miele, C, Detroit Red Wings
Before getting up in arms, consider that Miele is the only player on this list currently signed to a one-way contract. The Red Wings and GM Ken Holland wouldn’t have handed Miele that kind of deal did they not believe in what they’ve seen from the 27-year-old pivot.
The 2010-11 Hobey Baker Award winner, it took Miele some time to find his stride in the AHL, but he has more than found it in the past two seasons. After a 16-goal, 54-point rookie professional season in the Phoenix organization in 2011-12, Miele has posted back-to-back campaigns of 25-plus goals with 70 or more points. He’s become a bit of a power play specialist in the AHL and could be a tremendous third- or fourth-line addition for Detroit next season.
1. Teuvo Teravainen, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
After the way he played through the final two rounds of the post-season, it’s hard to believe that Teravainen wasn’t already a full-time NHLer, but that’s the case. Chicago gave the 20-year-old time to grow and compete with the Rockford IceHogs, but the audition is over and Teravainen is going to be a Blackhawk come October, make no mistake about it.
Teravainen possesses all the ability necessary to make his mark with the Blackhawks. He’s quick, agile, thinks the game well and is shifty with the puck, but he also has something else on his side: his contract. For the next two seasons, Teravainen’s cap hit is less than $900,000, which is exactly what the cap-crunched Blackhawks need.