PLAYERS UNDER-THE-RADAR BROUGHT TO THE FRONTLINE

The AHL announced its all-star teams this week and it’s an interesting crop of players. While most NHLers spend at least some time in the AHL at the beginning of their pro careers, we’re also seeing younger players establish themselves at the NHL level more often these days. The result of this seems to be that late-bloomers and under-the-radar players are getting a great stage to prove themselves on and some teams – particularly the Minnesota Wild – are benefitting.

Here are the 2019-20 all-stars and how they were acquired by their current organizations.

First Team

Kaapo Kahkonen, G, Iowa (MIN) – fourth round of the draft

Jake Bean, D, Charlotte (CAR) – first round

Brennan Menell, D, Iowa (MIN) – free agent

Reid Boucher, LW, Utica (VAN) – fourth round/waivers

Josh Norris, C, Belleville (OTT) – first round/trade

Sam Anas, RW, Iowa (MIN) – free agent

Second Team

Connor Ingram, G, Milwaukee (NSH) – third round/trade

Jacob MacDonald, D, Colorado (COL) – free agent/trade

Brogan Rafferty, D, Utica (VAN) – free agent

Gerry Mayhew, LW, Iowa (MIN) – free agent

Alex Barre-Boulet, C, Syracuse (TB) – free agent

Drake Batherson, RW, Belleville (OTT) – fourth round

As you can see, Minnesota’s farm team, the Iowa Wild, placed four players on the two all-star teams and only one of them was drafted by the parent NHL franchise. The other three were free agents and two of them – Menell and Mayhew – saw action with Minnesota this season (Kahkonen, the draft pick, also played NHL games this year and looked pretty good). The Wild is currently going through an organizational rebuild, with a new GM in Bill Guerin and several prominent scouts already given their walking papers.

Minnesota’s overall system ranked just 24th in The Hockey News’ Future Watch issue this spring, but that was up several spots from the year before. Not only that, but high-end talents such as Kirill Kaprizov, Adam Beckman and recently-acquired Calen Addison are coming off promising campaigns.

Having said that, the Wild needed free agents to make up some gaps of the past. Minnesota selected only 10 players total in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, with only one – Luke Kunin – making it to the NHL so far. All told, 70 players from that 2016 draft class have already played at least one NHL game, while 51 from the 2017 class have done the same.

Another organization that did well was Ottawa, where Belleville counted Norris and Batherson. Perhaps most important here is the fact both players are still quite young, compared with their Wild counterparts. Norris came over from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson deal, while Batherson was a raw steal who went on to win a gold medal with Team Canada’s world junior team the season after he was drafted.

Finally, it’s interesting how half the all-stars were free agent signings, while only two were first-rounders. Again, it’s about finding value. Barre-Boulet was coming off a distinguished QMJHL career when Tampa Bay snapped him up, while I remember Anas from his days with NCAA Quinnipiac. Even back then you could tell there was a player there, even though his size wasn’t ‘ideal.’

Will any of these all-stars turn into impact NHLers? History tells us that at least a couple will. Past AHL all-stars include Mikko Rantanen, Ben Bishop and P.K. Subban, while Matt Murray made the team two years in a row.

Every path to the NHL is different and if these all-stars prove anything, it’s the old adage that it doesn’t matter where you go on draft day, it matters what you do after.