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The AHL is changing rapidly, and the Marlies are riding the crest of the wave

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As more Toronto fans get to know the Marlies, now is a good time to get to know the AHL itself. This July, dive in a little deeper to the league and take a look at the big changes afoot there.

The good old days, when Bates Battalgia was the star of the Marlies
The good old days, when Bates Battalgia was the star of the Marlies
Graig Abel/Getty Images

The AHL is a Development League

We all say that like it's true, but we rarely step back and ask if it is universally true.

For some NHL clubs, the AHL team is mostly or almost entirely devoted to developing prospects.  The Marlies under the new management are definitely following this model. For other clubs, they stick to the old ways, where the AHL is mostly a parking garage for failed signings, the prospects that aren't ready or might never be, and the half a handful of players the team might call up for injury replacement. They might make sure they have a good enough backup to the backup goalie but do little else with the team.

The convulsions in the AHL in the last couple of years have come about as more and more teams move to the development model. First, there was the great western migration, which isn't finished and will continue. Second, there was a large number of coaching staff changes this year—not just firings and rehirings, but teams expanding their staffs to include more assistants than ever before. Third, there are moves in the east now to bring teams closer under the wing of their parent clubs, leaving cities suddenly without hockey.

During all this upheaval, the interest from fans has never been greater. The AHL set an attendance record last year, and revenues are also up. The Marlies did very well, coming within a few hundred of their record set during the last lockout.

While the AHL might be seeing revenues and attendance climb, the NHL has very flat growth in the salary cap, and that pressure on NHL salaries is having an effect on the AHL.

There was a large number of RFA players—many of whom play exclusively in the AHL—who did not receive qualifying offers and became free agents this summer. The total was a substantial increase over the previous year.

Meanwhile, it seemed as though teams were signing players to two-way NHL contracts with very large AHL salaries. Not every player on every AHL team is a $70,000 man on an ELC, and while smart NHL teams don't hand out one-way contracts unless they are absolutely certain they have a bona fide NHLer, they are spending more money where it does not impact the salary cap—in the AHL.

The Marlies signed a trio of players who used to have NHL deals to AHL only contracts. If Toronto has made the Marlies a desired enough destination for players so they will take the perceived slight of moving from an NHL contract to an AHL contract in stride, they will have accomplished something the parent club is still only dreaming about.

Reflective of this new growing interest across the league in making the teams into quality development environments for prospects, the AHL introduced some rule changes on fighting that may lead to the total demise of the one-trick pony enforcer role and a general reduction in fighting.

Still to happen: the AHL needs to improve its officiating in quality and quantity—no more one referee games, and it needs to improve the broadcast quality of its games. Just making the product worth the price they charge would be a worthy goal, but looking at that very high price and questioning if it's reasonable would be wise too.

Who are all these other teams not the Marlies?

Not everyone has the affiliation of every AHL team memorized, so to help as I go on to talk about these topics in more depth in the coming weeks, this is a look at the NHL vs their AHL teams and where they ended up in the standings.

NHL Team Rank AHL Team Point Percentage Rank Difference
Toronto Maple Leafs 30 Toronto Marlies 0.750 1 -29
Los Angeles Kings 8 Ontario Reign 0.684 2 -6
New Jersey Devils 20 Albany Devils 0.671 3 -17
Nashville Predators 14 Milwaukee Admirals 0.664 4 -10
Washington Capitals 1 Hershey Bears 0.645 5 4
Columbus Blue Jackets 27 Lake Erie Monsters 0.638 6 -21
Boston Bruins 16 Providence Bruins 0.625 7 -9
Chicago Blackhawks 5 Rockford IceHogs 0.618 8 3
Anaheim Ducks 6 San Diego Gulls 0.618 9 3
Pittsburgh Penguins 4 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 0.605 10 6
Dallas Stars 2 Texas Stars 0.599 11 9
Florida Panthers 7 Portland Pirates 0.592 12 5
Detroit Red Wings 15 Grand Rapids Griffins 0.592 13 -2
Vancouver Canucks 28 Utica Comets 0.579 14 -14
New York Islanders 10 Bridgeport Sound Tigers 0.572 15 5
New York Rangers 9 Hartford Wolf Pack 0.559 16 7
San Jose Sharks 11 San Jose Barracuda 0.537 17 6
Carolina Hurricanes 18 Charlotte Checkers 0.526 18 0
Edmonton Oilers 29 Bakersfield Condors 0.522 19 -10
Tampa Bay Lightning 12 Syracuse Crunch 0.520 20 8
Calgary Flames 26 Stockton Heat 0.500 21 -5
Montréal Canadiens 22 St. John's IceCaps 0.493 22 0
Philadelphia Flyers 13 Lehigh Valley Phantoms 0.493 23 10
Colorado Avalanche 21 San Antonio Rampage 0.487 24 3
St. Louis Blues 3 Chicago Wolves 0.487 25 22
Buffalo Sabres 23 Rochester Americans 0.474 26 3
Ottawa Senators 19 Binghamton Senators 0.454 27 8
Winnipeg Jets 25 Manitoba Moose 0.401 28 3
Arizona Coyotes 24 Springfield Falcons 0.395 29 5
Minnesota Wild 17 Iowa Wild 0.388 30 13

Minus 29 standings differential relative to the NHL! The Marlies are the champions of being way better than their parent club. The next closest difference is the Chicago Wolves, who sadly for them, are in the opposite direction and dramatically worse than their parent.

Some patterns are obvious and not surprising. Several very bad NHL teams have very good AHL teams. Drafting high, stocking up on picks as a team rebuilds and realizing that rebuilding comes from below the NHL level first, makes for good development style AHL teams.

Some teams just always have a good AHL team, and the Ontario Reign are the quintessential example of that. It doesn't matter where the Kings are, the Reign are good. The Utica Comets are also a solid, well-run franchise that doesn't seem to be rising and falling with the fortunes of the Canucks. The Hershey Bears, the most popular AHL team there is, are also consistently good.

Some teams are bad, their parent club is bad, and they stay that way. This summer, some of those teams have taken large and expensive strides to change that. Arizona bought their team and moved it to Tucson. Colorado cleaned house, hired a star coach and stocked the roster with talent.

On the other hand, the Senators don't seem to be getting anything going in Bingo, and try as the Tampa Bay Lightning might, the Syracuse Crunch just don't seem to ever be good. Both of those teams are making changes this summer too, so they might shoot up the standings this season.

Next time I will look at the money coming in and attendance growth in a little more detail.