Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at the fairly significant transformation of the Hurricanes’ AHL roster over the past couple years.
Transformation of the Hurricanes AHL roster
For all teams, the primary purpose of the AHL is to develop players to improve the NHL team. As such, the most attention is given to young, up and coming prospects with the potential to be difference makers at the NHL level. But AHL rosters also house two other types of players. First are prospects with lower ceilings who maybe have lower ceilings but still the potential to contribute at the NHL level. Second are AHL veterans who help the AHL team win and set a tone for professionalism but are unlikely to factor in at the AHL level. Historically most teams use a mix of young prospects and veteran leaders at the AHL level. At a contract level, most young prospects are on standard contracts that pay $70,000 to $80,000 at the AHL level and about the same in bonuses on the three years of an entry-level contract. The price for AHL veterans can vary. Especially for good ones who have NHL experience and have established themselves as leaders, they can earn upwards of $200,000 either directly in their AHL contract or with minimum guarantees that assume (and pay for) a certain amount of NHL time.
A couple years ago, the Carolina Hurricanes had a fairly even split of prospects and veterans, as the team was refilling a depleted prospect pool. Fast forward to today and the organization has undergone a significant transformation. Just this summer, the Hurricanes shed AHL veterans and team leaders Patrick Brown, Andrew Poturalski, Dennis Robertson and Dan Renouf. The only returning player from the 2018-19 roster who I would classify as an AHL veteran is Trevor Carrick. The Hurricanes do have a few somewhat older players, but I think all of the others would still be considered NHL prospects. If he falls to the AHL level, Saku Maenalanen would qualify as an AHL veteran as would Brian Gibbons and Clark Bishop who currently show on the NHL roster. The blue line does have newcomer Alex Lintuniemi to go with Trevor Carrick and also Roland McKeown who is still a prospect but also 23 years old. The goalie group does include newly-added Anton Forsberg who is an experienced AHLer with NHL experience. In total, I count 14 out of 20 likely AHLers as true prospects. In addition, at least of the players signed so far (Carrick, Forsberg, Bishop, McKeown and Maenalanen are yet to be signed) only Brian Gibbons has a premium AHL contract that guarantees him $225,000. All of the other players have an AHL salary in the low sub $100,000 range. As noted above, two players who would have required a premium AHL contract (Brown and Poturalski) departed.
What is going on?
Below is my speculation on what is going on with the Hurricanes at the AHL level. To be clear, this is my interpretation and not sourced from team commentary on the subject. (The team likely would not directly answer questions on much of this since it has to do with player development and organizational strategy.)
The prospect pool is becoming deeper
Credit to Ron Francis who initially started stockpiling extra prospects and draft picks and also the current management group that has followed suit, the Hurricanes simply have more true prospects in the system. With many playing in Europe, NCAA and Canadian juniors still, the matriculation to the AHL level will be gradual. But we are seeing the beginning of larger groups of prospects moving to the AHL level. So over time simple math suggests that the Hurricanes will have more prospects at the AHL level. That is pretty straight forward.
Cost-cutting below the 20-man NHL lineup
But I think there is likely also an element of cost cutting for players below the 20-man NHL lineup. Though the ‘Dundon is cheap’ narrative seems to be dying only very slowly despite the fact that the Hurricanes paid $3.8 million for a draft pick this summer and are pushing up against the salary cap, I actually think there could be an element of cost cutting below the 20-player NHL lineup. I see that manifesting itself in two ways. First, the Hurricanes quite regularly (even during the stretch run) went without healthy scratches. (If anyone knows a non-labor intensive way to find/calculate ‘average healthy scratches per game’ for NHL teams, let me know.) The cost to have a 21st player in the press box is roughly $9,000 per game. At a theoretical maximum, a team could save about $1.4 million in salary (two players on minimum or close salaries) by carrying only 20 players with no extras as compared to a more normal 22 that includes an extra forward and defenseman. The actual savings would be less because there would be times when an extra player was required because someone was actually injured, but back of the envelope math would suggest that a team could save $400,000 to $1 million by managing this tightly and taking some minor risks not having extras on the roster.
More significantly, by icing more true prospects at the AHL level instead of AHL veterans on premium contracts, the team could maybe save a similar amount. (Again, if someone has a way to total up the AHL salaries of players on the opening day AHL roster, let me know.) My rough math suggests that pending the remaining contracts that the Hurricanes will have fewer AHL premium contracts for the 2019-20 season.
Netting it out
At a basic level, the Hurricanes are placing an emphasis on adding both quantity and quality to the prospect pool. The team did do some pruning/cashing in when it traded away Aleksi Saarela and Nicolas Roy this summer, but the hefty volume of 12 draft picks this summer more than back filled the losses. The trade to acquire Patrick Marleau and then immediately spend $3.8 million buying him out was the most striking piece of evidence for the emphasis on building the prospect pool. The Hurricanes basically paid a sizable chunk of cash to buy what would project to be a mid to late first round pick. Couple that with trading down twice to add picks and boost quantity, and it is not hard to see the team’s investment in building from within.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What, if anything, do you make of my theory that the team is making a concerted effort to cut some costs below the 20-player NHL lineup in terms of AHL premium players but at the same time going all in on a commitment to building from within through the prospect pool?
2) What are your broader thoughts on the Hurricanes current prospect pool and approach to developing these players?