Have the Chicago Wolves Developed NHL Talent?

To be honest this past Thrasher season really wore on me and I've enjoyed taking a month off from posting on the blog. But I felt compelled to comment after reading this article by Craig Custance over at the AJC.

There was one sentence in particular that stuck out to me: "At the end of this season, the Thrashers roster consisted of only two players who spent an entire season playing with the Wolves: defenseman Garnet Exelby and goalie Kari Lehtonen."

This is a fact. This is true. But it tells us nothing about the Wolves ability to develop talent. It only tells us about players developed and retained by management.

What if we were to take a look at all NHL players developed by the Wolves and not just those who are the Thrashers current roster? If you run a NHL franchise you want your minor league team to develop NHL talent which you can either use or trade away for something else your team needs.

Let's see what we can learn by a stroll down memory lane. The Thrashers affiliation with the Chicago Wolves began in 2001-02 so I will start with that year. I will list Chicago Wolves prospects (minimum 20 games with Wolves) who went on to play in the NHL. I will ignore minor league veterans.

2001-02 Chicago Wolves who made the NHL
Ranked by number of NHL games played
377 Clark (COL) traded for Cassivi
298 Exelby (ATL)
292 Pothier (WAS) traded for McEachern
302 Hordichuk (NSH) traded for prospects
176 Foster (MIN) traded for Havelid
213 Vigier (ATL-europe)
204 Weaver (VAN)
125 Nurminen (ATL-retired)
81 Simon
71 Tapper
49 Snyder (ATL-deceased)
48 Gamache
45 MacKenzie

Comments: That first year the Chicago Wolves had 8 players on their roster who went on to play over 100 games in the NHL. Brett Clark, Garnett Exelby, Brian Pothier, Kurtis Foster are all defensemen who receive top 4 minutes with their respective teams. Nurmimen became a starter in the NHL before his career was ended prematurely by injury. Vigier, Hordichuk and Snyder were all checking line players. Weaver is a depth defenseman today for Vancouver.

2002-03 Chicago Wolves who made the NHL
298 Exelby (ATL)
264 Karlsson (TBL)
213 Vigier (ATL-europe)
204 Weaver (VAN)
176 Foster (MIN)
174 DiPenta (ANA)
102 Hartigan (DET)
91 Lessard
81 Simon
71 Tapper
49 Snyder (ATL-deceased)
48 Gamache (TOR)
45 MacKenzie (CBJ)

Comments: Joe DiPenta made his Chicago debut and would go on to get a Stanley Cup ring as a 3rd pairing defenseman with the Anaheim Ducks. Lessard joined the Wolves as an aspiring figher and would play a full season with the Thrashers eventually. Karlsson has played two full seasons with Tampa Bay since leaving the Thrashers organization.

2003-04 Chicago Wolves who made the NHL
204 Weaver (VAN)
176 Foster (MIN)
174 DiPenta (ANA)
158 Lehtonen (ATL)
71 Tapper
69 Stewart
63 Santala
45 MacKenzie

Comments: Lehtonen had a two year stint in Chicago and would become the #1 in Atlanta following the lockout. Santala and Stewart also joined the team but became only depth or fringe guys and have not won consistent starting roles in the NHL.

Summary Pre-Lockout Wolves Player Development
Here is the tally of NHL players (100+ games played) that came through Chicago before the lockout. Personally I think Snyder would have broken 100 so I'm including him.
  • 6 Defensemen: Clark, Pothier, Foster, Exelby, Weaver, DiPenta
  • 4 Forwards: Hordichuk, Karlsson, Vigier, (Snyder?)
  • 2 Goalies: Nurminen, Lehtonen

Honestly, that's a pretty decent list, especially at defense and goaltending. Most scoring forwards skip the AHL entirely (heck even Slater skipped the AHL) so I'm not shocked to see few top six forwards on that list. I do find it surprising that so few checking forwards have been come out of the Wolves. Considering that a number of our prospects are inserted into a checking role in the AHL you would think a few more would graduate to the big leagues. On the other hand, checking forwards are extremely cheap (most make the NHL salary minimum) and easy to acquire via waivers and free agency. So any young checking forward has to compete against every other checker who is available on the market.

Wolves Player Development Since 2004
Now let's take a look at prospects on the Wolves since the lockout. At this point in time it is simply too early to tell exactly who will have a NHL career and who will not. But I have made up the lists for the last three season showing prospects who have played in the NHL and I have put an asterisk next to those I can see having a NHL career without too much squinting. Because many of these guys are still "developing" I list any NHL games they have played to this point (unlike above where I restricted the lists to guys who had 40+ NHL games to weed out guys getting cups of coffee).

2004-05 Chicago Wolves (Lockout Year) who made the NHL
213 Vigier (ATL-europe)
158 Lehtonen (ATL)
81 Simon
71 Tapper
69 Stewart
63 Santala
45 MacKenzie

Comments: Vigier and Lehtonen would have been in the NHL were it not for the lockout this particular season. Frankly the Atlanta Thrashers sent mostly checkers to the AHL. Santala was given big minutes if I recall correctly. Stewart had one great season in the AHL and then tried to become a pest type player. I'm not sure who's idea that was but it hasn't resulted in a NHL career so far.

2005-06 Wolves who made the NHL
136 Coburn (PHI)
91 Lessard
69 Stewart
68 Abid
45 MacKenzie
44 Popovic (ATL)
24 Garnett
18 C. Stuart *
8 Doell
(* solid chance of a NHL career)

Comments: Coburn is in Philadelphia and he is their best defenseman right now. Popovic was a regular 3rd pairing guy this year in Atlanta and played better than McCarthy and Exelby most nights he was dressed. It is a crying shame the team didn't experiment with giving him a larger role during a wasted season.

2006-07 Wolves
45 MacKenzie
44 Popovic (ATL)
24 Garnett
18 C. Stuart *
13 Sterling *
8 Doell
7 Valabik *
2 LaValle *
0 Bourett
0 Oystrick
(* solid chance of a NHL career)

Comments: Sterling has put up huge AHL numbers but was outplayed by Little and couldn't stick in the NHL this season. Stuart and LaValle looked solid in NHL call ups. Valabik also has shown significant progress. Bourret was traded for Dupuis who was part of the Hossa deal for Armstrong and Christensen.

2007-08 Wolves who made the NHL
48 Little *
18 C. Stuart *
13 Sterling *
8 Doell
7 Valabik*
7 Pavelec *
2 LaValle *
0 Oystrick
0 Lewis
(* solid chance of a NHL career)

Little is a NHL guy no doubt, the only question is will he score enough for a top six spot. Pavelec also showed great promise in his time in Atlanta. That's two nearly certain NHLers on the Wolves roster this season. I would say that Valabik, Stuart and LaValle have a greater than 50% of making the NHL at some point. So five possible NHLers played for AHL Wolves this season.

Conclusion
A while back I raked Jeff Schultz over the coals for sloppy reasoning when he implied that the Atlanta Thrashers were atypical for developing only a handful of NHL defensemen on their roster. My research into EVERY team showed the Thrashers were in fact completely normal, typical and average in this respect.

The following statement sounds rather damning. "At the end of this season, the Thrashers roster consisted of only two players who spent an entire season playing with the Wolves: defenseman Garnet Exelby and goalie Kari Lehtonen. " But what exactly does that mean? I can't tell and neither can you from reading the article. How many NHL players should your farm club produce?

It seems clear to me that if you look at the entire time period of the Thrashers-Wolves affiliation that the Wolves have produced players who made the NHL. But the majority of those NHL players are on someone else's roster. Is that the Wolves fault? Last time I checked the NHL trades were made at the NHL level, not the AHL.

Unfortunately, the readers of the AJC article are not provided with any information that would allow us to make a thoughtful evaluation. We can't tell whether the Wolves are unusually strong or weak in player development. The article makes repeated comparisons the the Red Wings affiliate in Grand Rapids but we are not provided with any facts about how many NHL players Grand Rapids has developed.

Any time you want to make a comparison you have to ask "compared to what?" and this article never really gave us the crucial data needed to make a valid comparison. If we don't know what is normal for a farm system how can we know if Atlanta's is good or bad?

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