There has been some spicy talk on social media recently about the role of the American Hockey League (AHL) in relation to that of the National Hockey League (NHL). The AHL is made up of 31 teams- all with affiliations to NHL teams. A new team was brought forward this summer from the ECHL because the creation of the expansion team Las Vegas Golden Knights . (More on the ECHL later.) The AHL’s primary function as a farm team is to develop rookie players into skilled NHL players.
Stephen Whyno reported that Caps coach Barry Trotz sent a text to then Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann congratulating him for his role in developing players for the wining team. “Thanks Manner for having all those rookie Caps ready, They all played well — you own a piece of this win last night.” There is little doubt about the importance an AHL coach had in the formation of an NHL player. (Unfortunately, the Caps/Bears did not renew their contract with Mann and have since hired Spencer Carbery from their ECHL affiliate.)
The other side of the story is that many AHL teams are just as much a part of their local communities as are NHL teams. And those communities get behind their players as they fight to win games that will lead them to the playoffs and the ultimate prize–the Calder Cup. The Bears have their own fan club, the Hershey Bears Booster Club, that arranges opportunities for fans to travel to away games, even Caps games, as well as other trips for the community. Like the Capitals Fan Club, they also raise funds for local charities.
But let’s get back to how the AHL and the NHL work together. We start with the affiliation. To keep it easy, we will use the Hershey Bears and the Washington Capitals as our example. The Bears renewed their affiliation agreement in October 2016. It expires after the 2019/20 season. Prior to that, they had been affiliated for 11 seasons, among the longest in the AHL.
The problem many AHL teams face is the structure of contracts in the NHL and the control the parent team has over up to 50 contracts for both NHL and AHL players. The NHL can only carry 23 active players on their roster. The AHL, on the other hand, can sign additional players and have as many as they can afford on their roster. There are more rules about numbers that can dress for a game and types of players eligible to play at any given time.
There are any number of contracts available for AHL players. These three are signed:
Standard players’ contract (SPC) or the full AHL contract, is signed only with the AHL affiliate. The player must sign a new contract to play for the NHL. These players will most likely not ever play in the NHL.
Professional try-out contract (PTO) used to allow the NHL team to look at a player. At times, that player could be a veteran NHL player who is hoping to land a new NHL contract. For the AHL, that player may be on the team for no more then 25 games without a new standard contract. Think Alex Chiasion who signed a one-year bridge contract after training camp in 2026.
Amateur try-out contracts (ATO) are for amateurs to get a taste of playing with the AHL but they maintain their amateur status for the following season.
Then there are the contacts players actually signed with the parent organization (the Capitals); however, they are playing with the AHL (Bears) and not on the NHL roster.
Two-way contracts give the parent team (Caps) the option to send a player down to the AHL (Bears) and recall him to play in the NHL again. The salary rate changes depending on which league they play. As players run up and down between Hershey and Washington DC, their salary fluctuates and the salary cap changes as well. So moving players around for the good of the Caps is no easy job. This past season we saw that with several Bears roster players.
Players under 25 on September 15 sign entry-level contracts. These are two-way contracts and only used for a player’s first NHL contract. These guys can go back and forth between the Caps and the Bears without waivers. Jakub Vrana is one of those players on a ELC who played 73 regular season games with the Capitals. Read more about him and his contract and performance here.
A Standard NHL one-way contract means the player receives an NHL salary regardless which league he happens to play a game. For the Caps to send one-way player to the Bears, they have to put the player on waivers. That’s a whole different set of rules which we discuss here.
When it comes to developing players for the national league, the Bears do one heck of a good job. Among the players who have moved into the NHL after even a brief time in the AHL are: Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Eric Fehr, Stanislav Galiev, Mike Green, Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby, Michael Neuvirth, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Michael Latta, Liam O’Brien, Steven Oleksy, Justin Peters, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson.
And current Bears who contributed to the Capitals during the playoffs and wining the Stanley Cup are: Travis Boyd, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Nathan Walker, Madison Bowey, and Christian Djoos.
The AHL has also been the developing ground for future NHL head coaches. Bruce Boudreau was once a Bears coach when the Capitals brought him up to coach in the NHL. Current Cap’s head coach Todd Reirden also coached in the AHL. And the AHL brings forward coaches from the ECHL, as the Bears have done with coach Carbery.
Although it can be destabilizing for AHL teams like the Hershey Bears to loose players around whom they have built a playing strategy. The Bears have a record of winning and their fans want more of the same. Since 2000, the Bears have won three Calder Cups. They have turned out some amazing players like goalie Michal Neuvirth who was in the net for the 2009 and 2010 Calder Cup wins–he went on to play for the Capitals and ultimately the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Caps Future
The truth is, they all want to play in the NHL. In all fairness, one can’t begrudge an AHL player from taking the opportunity the live out their dream. And as you can see from the list above, many of the Capitals’ top players were developed in the AHL. And more are likely to be on their way soon. Starting with Ilya Samanov, the Capitals goalie for the future. It is possible that one of the current Bear’s goalies, either Phoenix Copley or Vitek Vanecek could be the Caps next backup goalie.
So, go to a Hershey Bears game. Get to know the players who you may see on the Caps or other NHL rosters in the future. Support the team – meet the players after a game, join the booster club, and cheer on their success. Check out the Caps Fan Club or the Caps Road Crew and go to a game with the Caps community. We are all one big family and we should get to know each other more.
Oh and read our daily Hershey Bear reports to meet the players. Read our other stories.