The Downside of the “Big” Guys Playing for the “Small” Club

As the chances of the lockout coming to an end anytime soon get smaller and smaller, NHL players are flocking to other teams left and right. Some are going overseas to play in European leagues, while others have the opportunity to play for their team’s AHL affiliate, such as a few of the Flyers. I touched briefly on the downside of having NHL players joining other teams abroad in last week’s Point/Counterpoint, but now I’m going to focus on the effect it may have on players in the minors.

The AHL is a stepping stone, the last stop before a player reaches the big club. It’s where players take their game to the next level and really work hard to prove their worth. They want to be the first one called up when an NHLer goes down, and to eventually become an everyday player in the NHL. To even get to the AHL is a huge accomplishment, but few guys are ever satisfied by being there. They want to get their hands on hockey’s most treasured prize, and they can’t do that until they’re playing in the NHL.

Every teammate of theirs is competition. It doesn’t matter how friendly players are with one another; when it comes down to it, they want their buddies and teammates to succeed, but not at their expense. So when guys who have already crossed the bridge from the AHL to the NHL come back to the minors because it’s somewhere to play until the lockout ends, it becomes even more of a competition and a struggle for the everyday AHL guys.

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Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, and Zac Rinaldo have been assigned to the Phantoms for this coming season. These three guys spent an ample amount of time (and then some) playing for the Flyers last year and proving themselves at the NHL level. There are four other players who played for the Flyers at different points last season who are now back with the Phantoms – Eric Wellwood, Erik Gustafsson, Brandon Manning, and Harry Zolnierczyk. Seven roster spots being used by guys with at least some NHL experience (eight, technically, if you include Ben Holmstrom). It’s part of the game and just how things go, but it definitely affects the guys who haven’t yet gotten their shot.

The Phantoms aren’t a hockey camp; they’re a team. They’ll be chasing the Calder Cup this season, and of course the best players on their rosters will be on the ice for a majority of the time. Schenn and Couturier (and possibly Rinaldo) would be with the Flyers right now if an NHL season were about to begin, but instead they’ll be a few of those aforementioned “best” players. Wellwood, Gustafsson, and Manning would be at least blips on the radar, as they all performed well last season. At least a few of those players will surely be seeing far more ice time than their teammates, because their talent and skills have already been proven.

The guys fighting to prove themselves in the AHL are facing an even tougher uphill battle these days, and it just goes to show that the lockout doesn’t affect only the NHL players, but those throughout the game of hockey in general. It’s a good thing that players will step up their game in order to keep up with the NHLers – not only because it’s part of their development and hockey as a whole, but also because they have to – but they may not see the results or recognition of their efforts thanks to the stars in everyone’s eyes.