Playoff run invaluable for Vegas prospects

American Hockey League

Steve Marcus

George McPhee, Vegas Golden Knights president of hockey operations and general manager, arrives on stage during a “Stick Salute to Vegas and Our Fans” at the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, June 13, 2018.

The Golden Knights organization can still add a Cup to its trophy case this summer.

Not the Stanley Cup. The Calder Cup, the champions’ prize in the American Hockey League. The affiliated Chicago Wolves trail 3-1 in the Finals against the Charlotte Checkers going into Game 5 today.

It’s an uphill climb, and even if the Wolves fall in the series, the development gained for the group of future Golden Knights has already made the run worth it.

“It’s invaluable,” Golden Knights general manager George McPhee said. “If you‘re getting the development process right, you want prospects playing in the highest-level league available, and that’s the American Hockey League. And when they’re in that league, you want them to play at the highest level that league has to offer, which is four rounds of playoffs.”

McPhee knows a thing or two about a successful AHL squad. Few teams have translated the players on a Calder Cup champion into NHL talent as well as the 2010 Hershey Bears. The Washington Capitals’ affiliate boasted a roster that year that included goalie Braden Holtby, defenseman John Carlson and forward Jay Beagle, all part of the core that won last year’s Stanley Cup.

McPhee was the Capitals’ general manager for three Hershey championships (2006, 2009, 2010), and he said it wasn’t a coincidence that the same players who won in the AHL went on to win in the NHL.

“You want your players developing a winning environment,” McPhee said. “There will be times you might be struggling at the NHL level, but you’ve got that frame of reference that you’ve proven yourself at the American League level, you’ve had success and you’ll be able to find it at this level as well.”

Most of the Wolves players spent the year in the AHL, including the Golden Knights’ best defensive prospects in Nicolas Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff and Dylan Coughlan.

Top prospect Cody Glass, though, has not been there all year. Glass spent the season with the Portland Winterhawks of the junior Western Hockey League and joined the Wolves in April when Portland’s season ended. He had five points in six games, then took off in the postseason, racking up 14 points in 21 games, the sixth-most points ever for a player aged 20 or younger in the Calder Cup playoffs.

McPhee was thrilled to see Glass get even more development in the playoffs — four rounds of games that felt like a bonus.

“In some ways it’s a gift,” McPhee said. “To get all those playoff games in really expedites the development. It’s the highest level of play any of these young men have ever been at.”

Vegas forward Cody Eakin was on that 2010 Hershey team, and Deryk Engelland was on the 2006 championship team. Tomas Nosek won the Calder Cup in 2017 with Grand Rapid, Mich., and Colin Miller won it in 2015 with Manchester, N.H.

Nearly every Calder Cup-winning roster features a future NHL regular, and the development they get playing at the highest level of the level below the NHL can prove to be invaluable.

“It’s the ideal situation for these players to be in, it’s what every front office is hoping transpires,” McPhee said. “They’re much closer for having this experience.

“To get four rounds of playoffs, it’s like an additional season.”

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