Jake Gardiner (right) was a bright spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline last season. (Getty)Dallas Eakins and other coaches around the American Hockey League have no choice but to prepare. Should the NHL and NHLPA agree to terms on a new CBA sometime in the next week and begin playing a shortened 2012-2013 season soon after, many AHL teams would lose top players to the NHL.
Looking at it from the Toronto Marlies perspective, should there be an NHL season Eakins would undoubtedly lose defenceman Jake Gardiner, who was an integral piece of the Leafs defensive core last season, and likely Matt Frattin who played 56 games with the Leafs in 2011-2012. Gardiner and Frattin have both missed time this season due to injury – Gardiner is currently out with concussion-like symptoms – but both are key players on a Marlies roster that currently sits in first place in the AHL’s Western Conference.
Defenceman Mike Kostka and forward Nazem Kadri have also performed well for the Marlies. Kadri is a point-per-game player and Kostka is third in points among AHL defencemen with 31. There’s no guarantee that either will earn a full-time roster spot with the Leafs, but their play with the Marlies should at least earn them the opportunity to prove themselves in what would be a short training camp.
"He's a guy that's really invested off the ice with his training and diet and it's those guys who are fairly detailed on the ice too," Eakins said of Kostka back in November. "With knowing a fair amount about his game we weren't expecting this kind of start numbers-wise from him, but he's been a real key to our offence… We like playing an aggressive game; we want our defence firmly involved in the offence and really pushing the pace.
"He's a guy firmly on our roster that if the NHL ever gets going again here I would hope that he gets at least a look," Eakins said. "Lets get him into a game or two and see what he can do at the NHL level."
Eakins told Toronto Star reporter Bob Mitchell earlier this week that he isn’t worried about a possible NHL return affecting his team’s success.
“We have enough players here if we lose two or lose five. We’ve got enough players to be covered. We’ve had to put a number of guys in the East Coast League, who we haven’t forgotten. We’ve got lots of players to fill holes if the need arises.”
Now we wouldn’t expect the head coach to say otherwise, but it’s hard to say that a team that’s won 11 or their last 14 games wouldn’t take a hit should they lose some of their top players to the NHL.
And the Marlies wouldn’t be alone.
Look at a team like the Oklahoma City Barons who have three potential NHL All-Stars on their roster in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle plus a rookie defenceman in Justin Schultz who is second in the AHL in points with 46 – Eberle is first with 50.
So while hockey fans continue to cross their fingers and hope for a new CBA that will save the season, teams around the AHL if not preparing, have to at least be thinking about what the return of the NHL would mean for their team.