Along with the typical injuries and slumps common to any team, coaches in the NHL’s developmental league must deal with losing their best players to recalls along with the uneven and unpredictable nature of a young player’s development. NHL teams have poured money into player development in recent seasons, and the success of any NHL Draft is dependent on all but the most sure-fire picks being developed properly in the AHL.
“Every coach is worried about [the next surprise that] is coming,” Milwaukee (Nashville Predators) coach Karl Taylor said. “There is [a challenge] lurking around every corner.”
Taylor was joined by three coaching colleagues at the AHL All-Star Classic held earlier this week. Here is a look at some of the best young coaching talent in the AHL and how they view their role producing prospects for NHL careers:
Taylor, in his second season with Milwaukee, was hired June 29, 2018, after four seasons as an assistant with Texas (Dallas Stars). In 2017-18, his final season with Texas, the team went to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Final before losing to Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs).
Milwaukee leads the AHL with 68 points (31-8-4-2), after finishing second in the Central Division and losing in five games in the best-of-5 first round of the playoffs last season. His playoff experienced has served up more lessons.
“I think [hockey in the Calder Cup Playoffs is] at least two or three games of experience for every playoff game,” Taylor said. “And it’s a massive development time. You’re going through adversity, you’re going through different things that happen, and really digging into playing teams head-to-head.
“For everyone who was on that (2018 Texas) team or part of that run, we had people get opportunities. If you win, everyone wants [that] winning element. We all want it, we all want to taste it, we all want to have a piece of that. So usually when teams do well there’s lots of opportunity. And in all honesty that was a big part of me being able to get this opportunity [with Milwaukee].”
Kris Knoblauch, Hartford (New York Rangers)
Knoblauch went to the Rangers organization after two seasons as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers.
His hiring came as part of a significant rebuilding project by the Rangers to provide help for an influx of new prospects. Hartford has missed the playoffs four straight seasons and six of the past seven.
Arriving with Knoblauch were star goaltending prospect Igor Shesterkin and forward Vitali Kravtsov. Having coached Edmonton Oilers star forward Connor McDavid for parts of three seasons with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League helped to prepare Knoblauch for working with elite young talent.
However, the other parts of an AHL coaching job tested him early in his first season in the league and required him to lean on a rebuilt base of veterans.
“I spent two years in Philadelphia, and a lot of years in junior, [where a] team is pretty much your team. [In the NHL], your fourth line might fluctuate a little bit. Junior, you’ve got your team right from the start.
“And [in the AHL] you’ve got guys coming up from the [ECHL], you’ve got guys going up to the NHL, and there’s a lot of fluctuation.”
Chris Taylor, Rochester (Buffalo Sabres)
Taylor spent two months with the Sabres as an assistant coach earlier in the season while Buffalo assistant coach Don Granato was ill. He resumed his duties with Rochester on Nov. 23.
Buffalo hired Taylor for the Rochester coaching job before the 2017-18 season, and he has taken his team to the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of his first two seasons. Rochester had missed the postseason three consecutive times before his hiring. At the All-Star break, Rochester (24-13-2-4) is second in the North Division with 54 points, four behind first-place Belleville (Ottawa Senators).
During his time in Buffalo, Taylor kept a close eye on his Rochester team. He brought several lessons with him back to the AHL after working daily with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger.
“[The experience] just reaffirmed what we’re doing in Rochester,” Taylor said. “That was a big experience for me. I took a couple things that I’d like to change in Rochester, just with how everything is run in the NHL, and to make it run like an NHL team.”
He also walked the tightrope of being an NHL assistant with the Sabres and working with some of the same players that he had led in Rochester.
“I’m sure some guys got to see different things from me as an assistant coach [in Buffalo],” Taylor said. “I was supporting Ralph and what he wanted me to do as an assistant coach. When I came back [to Rochester], I had some guys [in Buffalo] as assistant coach for a couple games. Then I come back and all of a sudden I have to be different.
“So it was definitely a difficult transition a little bit at the start, but I overcame that right away.”
Jay Varady, Tucson (Arizona Coyotes)
Arizona hired Varady on July 2, 2018 as the third coach for Tucson in as many seasons.
During his two seasons he has established a sound foundation for young Coyotes prospects to develop their games. He also brought a varied resume that included coaching stops in the OHL, United States Hockey League, Western Hockey League, and France.
In his one OHL season, 2017-18 with Kingston, he took the team to the Eastern Conference final. He also coached Sioux City in the USHL for four seasons and was 136-88-0-16 there. He is creating that same success in the AHL, where Tucson leads the Pacific Division with a 28-11-1-0 record.
Tucson is third in the AHL at 3.58 goals per game.
“Pace and tempo,” Varady said of Tucson’s approach. “We play a game where we’re heading north most of the night, so when you watch us play and we’re doing the things we want to do, you’re going to see a team that hopefully possesses the puck coming out of our end and creates a possession plan in the offensive zone.”