26 December 2015: Texas Stars forward Justin Dowling (10)is chased by Nikita Zadorov (6) during 5 - 4 loss to the San Antonio Rampage at the Cedar Park Center in Cedar Park, TX.(Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire)
NHL Prospects

AHL players eyeing future opportunities via NHL expansion

John Rivera/Icon Sportswire

The Las Vegas expansion may be the worst-kept secret in the NHL.

The arena is built, the owner is in place, and there is big-time money on the table for the NHL when the 31st team (the Las Vegas Black Knights? the Aces? the Jacks?) joins the league in the not-too-distant future.

And whether it’s been formally announced or not, players are using this not-so-insider information as they plan for the future. For minor-leaguers, that means keeping their options open for next summer and creating flexibility if the NHL officially expands and adds 25 full-time NHL jobs.

So in a sport where job security is key — especially at the minor-league level — high-level AHL players are willing to risk one-year contracts that can bridge to future NHL opportunities.

That was the thought process for Justin Dowling, a center in the Dallas Stars system, who recently signed a one-year deal. Dowling could have signed a multi-year deal with the Stars as a depth player in the organization, but opted for a one-year deal with expansion on his mind.

“I think it opens up more options for me in the future when expansion happens next summer — that could lead to an NHL job with Dallas or another team,” Dowling told Wrong Side of the Red Line.

He has a good point.

29 SEP 2014: Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) and center Jason Spezza (90) celebrate center Tyler Seguin (91)power play goal during the NHL preseason game between the Dallas Stars and the Florida Panthers at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX. Dallas defeats Florida 5-4.

Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) and center Jason Spezza (90) celebrate center Tyler Seguin’s (91) power play goal.

With Dallas’ current roster, Dowling doesn’t have much of an NHL opportunity. The Stars are stacked down the middle with names like Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Cody Eakin, and Radek Faksa. While Dowling could have an NHL opportunity develop thanks to an injury, his long-term future with the Stars isn’t bright beyond the occasional call-up.

But expansion is going to shake up the NHL landscape for everyone.

At least four teams are going to lose an everyday center in the draft, and if Vegas decides to overload on pivot-men, it could be even more. That’s going to open an opportunity for a handful of AHL centers to make the jump.

And with a low cap hit, Dowling is hoping he could turn into a low-risk, high-reward signing for that NHL team suddenly looking for depth at the face-off dot.

If a second team joins the expansion fray — which is possible — the number of opportunities double, and more players who previously had an AHL glass ceiling could be looking at NHL paychecks.

It all adds an interesting wrinkle to the oft-forgotten AHL free agency scramble.

On defense, the Toronto Marlies’ T.J. Brennan is an unrestricted free agent and, at 27, is one of the best — if not the best — offensive defenseman in the AHL. Brennan has had bites of the NHL (53 games between four organizations), but expansion could turn that into a full-blown meal if he sets up his contract right this summer.

Mike Sislo, a 28-year-old unrestricted free agent right-winger in the Devils organization, is in a similar situation. While a multi-year deal this summer may be more enticing now, is it worth setting up a one-year contract to open up even more opportunities in 2017 after grabbing AHL All-Stars honors?

Expansion also weighs more on a player’s decision to pursue an opportunity in Europe during the 2016-17 season. While the NHL dream may be snuffed out in a 30-team league, is the possibility of a 31 or 32-team league worth spending at least one more season in the AHL to stay close to the NHL?

There’s also the trickle down of AHL expansion to consider. When the NHL expands, the AHL will also add a 31st or 32nd team (Salt Lake City seems like it would pair nicely with Las Vegas), which would open up even more opportunities.

AHL players eyeing future opportunities via NHL expansion

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