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NHL lockout means more top talent available for AHL, junior leagues

MONTREAL - The American Hockey League could be in for a banner year if the NHL locks out its players.

AHL president Dave Andrews isn't praying for the big league to shut its doors, but he knows it would mean an influx of talented players, a surge in attendance and greater media attention for ''whatever period of time we are the top league in North America.''

It happened during the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 campaign, when young stars like Jason Spezza, Eric Staal, Michael Cammalleri, Patrice Bergeron and Dustin Brown were shipped to their clubs' AHL affiliates for the season.

The league had record attendance that topped seven million spectators for the season, including playoffs.

''I wouldn't say we're eagerly anticipating a work stoppage,'' Andrews said this week. ''The best interests of the sport are served by the NHL playing.

''But if it comes to that, we will enjoy significantly greater media coverage in North America and Europe and more television exposure in Canada and the United States. It creates revenue opportunities we don't normally experience.''

One of the few things the NHL and the NHL Players Association agreed on this week was a mechanism for shipping players to the AHL in case of a lockout.

Players who are subject to clearing waivers and who are waived before the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at midnight Saturday can be assigned to the AHL and then can return without re-entry waivers if they are recalled three days before play resumes.

That includes those on two-way contracts, and already there has been a flood of players assigned to the AHL.

What remains to be seen is how many young stars who are on entry level contracts and don't need to be waived are sent down to keep them busy for however long a lockout lasts.

The Oklahoma City Barons would certainly get a boost if the Edmonton Oilers assign 2011 top draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and 2010 first pick Taylor Hall to them.

It will be up to clubs to decide if spending time in the AHL would be worth it some of those eligible—like Edmonton's Jordan Eberle, Carolina's Jeff Skinner or New Jersey's Adam Henrique—who seem to be well-established in the NHL.

Decisions would need to be made on players like Boston's Tyler Seguin, Florida's Erik Gudbranson, Ottawa defenceman Jared Cowen, Toronto's Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, Montreal's Louis Leblanc and Vancouver's Zack Kassian.

Columbus has already sent 20-year-old forward prospect Ryan Johansen, the fourth overall pick in 2010, to its AHL team.

Andrews said playing in the AHL was good for some young players during the last lockout, as they got an extra year of development while playing on top lines and seeing power play and penalty killing duties instead of playing reduced roles in the NHL.

''I'd say it did a lot for their confidence and helped them when they returned to the NHL the following season,'' he said.

It could be a headache for AHL coaches and general managers who start the season with a set roster and then lose several of their top players when the lockout is resolved. The 2004-05 lockout lasted the entire season, but there's no knowing how long a new one might go.

Junior leagues should also benefit. Those few players who jump directly from junior to the NHL each year will likely stay with their junior clubs. It happened last time, when top talent like Ryan Getzlaf, Shea Weber and Mike Richards spent an extra season in junior.

This time, it could be players like Winnipeg Jets prospect Mark Scheifele or the Florida Panthers' Jonathan Huberdeau who do extra time in junior. Both are 19 years old.

Players drafted in June who may have been lost to their junior clubs by going straight to the NHL include Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray, who was the second overall pick by Columbus, Sarnia Sting forward Alex Galchenyuk, taken third overall by Montreal, or Boston Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton of the Niagara IceDogs.

Nail Yakupov, Edmonton's first-overall pick in June, has not said if he will stay with Galchenyuk in Sarnia or seek a job in the KHL if there is a lockout.

Most junior clubs are also wary of a lockout, as they could build a team around a star only to see him leave in mid-season if the work stoppage is resolved.

Normally, a player who is sent back to his junior club must stay there the rest of the season. But the NHL reportedly reached agreement with the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the three major junior leagues, to allow players to go to the NHL when the lockout ends.

Attendance at junior games during the 2004-05 lockout was better than average, but not exceptional even with Sidney Crosby filling rinks with Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The lockout did help produce an exceptional Canadian team for the World Junior Championship, however. A squad that included Crosby, Bergeron, Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook and Dion Phaneuf won gold.

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