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The Important Relationship of the AHL and NHL

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Schmitt/Cal Sports Media

With the NHL season officially starting in five days, teams are finalizing their rosters for opening night. If you have followed your team at all throughout the preseason, you know that their training camp started with more than 50 players among all the positions, but each team must start the season with no more than 23 players on their active roster. But what happens with the 30 or so players who don’t make the active roster? This is where the American Hockey League comes in.

What is the AHL?

If you look back at some of the statistics of your favorite NHL players before they played in the NHL, chances are you will see some stats from their time in the American Hockey League. For example, Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin, Calder Trophy winner Mortiz Seider, and other established players like Mikko Rantanen and Jacob Markstrom all spent time in the AHL before becoming stars in the NHL.

Graphic courtesy of

The AHL is a professional hockey league that acts as the primary development league for the NHL. If an NHL team has an affiliate AHL team, they send their signed players who don’t make the active NHL roster to that team. If a team doesn’t have an assigned affiliate AHL team, they can send their signed players to a pick of any of the AHL teams for development. In more simple terms, the AHL is a league for professional players who don’t make the official NHL roster.

There aren’t nearly as many differences between the two leagues as people think, as both the AHL and NHL are considered professional hockey leagues. One of the main differences is that the AHL teams have 72 regular season games opposed to the NHL’s 82. The AHL also has its own playoffs after the end of the regular season called the Calder Cup Playoffs; the Calder Cup being the AHL’s version of the Stanley Cup.

Can AHL players ever play in the NHL?

The simple answer is yes, but this is where things get a little tricky. The NHL can call up its signed players from its AHL team at any time throughout the regular season to fill in roster spots due to injuries or trades, but it depends on the particular player’s contract type. The NHL team can also send the player back down to the AHL at any time. It is important to note that players in the AHL who are signed under their NHL team are bound by the terms of the NHL team, not the AHL.

Sometimes, players can be called up from the AHL early in the season and can end up staying in the NHL for the remainder of the season if they are needed or show that they are a vital asset to the team.

There are two main NHL contracts for players who are seeing time in both the AHL and the NHL, and the type of contract a player receives can have big implications for a player’s paycheck.

Type of contracts

One-Way NHL Contract

If a player signs a one-way contract with an NHL team, that means that that player is making the same amount of money whether they are playing on their AHL team or are seeing time in the NHL. They are subject to the NHL’s salary limitations as the NHL has cap salary hits, meaning each team is limited to how much money they can spend on their players’ salaries. They are paid by the NHL team and must follow whatever their NHL team’s contract states.

Two-Way NHL Contract

If a player signs a two-way NHL contract, that means that they are subject to being paid different amounts when playing in the different leagues. They must follow the contract terms for the team that they are playing on at that point in time.

AHL Contract

If a player is signed only to their AHL team and is not under an NHL contract, they must first sign an NHL contract if they want to see time in the NHL, as they cannot be called up under an AHL-only contract.

Photo courtesy of Zak Krill/

If you haven’t followed the AHL before this season, I highly recommend that you take a look into your favorite team’s affiliate AHL team. These games are usually very exciting, fast-paced, and energetic, as the players are eager to prove themselves in order to see time on their NHL team Contrary to what some fans think, the AHL is still professional hockey, and most of the players you see on these teams are actually under contract with their NHL team, so they are still professional players, they just play in a different league.

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