Reid Boucher’s dominant season raises a question: when does a player become a career AHLer?

Pass it to Bulis

When is a prospect not a prospect?

This isn’t a riddle, like “when is a door not a door,” but a legitimate question. At what point is a player in a team’s organization no longer considered a prospect? In other words, when do you decide that a player no longer has an NHL future?

To wit, Reid Boucher currently leads the AHL in both goals and points. He has a whopping 20 goals and 37 points in just 26 games with the Utica Comets, on-pace to be the first AHL player to reach 50 goals in a decade. It hasn’t been done since Alexandre Giroux scored 50 goals for the Hershey Bears in the 2009-10 season.

That has some corners of Canuckdom arguing that he has earned a call-up to the Canucks. Most of the time, when a player tears up a lesser league like that, he earns a promotion to a better league. It’s not like Boucher is old, either: he’s just 26. 

There are a few counter-arguments available. After all, this is a team that somehow can’t find a spot in the lineup for Sven Baertschi, as Jim Benning prizes “hard skill” over “soft skill,” so how could they find room for Boucher?

Likewise, the presence of an NHL-caliber playmaker in the Utica Comets lineup should put Boucher’s scoring in perspective: without Baertschi, would Boucher be so dominant?

The biggest argument against Boucher getting a call-up, however, is that he’s already had plenty of NHL opportunity and never carpe’d that particular diem. Boucher has played 133 NHL games, scoring 20 goals and 42 points in his NHL career.

For Boucher, the issue was less about his points, but about the other elements of his game that were lacking. Boucher has never been the fleetest of foot, so the speed of the NHL game can be a problem and he’s not particularly strong defensively either, or at least, he hasn’t been at the NHL level. As a result, it’s been tough for coaches to trust him with significant minutes, which limits his ability to put up points.

Perhaps a coach could find a specialized role for him — a sheltered fourth-line forward with power play time to take advantage of his legitimately elite shot — but there are only so many roster spots available and it’s tough to justify using one of those spots in that fashion.

Still, players develop and find ways to improve on their weaknesses. Those that have watched Boucher in the AHL this season have noted his strength on the puck. He’s a regular on the penalty kill with the Comets, where he’s aggressive, with a good stick to generate takeaways — two of his 20 goals this season have come shorthanded.

So, does Boucher deserve another chance?

Perhaps, but to answer that we might also want to answer another question: who is Alexandre Giroux?

I mentioned Giroux earlier, as the last person to score 50 goals in the AHL. Giroux still plays professionally, albeit in the LNAH, a low-level Quebec league known more for its reputation for fighting and dirty play than as a haven for 50-goal scorers. Giroux was second in the LNAH in points per game last season at the age of 37.

Giroux has fantastic offensive instincts and always knows where to go on the ice in the offensive zone. He also has a fantastic shot that can beat a lot of goaltenders cleanly. At least, both of those things are true in the AHL, where he amassed 368 goals in 771 games, good for 7th all-time in the AHL record books.

It’s instructive to look at where Giroux was in his career at the same age as Boucher. The season before he turned 26, Giroux racked up 42 goals and 70 points in 67 games for the Hershey Bears, finishing second in the AHL in goalscoring. In a 9-game call-up to the Washington Capitals, Giroux had 4 points in 9 games — not too shabby.

And yet, at 26, Giroux didn’t get a single NHL game. He signed with the Atlanta Thrashers, likely hoping to get an NHL shot, but instead was stuck in the AHL and got traded back to the Capitals. Between the two AHL teams he had another strong season, totalling 33 goals and 68 points in 68 games, but it was clear that neither team saw him as a prospect.

The following two seasons, Giroux scored a total of 110 goals in 138 regular season AHL games, and another 29 goals in 43 playoff games, truly eye-popping numbers. He got a couple call-ups to the Capitals, but could never stick. He was too good for the AHL and not good enough for the NHL.

Why? Scouting reports from the time point to his sluggish skating, his poor positional play on defence, and his lack of commitment away from the puck. They were all things he could get away with at the AHL level, but became glaring weaknesses in the NHL.

Is Boucher like Giroux, or other AHL stars that could never quite break through in the NHL like Darren Haydar and Jason Krog? At this point, it’s hard to argue against it.

At 26, Boucher is no longer a prospect. Work on aging curves in the NHL has suggested that the peak for NHL players is from 22-25. At 26, there’s only so much development that a player can do and a lot of their off-season training goes into maintaining their strength, conditioning, and skill, as opposed to taking big strides forward.

Perhaps Boucher can take some inspiration from Krog, who did manage to find a place in the NHL for a couple seasons, playing 67 and 80 games with the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He was 27 when he joined the Ducks. After those two seasons, however, Krog wound up in Europe for a couple years before returning to the AHL.

It took signing with a new organization for Krog to get an NHL shot. It’s likely it would take the same thing for Boucher to get another opportunity in the NHL.