With a 67P (30G, 37A) in just 51 games, Mike Hoffman is destroying the AHL this season. Only Travis Morin of the Texas Stars--the Dallas Stars' affiliate--has more points than Hoffman this season. But Morin is a seeming career AHL player in the vein of former Senators Corey Locke, Ryan Keller, and Ryan Potulny. Morin is 30, while Hoffman is just 24.
This season marks Hoffman's fourth in the AHL with Binghamton. He joined the team for the 2010-11 season, and by the 2012-13 season, was their leading scorer, eventually getting called up to play with the Ottawa Senators, but only lasting three games before re-breaking his collarbone, having just recovered from an earlier break in the AHL. He recorded no points in his NHL appearances that season, nor any in his one game the previous season.
Still, Binghamton played three games last week, two wins and a loss, and in those three games, Hoffman had 3G and 1A, recording at least a point in each game. He has outplayed the recently-demoted Stephane Da Costa, which is no slight to Da Costa, who is also playing well. But Hoffman is playing too well to ignore.
The Senators would desperately like to stabilize their forward lines and find some chemistry besides the outstanding first line of Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan. Mika Zibanejad has played well with Cory Conacher, and it's possible the team envisions Hoffman as the third man on that line, leaving themselves open to trading for another winger alongside center Jason Spezza and looming UFA Milan Michalek.
Or it's possible they'll give Hoffman, who is creating offense all over the place in Binghamton, a shot alongside Spezza and Michalek. The lines are up in the air. But will Hoffman's AHL success translate to the NHL in a top-six role, even playing alongside centers as talented as Spezza or Zibanejad?
Unfortunately, it doesn't look that way.
The AHL only keeps online records of league-leading scorers back to the 2005-06 season, or at least, only keeps those statistics readily available for anyone not inclined to do a more thorough search, but reading through the list is not terribly encouraging--there are precious few recognizable NHL players on it.
Of course, by itself, that doesn't mean too much. There are plenty of circumstances that must be taken into account when using an end-of-season top scorer's list to try and judge player performance. For instance, top junior talent usually makes the NHL right out of the draft, and those that don't are usually returned directly to their junior teams. Transfer rules based on age further complicate matters. We often see players get returned to their junior leagues and excel--their teams would like them in the AHL, but transfer rules prevent that from happening. Instead, the player finishes junior and then makes the leap right to the NHL. In addition, it's rare for a young player who is excelling in the AHL to spend the entire year down there.
Erik Karlsson did a stint in the AHL, after all, and he recorded 11 assists in 12 games. Not good enough to make the AHL's end-of-year leaderboard, but his season that year turned out pretty decently, and he's continued to improve. Consider how Zibanejad started the year in the AHL. It didn't last (it was probably never going to last) but in six games, Zibanejad had two goals and five assists--better than a point per game pace. Zibanejad would have likely finished the year among the AHL's top scorers, but seven points is a far cry from Hoffman's 67... because Zibanejad has spent most of the season in the NHL, where he is doing just fine. So, it's possible we don't see familiar NHL names among AHL top scorers because they simply don't last long enough in the league to wind up there.
In truth, there's no real compelling evidence for us to gauge how Hoffman will perform in the NHL. It's one of those things that we won't know until we know it. There's no definitive correlation or causation between AHL performance and NHL performance, and Hoffman's NHL resume is far too small of a sample to make any kind of judgement on.
Is Hoffman being showcased for a trade? Probably not. It's far more likely that the Senators are looking to stabilize their lines from within before pulling the trigger on a trade--if there's one thing teams are always looking for, it's scoring forwards. And that's what Hoffman has shown himself to be, at least at the AHL level.
Unfortunately for us and for the organization, expectations of how he'll do with Ottawa have to be tempered. Despite his pleasing numbers and pleasing play, Hoffman--for now--remains largely an unknown factor, but one that could have a noticeable impact on the team's future. It will be very interesting to see how he approaches this latest opportunity.