In baseball, there is a term for a player who dominates in the high minor leagues (AAA ball) but cannot quite make a mark when given a chance in the big leagues. They're called 4A or AAAA, an imaginary level just below the big time. It's starting to look like Chris Bourque (Ray's son) may be one of hockey's AAAA players. He just finished his fifth full season in the AHL by winning the Calder Cup Championship with the Hershey Bears. On top of this he was awarded the Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP after he scored 27 points (7+20) in 21 games. He tallied 70 points in 49 regular season games. Bourque has played 33 NHL games in his career and has produced a mere one goal and three helpers. His biggest hinderance would appear to be his stature of 5'8". Over the years there have been many AAAA hockey players and more often than not, they have lacked the size that most GM's feel is necessary to play in the NHL.
5'9", 170 lb Haydar has played 23 NHL games since 2002, producing a goal and seven assists with three different franchises. He has 600 AHL points in 562 games, topping out at 122 points in 06/07. Haydar is now 30 years old and hopes his five minutes of ice-time in one game with the Avalanche this season won't be his last.
The third highest scorer in AHL history with 1048 points did not lack in size at 6ft, 190 but he just never seemed to get a chance to shine in the NHL. Drafted in the 3rd round by Detroit in 1979, Gage actually scored 19 points in 31 games for the Wings in 81/82 but played only 21 additional NHL games before he hung 'em up in 95/96. Gage had AHL seasons of 60, 45,42, 42, and three 40 goal years but his 9 goals in 81/82 was his top NHL year.
"Gabby" is one of those small players that actually did get somewhat of a shot in the 1970's, playing 141 NHL games. He managed to produce a 10 and an 11 goal season with the Leafs but truly excelled in the minors. Six different times he topped 100 points in the high minors, and overall he scored over 1300 points in just over 1000 games in the CHL, AHL and IHL.
At 6'2", 205 lbs, Maltais was far from small yet he fits perfectly the description of a AAAA player. He played one near-full season in the NHL with Tampa Bay in 92/93 when he picked up 20 points in 63 games. Five different NHL teams gave him a cup of coffee and he totalled 120 big league games, yet it was in the minors where he excelled. 525 AHL games produced 508 points and 601 IHL games produced 757 points for Maltais. In a six year stretch from 94/95 through 99/00 he scored 319 goals and 626 points for the IHL Chicago Wolves. Over this time he played a grand total of zero NHL games.
Another great AAAA player example, Tim Tookey played 106 NHL games with five different teams and scored a fairly impressive 22 goals and 58 points. He scored 974 points in 824 AHL games including 124 points in 86/87.
Many "original six" era players had long and stellar minor league careers with minimal NHL playing time. Players like Guyle Fielder, Dick Roberge, Mike Nykoluk and others tore up their respective minor leagues but the main reason they never really got the NHL shot was the lack of NHL roster spots, not because they couldn't play at that level. For this reason I don't include them as AAAA players. I had the opportunity to see Jody Gage, Bruce Boudreau and Tim Tookey play many times as an employee of the AHL's Newmarket Saints for four seasons in the late 80's. I recall that at that level these players were the ones that would be scare the opponents, especially mediocre ones like the Maple Leafs farm team. These guys just never could quite get it done at the next level.