The dominoes are slowly falling but when the dust settles, the American Hockey League landscape could be something more resembling Jenga. Where the pieces or in this case the teams, fit and or fall, is anyone’s guess. First it was the announcement that the Oklahoma City Barons will cease operations at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season. Now there’s news, the Norfolk Admirals will raise anchor and change coasts.
While it’s hardly news that there will be an AHL Pacific Division, come 2015, this chain reaction could have reverberations far beyond Oklahoma City, Norfolk, Manchester, Worcester, Glens Falls, etc. Not to be an alarmist or create mass speculation but if you think your team is safe, you may want to think again. If the initial reports are true, that Edmonton, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles and possibly Calgary, are interested in forming an AHL Pacific, along with perhaps a few other clubs, this could create a free-for-all around this league.
There are a lot of politics and varying philosophies that go into what an NHL club values in its developmental operations at the AHL level. If you’re a local independent owner, you’re more likely to be about ticket sales and winning. Whereas an NHL owned club may be looking to have that closer proximity to its fans and a weigh station for quick call-ups.
Such is the trend and the clash of ideologies with the NHL and AHL. If you’re primarily a Northeast based league, from a cost and travel perspective, it makes sense to have “centralized” markets, wherein Adirondack and Utica are close to Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester, etc. or Portland, Worcester and Manchester are close to each other, along with Providence, Springfield, Hartford and Bridgeport, it works. Conversely, if you’re Calgary, Vancouver, Arizona, San Jose and Los Angeles and you want to call up/send down your players at the drop of a hat, it’s just not happening. Then again, the trade-off is if your team is constantly flying around, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for practice.
Being in Albany, I have seen the good and bad of this. In 2010, the Carolina Hurricanes decided they’d rather have their AHL team closer to Raleigh and hence bought the Albany River Rats and moved them to Charlotte. Although the next closest club was 323 miles away in Norfolk and the team would spend most of the time flying around the country, they opted to have the affiliate closer to the parent club.
Luckily for Albany, the New Jersey Devils, who’d previously had their affiliate based in Albany from 1993-2006, decided they still loved the Capital District and after their lease agreement ended with Lowell, came back. Those connections also made sense for New Jersey, having a familiar fan base and market and a closer stop to and from Newark. Plus, along with the arena upgrades, Albany also had the advantage of being in close proximity to multiple AHL cities.
This has also applied with Philadelphia shifting from Glens Falls (a temporary arrangement to begin with) to Lehigh Valley, Buffalo moving its farm club from Portland, back to Rochester and to some extent, even Minnesota taking its team from Houston to Iowa. It won’t end there either, along with the West Coast clubs, the Winnipeg Jets are slated to uproot the St. John’s IceCaps to Thunder Bay, Ontario. With the New York Islanders moving to Brooklyn, it could be possible that the Sound Tigers move to Long Island.
Which leads me to the potential chain reaction. St. John’s (5,983), Manchester (5,548) and to some extent Norfolk (4,151) are going to lose their teams, through no fault of their own. No, St. John’s and Norfolk aren’t in the best spots travel wise but they have proven to be good at the gate. Unfortunately, where NHL proximity comes into play, now that the Lightning are gone, no team is hooking up down south with Norfolk, Boston can only supply one New England team with its prospects and that’s Providence and it could be difficult for St. John’s to find a dance partner, unless the NHL expands to Quebec.
So, you’d better believe that some of these cities are going to be in a dog fight for another AHL franchise. Does Springfield survive by virtue of the league offices being there or does Columbus shift their prospects to Manchester or even Worcester? If the Sound Tigers head to the Island, do the Rangers or even Devils slide into Bridgeport or Hartford? How does this arrangement line up for an independently owned team like the Portland Pirates? Do they find another dance partner or do they get bought out by Arizona or does Arizona even want to own their own AHL club and move it out West? Where do potential cities with NHL ownership turn?
Of course I haven’t even gotten into what this means for the makeup of the league in each conference. How does the Pacific Division line up and fill out a schedule? The way the AHL functions now, if you’re going to have teams play 14-16 times a season, you may have the propensity to create more redundancy than rivalry. Speaking from experience, the recent “rivalry” between the Adirondack Phantoms and Albany Devils, paled in comparison to the battles between the Adirondack Red Wings and Albany River Rats of the 1990’s. Different era.
Plus, if you’re moving potentially three or four teams out West, do teams like Utica, Rochester, Hamilton, Toronto or Charlotte, come back to the Eastern Conference?
It’s a lot to ponder, even if only a portion of it happens. Should make for some interesting mid-season meetings in Utica. Stay tuned.