With the NHL’s return next week, one question left to be answered was how its top minor league would return alongside it. We got some of that answer yesterday, as three of the 28 teams opted not to play this season: the Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville’s affiliate), the Springfield Thunderbirds (St. Louis), and the Charlotte Checkers (Florida). The league will continue with the other 28 franchises in rearranged divisions. The three teams that opted not to play are independently owned, as are eight other AHL teams, and merely have an affiliation agreement with NHL organizations. The other 20 AHL teams are owned directly by an NHL franchise.
While it would be heartening to see these three teams opt out of this season simply because the whole “it’s really not safe” thing that professional leagues have been ignoring while putting their fingers in their ears, as always it’s a financial thing. All three owners cited the cost of travel and safety precautions being too prohibitive for teams that depend almost solely on gate revenue and the connected income streams to survive.
“Right now, we’d be able to have 10 fans at the game watching our teams play,” Admirals President Jon Greenberg said, “and that’s really no way to run a business.”
Checkers owner Michael Kahn sounded a similar note. “There are several travel, safety and player supply challenges to consider. Those, coupled with the increasing number of new (COVID-19) cases in our area, make it very unlikely that we will be able to host fans at our games in the near future.”
That leaves open a question of what exactly the Predators, Blues, and Panthers will do with their players not quite ready for the NHL roster. However, with the rules set for 2020-2021’s pandemic season, that’s less of a concern. NHL teams will be carrying a four to six-player taxi squad along with their normal 23, meaning that most if not all the players that would have gotten a look with the NHL team and/or done the NHL-AHL shuffle throughout the season will be practicing and traveling with the NHL team anyway. Secondly, with those players stripped from the AHL teams that are playing, the Preds, Blues, and Panthers can probably loan out anyone else they’re interested in getting minor league time to other AHL teams or their affiliated ECHL teams (some players have already played in the ECHL this season).
As far as how the AHL season will go, that’s still not announced. What we do know is that there are some weird-looking divisions:
Normally, the AHL has four divisions, but is clearly going to run into the same problems the NHL has with cross-border travel. So if this season is going to be intra-division exclusive, Hartford, Bridgeport, and Providence will eventually devolve into a Battle Royale sequel after 10-12 games, and the Canadian division with just four teams won’t be far behind, in what is already a cantankerous league to begin with. Every AHL team has a few guys dying to get noticed by coaches who can’t do it by, y’know, playing with the puck, so letting loose these ravenous hounds on the same opponents over and over is quite the mix.
To cut down on costs, probably, some teams like the Chicago Wolves will be playing their games straight out of their practice facility as well.
The AHL might also have an added wrinkle in that with junior hockey in Canada looking unlikely to play this year, the rule barring Canadians under the age of 20 from the AHL might be lifted to get those drafted players some time as well. Of course, that means some genuine prospects might be thrown into fertilizer-and-aluminum mixture. The schedule should be announced in the coming days, as the league kicks off in exactly a month.