The 2020-21 AHL season has even more variables than the NHL's.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions,” Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning said Friday about what the AHL might look like for the 2020-21 season. The NHL’s primary development league stopped, like the rest of the sports world, in mid-March.
Unlike much of the sports world, they never came back. And when they’ll come back is very much in the air.
After speaking with a handful of people around the NHL and AHL, here are some big issues to consider about how the 2020-21 AHL season might look … if it happens at all:
The linchpin to the whole discussion from the Vancouver Canucks’ perspective — and that of the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers — is how does the border affect call-ups?
Those three Canadian teams have American-based AHL clubs; the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets all have Canadian-based AHL teams that play in arenas not far from their NHL bases (in Winnipeg’s case, it’s the same rink).
“We can’t call guys up and then have them quarantine,” Benning pointed out about the Canucks’ situation with the Utica Comets, their New York-based AHL affiliate.
You call up players from the AHL because you intend to put them into the lineup right away. If Canada’s quarantine requirement remains in effect, cross-border call-ups seem unworkable.
More than half the teams in the AHL are owned by their NHL clubs. The Comets are not one of those.
Canucks Sports and Entertainment owns the franchise, but the actual team is owned by Mohawk Valley Garden Inc., which also owns the arena the Comets play in and has former NHLer Robert Esche as its president.
The original licensing deal saw Mohawk pay the Canucks about US$1 million per season. The Canucks paid most of the players — the Comets contract a number of players themselves — as well as the coaches and training staff.
The current figure paid to the Canucks is unknown.
The Comets have been a smash hit with their fans and sell plenty of tickets. If the Comets can’t play in front of fans in Utica, whether that’s because they’ve been relocated to Canada or because of New York’s restrictions against gatherings of more than 50 people, its playing games will come with a big financial cost.
The bottom line is going to be a big driver in the AHL’s decision-making. The teams that are owned directly by NHL teams will have a different equation to consider than clubs, like the Comets, which have independent ownership.
When the Canucks chose Utica as their AHL base before the 2013-14 season, it made a lot of sense. There were about a dozen other teams within a couple hours’ bus ride.
A handful of those teams have since moved away, mostly to California.
If the Comets, as well as the Stockton Flames (Calgary’s affiliate) and the Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton’s affiliate), have to move to Canada to operate as a Canadian division for the 2020-21 season — similar to what’s been mooted for the NHL teams — it’s hard to imagine them being based in the same cities as their NHL parents, simply because of cost: even limiting cross-country plane flights still means many nights in hotel rooms and many days paying out per diems (AHLers get about $75 per day).
One supposes you could try running AHL/NHL doubleheader scheduling, where the AHLers play earlier on the same day as the NHLers, but that still means adding 30 people or so, between players and staff, to charter flights.
And that would be a tight squeeze, given NHL clubs already travel with at least that many people and Air Canada Jetz, which five of the seven Canadian teams use for their charter flights — Ottawa and Winnipeg are the outliers — can only accommodate 58 people on their business-class-only Airbus A319 airplanes.
Might the three relocated squads find themselves in Ontario then?
The NHL insists they’re still hopeful of restarting the season Jan. 1. That seems hard to fathom, both because every jurisdiction in North America is seeing a continuing surge in COVID-19 cases, a surge no one expects to slow down before 2021 arrives, and because that entails running a training camp over Christmas.
After such a hard year, is asking players to make a move at such a family-focused time of year really fair?
Either way, it’s pretty much a lock the AHL won’t start until after the NHL does. That’s how it’s been in the past. Logic alone suggests no start before February at the earliest.
And if the start is pushed back any longer, at what point will the AHL’s season be too short for it not even to be worth running? If you were to skip this whole season, you would at least be able to reset the annual schedule in fall 2021, assuming there’s a vaccine and life returns to normal.
Player fitness and development
Running a proper AHL season isn’t just about keeping the players who might be called up fresh, it’s also about developing your prospects.
It’s much cheaper to develop your own players than to sign free agents, especially if you can develop a player who can play on your top two forward lines. So you can understand why NHL teams will want to have their prospects playing.
And if there’s no AHL season, what would you do with the players you keep around as a taxi squad?
That’s a lot of practice time without games.
NOTE: Before the Pacific Division launched in 2015-16, the only team in the AHL west of Texas was the Abbotsford Heat, the Flames’ B.C.-based affiliate from 2009 to ’14. Because the Heat had to spend so much time flying, they missed out on about 75 practice days per season.