With the Arizona Coyotes buying the Springfield Falcons and looking to move them to Tucson, pending AHL approval, this would mean that the western migration of the AHL would reach six teams. In the move, expect a Central Division team to move to the Eastern Conference, leaving the six western teams and two Texas-based teams to play in the Pacific Division with uneven schedules.
In doing this, the AHL will sever their relationship with the city of Springfield, which has been continuous since 1954 and includes previous stints in the AHL in the ‘30s and ‘40s. There can be a debate on the modernization of the AHL and why it’s a travesty to turn their back on a city that has been part of the AHL landscape for so long, but hockey is a business and Falcons owner Charlie Pompea said as much when he told the Springfield Republican they didn’t sell enough tickets throughout the season.
“I really wanted this to work,” Pompea told Ron Chimelis. “We needed, at the very least, an average of 4,000 fans per game. We didn’t come close. I love the fans we had, and I will always be grateful to them. I’m very sad and unhappy, but I want it known I don’t have any gripes. I just got to the point where I didn’t think the city could support a pro hockey team.”
Thus, another northeastern team is moving westward and the future of the area is in doubt. Whether or not Springfield follows the example of Worcester and has someone to come in to try and get an ECHL expansion in the MassMutual Center remains to be seen.
The focus now turns to the Pacific Division and the move to Tucson. Moreover, what will happen now with six teams being in a spot to play less games than the rest of the league? Surely, you have to believe that making a 76-game schedule for these teams has to be coming for the 2016-17 season, right? Not according to what AHL CEO Dave Andrews told the media this past All-Star Classic weekend during his State of the League address.
Citing the alternative of the five California teams starting their own league, the AHL decided to go ahead and settle on the 68-game schedule, despite admitting it’s not the best situation to be in. Andrews admitted that getting to 70 games could do some work, but who knows if teams would agree with that, especially with the fact that San Diego and Ontario are in the top-five for attendance this season in a 34-game home schedule.
That being said, this schedule is bush-league. Considering the treatment that the Pacific Division teams are getting opposed to the rest of the league, you may as well have let them had their own league and not have a farce of a schedule that does negatively affect the rest of the league. The Charlotte Checkers can clearly attest to that, as due to the points-percentage playoff format for the last transfer spot, they were left out of the playoffs despite having seven more points that the San Jose Barracuda. Not to say that the Barracuda couldn’t have made up those seven points in eight more games, but it must still leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the Checkers regardless.
Currently, the Pacific Division has two teams (San Antonio and Cedar Park, Texas) that have to play a full 76-game season while their divisional counterparts have eight less games. Those games will also come into play when it comes to the playoffs and which teams will have fresher legs going to their series. It’s not a good look for the AHL, which is the top developmental league in North America, to have five (six with Tucson’s inclusion) playing eight less games than the rest of the league because those NHL teams that bought in want to have something cost-effective for their AHL squads. Forget the fact they put millions of dollars into the moves themselves, millions into helping their affiliates’ arenas get up to AHL standard, millions into rebranding– they still need some break in the travel costs. While that excuse may work for one or two years– they can’t be raking in money from the revenue they’re making off these teams forever while still crying poor when it comes to traveling expenses.
As it stands, the Vancouver Canucks are the only NHL team that doesn’t have a western counterpart for their AHL affiliate and it is unknown if they want to move out of Utica, where the competition for their prospects have been top notch and led them to the playoffs in two straight seasons, coming off a trip to the Calder Cup Finals last season. If the Canucks were to move their squad to some market out west, could there be a schedule change then? One could only hope, but at least that would give them an entire seven-team division to deal with and not have the Texas teams worry about so much math when playing within their division.
It would easily fix the playoff structure, too, as you would take the top four teams in their division and blow off the wild card spots they have now. By the time the teams who play 68-games face the rest of the league, they all would have gone through long playoff battles– which evens the playing field out just a bit.
At the end of the day, the move to Tucson is another step in the AHL’s progression in terms of the league finally spreading out across North America and leave a bigger imprint on the minor league hockey landscape. However, if they do not figure out how to make the schedule streamlined somehow, someway– it’s going to be hard for some to take what’s supposed to be the last step before the NHL seriously when you have teams playing less games in a division than others.