The prospect of the AHL putting teams on the west coast has long been talked about, and it appears the creation of a Pacific division has been all but settled.
On Sunday, Kevin Oklobzija of the Democrat and Chronicle reported there will officially be five teams playing next season out of California in order to be closer to their NHL affiliates. In addition, there are two other clubs looking at moving west.
Though the announcement has yet to be made official by the AHL, the five teams moving will be the Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles Kings), Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers), Worcester Sharks (San Jose Sharks), Norfolk Admirals (Anaheim Ducks), and Adirondack Flames (Calgary Flames). In addition, both Arizona affiliate Portland and Colorado affiliate Lake Erie are looking into joining the newly minted western teams.
The move itself doesn't come as much of a surprise, as the interest in moving to the west coast was one of the worst kept secrets in hockey. Today’s hockey climate, and the spread between some NHL clubs and their affiliates, makes for increased travel when a player is called up and doesn’t allow organizations to keep an eye on what’s happening on the farm. There have also been hints that pointed in the direction of western migration.
In December, Oklahoma City and the Edmonton Oilers announced the Barons would cease operations following this season. The Calgary Flames are working to purchase the ECHL Stockton Thunder and have filed a trademark on the name Stockton Grizzlies. The Anaheim Ducks bought their farm club, the Admirals. A week ago, the Mercury News’ Mark Purdy learned the Sharks were moving their AHL club to their own building, the SAP Center. All of these were signs that a move west was imminent.
But the move is not without its downfalls. Any hockey fan that has seen his or her hometown team relocate has to feel bad for those in Glens Falls, N.Y. The Adirondack region has lost AHL teams in consecutive years now, learning last season that the then-Adirondack Phantoms were moving to Lehigh Valley for 2014-15, and now losing the Adirondack Flames to Stockton. But, in the name of prospect development, Calgary obviously believes the team is better suited to play in the newly formed division.
Also interesting to note is that the Vancouver Canucks, the NHL’s westernmost team, has its affiliate in Utica, N.Y. Over their history, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate has been located in Hamilton, Syracuse, Winnipeg, Chicago, and, now, Utica, making for one of the lengthiest commutes for players being sent between the NHL and AHL. It would have made sense if they were to have moved their team west. Surprisingly, the team reportedly isn’t interested in moving the Comets at this time.
One of the odder developments about the new division, however, is that they may play primarily against each other. Oklobzija stated the relocated franchises might have a reduced schedule, in the range of 60 to 66 games, while other teams in the league play upwards of 70. This would effectively allow for proper travel time while not lengthening the season, but the costs may hinder travel between the long-standing east coast divisions and the new, yet to be named division.
The kinks still need to be worked out, and the specifics will begin to come out once the league comes to a firm conclusion on how the new division will operate. The only thing for certain at this point is that in 2015-16, the AHL will be making itself at home to the west coast.