How does the AHL cancellation affect the NHL season going forward?

The AHL ending its 2019-20 doesn't mean the NHL plans to follow suit. It could impact the way NHL teams construct their rosters going forward, however.
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Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

The American Hockey League announced Monday morning its decision to cancel the rest of the 2019-20 regular season and playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As league president Dave Andrews said in a statement, the resumption “is not feasible in light of current conditions” and the AHL will turn its focus toward preparing for the 2020-21 campaign. The league’s current standings and stats “are considered final and official” and will determine the 2019-20 season awards.

Season-resumption scenarios would be complicated for any pro circuit, but the minor leagues depend more on gate revenue than the top pro leagues that can make back some money from TV broadcasts, so it wasn’t a massive surprise to learn of the AHL’s cancellation. The next question to ask, of course, is what the news means for the AHL’s parent league: the NHL.

It’s natural to wonder if seeing the second-biggest pro hockey league in North America shutter its doors is a harbinger of what to expect from the NHL, but the comparison is more likely apples to oranges. The NHL has far more resources at its disposal than the AHL and, under return-to-play scenarios, can ease back into competition by broadcasting the games on national TV. Given the ratings we’ve already seen for events such as the NFL draft, there’s an excellent chance the NHL’s empty-arena games would draw huge national audiences in Canada and the U.S. upon returning. In an email to The Hockey News Monday morning, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the league “is still full engaged in return to play scenarios.”

So what happens to players on AHL rosters who might have been under consideration for recalls to the NHL? Suddenly, NHL teams playing in the stretch run would have to worry about recalling farmhands who might not be in game shape, as they will have played no hockey since March. How, then, could they be expected to parachute into NHL games? Players can still keep themselves in shape independently, of course, but there’s no replicating competitive pro game action. Might we then see expanded NHL rosters carrying more AHLers who can skate daily with their parent clubs once play resumes?

It does not appear any exceptional rules will be made, as they just won't be necessary. As Daly explained via email, the conditions are “not really any different than a normal year when expanded rosters are permitted after the trade deadline. Just more availability as the AHL is officially done playing.”

Typically, after the trade deadline, NHL teams are allowed four regular (non-emergency) recalls from the AHL until their affiliated AHL clubs’ seasons finish. After that point, a team can recall any number of players. The 23-player roster limit also isn't enforced after the trade deadline. In other words, with the AHL season over, the access to the farm club would already be unlimited, so no extra rules have to be put in place.

So the only change we might end up seeing as a result of the AHL shutdown is NHL teams carrying bigger rosters than normal, keeping their farmhands close to keep them in shape. Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, for instance, said Monday the team has already had discussions internally about bigger rosters, because the team "will need extra bodies, as it will be a training-camp format and there will also be a risk with injuries."

Other than that, it’s status quo for the parent league. If we’re looking for hints as to how the NHL will proceed, other top pro sports leagues such as the NBA are the templates to which we should pay the closest attention.

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