Today in the "A": AHL Realignment

Among other things, the AHL sometimes serves as a proving ground of sorts for the NHL. Things like the two ref system and the goalie trapezoid are a couple things that come to mind right off the bat. One that didn't work out was the reduced time OT penalties, but we'll save that for another day.

Since the Atlanta Thrashers faded from memory and have morphed into the new Winnipeg Jets, there has been a lot of talk on the subject of NHL realignment. Yesterday, the AHL stepped up and showed that realignment is not something to fear. No, it is something to be embraced!

First, out with the old:

2010-11 EASTERN CONFERENCE: (regular season standings)

ATLANTIC EAST
PORTLAND WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON
MANCHESTER HERSHEY
CONNECTICUT CHARLOTTE
WORCESTER NORFOLK
PROVIDENCE BINGHAMTON
SPRINGFIELD SYRACUSE
BRIDGEPORT ADIRONDACK
ALBANY

 

2010-11 WESTERN CONFERENCE: (regular season standings:)

NORTH WEST
HAMILTON MILWAUKEE
LAKE ERIE HOUSTON
MANITOBA PEORIA
ABBOTSFORD TEXAS
TORONTO OKLAHOMA CITY
GRAND RAPIDS CHICAGO
ROCHESTER SAN ANTONIO
ROCKFORD

(apologies for my wretched tables)

And, in with the new:

2011-12 EASTERN CONFERENCE:

ATLANTIC NORTHEAST EAST
MANCHESTER ADIRONDACK BINGHAMTON
PORTLAND ALBANY HERSHEY
PROVIDENCE BRIDGEPORT NORFOLK
ST. JOHN'S (formerly Manitoba) CONNECTICUT SYRACUSE
WORCESTER SPRINGFIELD W-B/SCRANTON

 

2011-12 WESTERN CONFERENCE:

NORTH MIDWEST WEST
GRAND RAPIDS CHARLOTTE ABBOTSFORD
HAMILTON CHICAGO HOUSTON
LAKE ERIE MILWAUKEE OKLA. CITY
ROCHESTER PEORIA SAN ANTONIO
TORONTO ROCKFORD TEXAS

 

Now that the realignment has been announced, the distribution of games on the newly reduced 76 game schedule proves very important. The AHL has always been a division-centric entity, meaning that, where possible, to reduce travel costs, the unbalanced schedule has a club playing most of its games within its own division.

If that remains the case, and looking at the new alignment one has to think that it will be, the big winner in the realignment derby has to be the Springfield Falcons. While it was a competitive division in the past, the Atlantic was never the most potent of the four divisions in the "A".

In fact, and things change, based on last year's records, the recent improvements to the Falcons could have them feasting on their divisional rivals. Adirondack, Albany and Bridgeport all struggled in 2010-11. The Hartford Wolfpack were having a tough time of it until a name change and some player movements helped them to brighter things.

Conceivably, the Falcons could play as many as 40 games within the Northeast Division in the upcoming season. On several occasions this summer, the Falcons front office has mentioned attendance and how crucial it is to keep teams like Providence and Worcester on the schedule. These are two clubs that always seem to draw well at the MassMutual Center, and now they are no longer divisional rivals for Springfield.

A second possibility would have the Falcons play each team in the Northeast eight times, rather than ten. This would leave the opportunity to play all other teams in the Eastern Conference four times, which would then leave four games, perhaps against Western Conference teams. Historically, there have been few Western Conference opponents for the Falcons. It turns out that it's not because the Falcons duck the opposition, but in scheduling, it's a two way street and apparently, there are teams from the west that don't want to risk playing the Falcons and drawing poorly as a result.

That may be a moot point here in Scott Howson's "S.O.A.K.", as he and Chris MacFarland have landed some solid free agents. It's impossible to say at the moment, but it's feasible that some of the signees (not to mention rookies) have a great camp and don't even get a visit to Springfield.

Realignment Winners:
Springfield Falcons - One way or another, the Birds will be playing the majority of their games within the Northeast Division. While all clubs hope to improve in the offseason, of the five teams, Columbus has enriched the potential Springfield lineup beyond any diehard fan's dreams. This, while the remaining divisional rivals have tinkered, but not gone the extra mile the way the Jackets have. This could be good...real good.

East Division - I haven't touched on it in this post yet, but the playoff format also has changed. Rather than teams advancing based solely on their divisional status, the AHL will now become more NHL-like and simply invite the top eight clubs in each conference back for the big dance. Perennial front runners Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey should get in. Binghamton will be looking to prove their Calder Cup championship was no fluke. This leaves Norfolk and Syracuse. The Admirals saw playoff competition this past season, while Syracuse (Anaheim) missed out. Next season's playoffs are only about nine months away, and it's possible that the East Division could claim four of the eight Eastern Conference spots.

Realignment Losers:
Charlotte Checkers - As sports fans, we all understand when something major such as realignment comes along, that it makes sense to somebody or in the case of the AHL Board of Governors, a group of somebody's. In 2010-11, the first year Charlotte Checkers did most things right, qualifying for the playoffs and averaging a robust 6312 per game in Charlotte (for you stat buffs, that number is near capacity of the MassMutual Center in Springfield). The Checkers then were "rewarded" not just by being shifted to the more intense Western Conference, but specifically by being placed in the "Midwest" Division. Burn your atlases, damn it! Just slightly more egregious than Columbus being in the "West", but who's sayin'? Recapping, the Checkers who drew well and competed well in their inaugural season in Charlotte, now play in the tougher Western Conference and have interdivision road trips of 770 and 870 miles. OUCH!

St. John's __________ -
As our own Matt Wagner so fondly stated in the days prior to the announcement of the "Jets" as the team name for the former Atlanta Thrashers, nothing yet on the front of the St. John's _________. Although shifting from west to east, the club that formerly skated as the Chicago Wolves (Atlanta's farmhands), didn't have any favors done for them by being put in the Atlantic Division. Travel will be an issue that they didn't face while in the Windy City. Also playing regularly against the Manchester Monarchs and to a lesser extent Worcester and an improved Providence Bruins club may have them longing for the bright lights of America's Second City, rather than the frozen tundra of Mile One Centre.

Abbotsford Heat - Somehow for the Abbotsford Heat, where every away game is a serious road trip, they only missed the playoffs by five points in the Western Conference this past season. The Heat are the only team in the league west of the Rockies, making half of their season an adventure to say the least. I'm not sure it would make a lot of difference, but if the league has already put Charlotte in the West, why not go all the way and put the Checkers in the West Division, to compete with the Texas and OKC clubs? Abbotsford then could have taken the "Midwest" spot and reduced their travel somewhat. Does anybody else think that travel alone costs them 4 or 5 points a season.

All in all, the major overhaul of the league was probably long overdue. While there will be some distinct winners and losers within the new alignment, those extremes will be at a minimum. The equalizer will be the new playoff structure, where the qualifiers will emerge in conference play. Also next season, first round competition in the Calder Cup playoffs will be a best of five series. After opening round play, all series revert to a best of seven format.

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