Probably the biggest hot-button topic of those of us who follow the AHL is the idea of realignment. It’s a pretty broad term, and i have no idea what direction the AHL may head. At the minimum, they have to decide what division to put the new team (St. John’s), and if the East and West will remain mostly the same otherwise, but there’s a huge possibility of large-scale realignment, that may include moving from the current four-division format to a six-division format that mirrors the NHL. The difference, of course, is that the NHL has teams with unlimited travel budgets, charter planes, and the teams are more evenly distributed throughout the US and Canada.
Now, I must preface my thoughts with the fact I’m not an expert on this, at all. I’m a new AHL fan, and I admittedly have a most vested interest in the Charlotte Checkers, but I have a pretty good grasp (I think) on the AHL structure, and how they do things, right or wrong. As I sat down to write this, I thought I had an opinion on realignment, and what I thought the solution would be. Now that I’ve read some of the data I dug up, I’m even more perplexed as to what the solution might be. I guess I’m lucky that I’m an unpaid writer, and not someone who has to know how to fix it, because I’m still pretty lost. Like any good student and writer, the first thing I did was research. And when I say research, I mean spend hours compiling spreadsheets and comparing and contrasting different teams travel schedules. I didn’t do all 30 teams… but I did try and pick one from each major region of the AHL to illustrate the variety of schedules.
The rationale behind four divisions has long been a playoff format that facilitates the first two rounds being divisionally based is outdated for the current AHL. Charlotte, in all three rounds of the playoffs, still had to fly to their opponent’s city, despite the AHL’s setup that allows teams to play teams “close to home.” Six divisions would eliminate the division-based playoffs, and may benefit a formula of who plays who like you see in the NHL, but otherwise, I’m not sure if I can see a huge benefit to it.
As it stands now, while there are four divisions and two conferences, for the most part, teams are given some freedom in determining their schedule. There aren’t rules as far as how many times each team must play others in their division or conference, unlike in the NHL where there is a black and white formula of division teams are played six times, conference (but non-division) are four times, and opposite conference are played two times, plus three wild-card games. It’s easy to figure out, and makes sense for the NHL, however It is NOT a formula that the AHL could easily adopt.
The problem with the AHL is you’ve got over half of the league in a tiny geographic region (New England, New York, PA and the edge of Ontario. There are about 13 other teams spread from Abbotsford, B.C., to Texas, to North Carolina, to St. John’s, NL and of course the Illinois/Milwaukee pocket of teams. A formula doesn’t work. I think the focus needs to be less on division alignment and more on a better dispersal of road games that balances out the travel burden a bit more efficiently.
Some teams are more willing to travel out of choice, and not just necessity. Basically, a team can say “Sure, we’ll fly 3,000 miles to play out of our division” and it can happen. For example, the Penguins played a number of Western Conference teams in 2010/11, including Abbotsford, Manitoba, Toronto and Rochester. Honestly though, when you look at the big picture, two games in Manitoba and two in Abbotsford really just amounted to two major plane trips, because the vast majority of the rest of their games were accessible via bus, including the games in Toronto and Rochester of the Western Conference.
Some teams played almost exclusively in their geographic area, regardless of what conference or division they were in. Connecticut is an example of a team with one of the easiest travel schedules. While they did play Western teams (two teams with four games total), it was only Toronto and Hamilton, which are about 45 minutes apart, and would easily be knocked out on one roadtrip. They traveled to Charlotte twice, which was the farthest place they played during the season. They played Bridgeport, Springfield and Providence 10 times each, and for all of those games, it’s unlikely the teams would even require a hotel the travel time is so minuscule between the home and away games.
Rochester is a team that has been begging the AHL to move to the Eastern conference for years. Geographically speaking, it makes sense they would want the East, but they had a pretty nice schedule last season. Half of their games were against Eastern Conference teams, including 10 games alone vs. Syracuse. They had 1-2 hour drives to Hamilton and Toronto, and Lake Erie wasn’t too much of a hike, either, so for a Western Conference team that never had to play the three teams in Texas, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Peoria or Rockford, I’m not sure why they were complaining!
I could cut and paste all of the data I compiled yesterday, because the statistics don’t lie, but the bottom line is this: How many divisions there are in the AHL is not going to fix anything. They wouldn’t hurt the situation, necessarily, but it’s not going to help it, either. The rumors we’ve been hearing place Charlotte in the West, in a division with the Texas teams and Oklahoma city. While I’d love the variety of maybe getting to see teams in the West, I hate the idea of playing those Texas teams 40 times next year.
Here are the highlights from my “research.” It’s interesting to see how there is absolutely no consistency among divisions, regions, or anything else.
|Team||In-Division||In-Conference||Out of Conference||Notes|
|Rochester||40||0||40||*Did not face Texas, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City, Peoria, Chicago or Milwaukee|
What I want to see is more parity and more variety. Charlotte faced Norfolk 12 times this year, the rationale I’m sure was they were our closest rival. But a six-hour bus ride is hardly a close neighbor. The Checkers also didn’t face a single team outside of our Eastern conference. When you look at the map of the AHL, a trip to Texas is really no further than one to New England where we faced Portland and Manchester, so if we do end up in the West, I’m not going to panic. There is no way to make travel completely equal for all of the franchises… teams like Charlotte, Abbotsford and St. John’s are always going to travel farther distances, I just wish the teams such as Springfield, Connecticut and Bridgeport were required to do as many long-distance trips as the rest of the league, because the return favor enables a team like Abbotsford or Texas or Oklahoma City to make a road trip where they can hit three cities in a small travel time, after the flight, of course. I think variety is good for the fans, and good for the league as a whole.
I’m anxious to see what the Board of Governors decides this week in Hilton Head, and how they propose to fix the alignment, and balance out the travel schedule. If only I could be a fly on the wall! What I hope we see, first and foremost, is a bit more equality, and looking out for the teams that do have the hardest schedule. Clearly, with Rochester’s schedule (where they don’t even face half the teams in the West, their own conference!) the AHL knows how to play the favoritism game. I just hope that can be spread out a little so the other guys on the fringes have the same opportunities. I know we have a great thing in Charlotte, and players WANT to be here (they told me this time and time again last season, even though it meant tougher travel, and more nights on the road), but I do want what is best for our franchise and our city, and will help us be the most competitive team possible.
Lets Go Checkers!