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AHL Notebook: Pacific Division creates new landscape

by Patrick Williams /

"Location, location, location," goes the old axiom, and it applies as much as ever to the NHL and American Hockey League's mutual relationship and needs.

AHL president Dave Andrews completed an offseason project more than 20 years in the making when he made the league's new Pacific Division a reality.

Five NHL teams shifted their AHL affiliates to California looking for the same geographical advantages East Coast NHL teams had enjoyed for years. Long the foundation of the NHL-AHL relationship, player development has taken on even greater importance in the NHL salary-cap era.

Having worked in different capacities in the AHL going back to the 1980s, Andrews has seen the league's evolution up close. Andrews said an investment in player development by NHL teams has fueled many of the changes as NHL front offices look to gain any possible edge in the development process.

Moving an AHL affiliate nearby allows the NHL team to have convenient access for player recalls, a key consideration each day for NHL teams at or near the salary cap. But it also allows NHL management personnel to drop by for 1-on-1 teaching time with a key AHL prospect. An NHL executive can see the AHL team play at night, yet be back in the office the next morning.

Going to Southern California were the Anaheim Ducks (San Diego) and Los Angeles Kings (Ontario) in agreements that also allowed for new regional marketing possibilities. The San Jose Sharks elected to station their AHL affiliate in SAP Center. Two other Western Conference teams, the Calgary Flames (Stockton) and Edmonton Oilers (Bakersfield), completed the division.

In all, the ripple effect across the AHL map resulted in 11 franchise relocations and/or affiliation changes ranging from San Diego to Newfoundland, where the Montreal Canadiens moved their prospects to St. John's.

Among the moves were the Winnipeg Jets mirroring the Sharks and taking their prospects to MTS Centre. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Lake Erie Monsters struck up an all-Ohio arrangement. The Florida Panthers decided to house their prospects with the Portland Pirates, a move to Maine that put them close to many of the Eastern Conference cities the Panthers visit regularly. The Colorado Avalanche stationed their AHL affiliate in San Antonio, a quick flight from Denver.

"It arose as a discussion point several times over the years," Andrews said of the concept that started with a proposal from former Anaheim president Tony Tavares in the 1990s.

"It was a challenging project in many ways, one that we knew we certainly needed to find a way [to do]. In today's NHL, and I think it probably goes back to the [2005] Collective Bargaining Agreement, the importance of player development to teams has gotten stronger and stronger over the years."

Shepherding the 11 changes has been Andrews, the AHL president since 1994 and now in his 22nd season in the role. Andrews began his AHL career as an Edmonton Oilers executive operating their former affiliate in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and has seen the business from the team perspective as well.

"To manage 11 transactions [was] challenging," Andrews said. "I think everyone involved is happy with how it turned out at this point."

Andrews recalls starting in an era of small AHL front offices in a bus league limited to the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada. While AHL teams generally were limited to one assistant coach in past decades, the investment in development has grown AHL coaching staffs. AHL teams often have a video coach, goaltending coach, development coaches and a nutritionist among other additions.

Manitoba, San Jose and the Toronto Marlies all have easy access to NHL training facilities, and several other AHL teams have modern practice facilities.

"It's a much different world that what we lived in before," Andrews said.

Done deal: The AHL is not only for players trying to reach the NHL.

The NHL and AHL have announced a new four-year agreement that will continue to have the AHL act as the top development league for officials. The two leagues will collaborate in recruiting and preparing officials for eventual advancement to the NHL in a deal that will extend through the 2018-19 season.

Most notable in the agreement is a plan to have fully implemented the two-referee system in all AHL games by the conclusion of the deal. The AHL expects 60 percent of its games in 2015-16 as well as all playoff games to use two referees.

The deal continues a long partnership between the two leagues in the lengthy process of developing officials for NHL work. Each NHL referee this season has apprenticed in the AHL.

"Because AHL games feature so many future NHL players and are played at a pace and skill level that most closely replicates conditions in the NHL, they serve as a perfect training ground for officials who later graduate to service in the NHL," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a written statement.

Coming home: The Charlotte Checkers became the final AHL team to make its home debut when the Carolina Hurricanes' AHL affiliate opened newly renovated Bojangles' Coliseum with a 3-0 loss against Manitoba this past Saturday. Charlotte got its first win in its new home in a rematch Sunday, defeating Manitoba 3-2 on a power-play goal with 25 seconds remaining.

The arena, which opened in 1955, received a $16 million renovation this past summer that included $4 million for hockey-related upgrades. Among the additions were new seating, scoreboard and ribbon boards and a sound system. New dressing rooms also welcomed the Checkers.

Checkers management made the move from Time Warner Cable Arena, also the home of the Charlotte Hornets of the National Basketball Association, looking to have more control in event scheduling, sponsorships, game presentation and practice times.

Before arriving home, the Checkers survived an 18-day, 10-game road trip on which they went 6-4-0-0. Charlotte plays 12 of its next 16 games at home.

AHL Game of the Week: The 10-4-0-0 Bridgeport Sound Tigers visit the 6-3-0-3 Hershey Bears on Saturday at Giant Center. Hershey won the first game between the Atlantic Division rivals 4-2 at Bridgeport on Nov. 4. The Sound Tigers had back-to-back shutouts this past weekend at home. Bears right wing Stanislav Galiev, who began the season with the Washington Capitals, is on a conditioning assignment. He had 25 goals in 67 AHL games last season.

Around the AHL: Bridgeport and Toronto (10-3-0-0) are tied for the AHL lead with 20 points. … The 9-1-0-0 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have an eight-game winning streak. … At 6-0-4-0, San Antonio is the only team without a regulation loss. … The Grand Rapids Griffins and new coach Todd Nelson remain last in the league with a 1-7-0-0 record. … Bridgeport's Joe Whitney overtook Alexander Khokhlachev of the Providence Bruins for the AHL scoring lead with 16 points (five goals and 11 assists). … Providence rookie Frank Vatrano still leads the AHL with 10 goals after the Boston Bruins recalled him this past week. He scored in his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. … Ontario veteran goaltender Peter Budaj has four shutouts in nine games and a .947 save percentage. His 1.31 goals-against average tops all AHL goaltenders. … Budaj and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Matt Murray each have a 7-1-0 record. Murray is the reigning Aldege "Baz" Bastien Award winner as the AHL's top goaltender. … Vatrano, Andreas Athanasiou of Grand Rapids, Christoph Bertschy of the Iowa Wild and Texas Stars rookie Devin Shore each made his NHL debut this past week, bringing the season total to 36 AHL players.

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