AHL: It’s Time to Realign!

With the late off-season moves of the Houston Aeros to Des Moines (Iowa Wild) and the Peoria Rivermen to Utica (Comets), and the 2014-15 move of the Adirondack Phantoms to the Lehigh Valley, the AHL finds itself with, let’s just call them odd, divisions. While centrally located Iowa was moved from the West Division to the Midwest Division, Utica was forced to move to the North Division.

Utica, which is located about 2 hours north of Binghamton and is settled on the New York State Thruway roughly midway between Albany and Syracuse (all three of them Eastern Conference teams), is forced to join Rochester, Toronto, Lake Erie, and Hamilton in the North. They travel to Abbotsford, BC six times and have to travel to face most of the Western Conference. Utica has to fly roughly five times this season, including three multi-city road trips. Now this is not nearly as bad as St. John’s, which is roughly 900 miles from it’s nearest opponent (Portland). It’s also not nearly as bad as the famous San Antonio rodeo trip, as the AT&T Center hosts the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in February. This also effects the NBA’s Spurs. This season the Rampage embark on a 10 game, seven city trip that will not see them play a game in the state of Texas during the month of February. (ironically they will be in Utica and Rochester during that stretch.)

I mentioned Portland. There’s not much that can be said about the Pirates’ future in Portland except, well, it’s nonexistent. This year they are playing all of their games in Lewiston, ME, due to a contract dispute over renovations in the Cumberland County Civic Center (they are litigating a lawsuit this season). In my opinion, they will not return to Portland and leave Maine as Lewiston is not a viable AHL market (hello, Glens Falls? That’s another argument for another column), but with no dance partner for a move (Bridgeport is the only team I know of that’s a “free agent” this year and they’re not going anywhere) and for the purposes of this argument, we will keep the team in Portland for 2014-15.

The Phantoms are moving to Lehigh Valley, the heart of the East Division. They currently reside in the northernmost part of the Northeast Division. I believe a move would be wise for the team for travel purposes.

We hear that term “travel purposes” often. It’s why Binghamton and Syracuse play 12 times a year. It’s why Charlotte (also situated in the West), Utica, and Rochester play a majority of their games against Eastern Conference opponents (Charlotte less than the other two, but they still play a high number of eastern conference teams). Also, it’s why teams west of Lake Erie don’t see an Eastern Conference opponent, even if they travel to Utica! It’s becoming a silly argument. Some call it favoritism, some say there is a level of “seniority” in the AHL. A neutral stand has to be taken if you truly want to lessen travel expenses in the league. If not, have every team play every other once a year.

Now, in order to make a change, let’s see what’s wrong as we list the current divisional structure:

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

Atlantic Division

  • Manchester
  • Portland
  • Providence
  • St. John’s
  • Worcester

This division as it stands is fine as is. You’ve got a team in New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts paired together. St John’s is the oddball, but it really has no home as we discussed above, so it is fine in that division. It doesn’t hurt St. John’s case that they are situated literally right on the Atlantic, either.

 

Northeast Division

  • Adirondack
  • Albany
  • Bridgeport
  • Hartford
  • Springfield

This is a bit more of a wild division, but nothing too crazy. It will need changing when Adirondack relocates. For now, though, you have three pairs that have to be together (Adirondack-Albany, Bridgeport-Hartford, Hartford-Springfield.) By that logic, you can’t put Worcester in despite the intrigue of the intra-state rivalry, which is not as strong as either of the three I mentioned.

East Division

  • Binghamton
  • Hershey
  • Norfolk
  • Syracuse
  • Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

Binghamton is an hour south of Syracuse. WB-S is an hour south of Binghamton. Hershey is roughly an hour and a half south and west of Wilkes-Barre. It is literally a stacked division, with natural rivalries abound. Then there is Norfolk. An anomaly, their closest “rival” is Charlotte, in the Western Conference. Sure, they have historic rivalries with other eastern teams, but there is no other geographical foe.  Hershey and Charlotte are actually equidistant, but the closest opponent is still five hours away. While I contradicted myself, the argument of Charlotte being the closer rival stems from two reasons. First, they are the closet team to Charlotte, by a lot. Second, if you go to Norfolk, they will associate themselves with the South a lot more than the Northeast, where the other Eastern Conference teams are.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

North Division

  • Hamilton
  • Lake Erie
  • Rochester
  • Toronto
  • Utica

In WHAT WORLD can any of these be considered the West. Well, Rochester has a long history of Western Conference membership. They used to be the furthest East member. Geographically, that’s how it worked out. Now, with Utica being the anomaly, it just looks strange! So with Lake Erie and Rochester being rivals, you can’t move them. Toronto and Hamilton pretty much knock on each other’s door so you can’t move them, and Utica is Utica.

Midwest Division

  • Grand Rapids
  • Chicago
  • Milwaukee
  • Rockford
  • Iowa

While this division is spread out, it is actually perfect for a Western Conference division. Some great teams, geographic rivals, and far enough apart to give some teams weekend series with their rivals. I might just try to keep this division together, although I might also look to get Grand Rapids out of it due to the time zone, but really there’s not much to change here.

Southwest Division

  • Abbotsford
  • Charlotte
  • Oklahoma City
  • San Antonio
  • Texas

Also known as the leftovers division, you might as well throw in St. John’s since you’ve got the other three corners of the league in here. This is the first division I would fix! You do have the Texas rivals together and Oklahoma City matches against both Texas and San Antonio well, but forcing Abbotsford and Charlotte to travel to each other is just cruel and unusual punishment. I’d get into a discussion on why Abbotsford should not be in the AHL in the first place, but I will digress. We are only working with the hand we are dealt, so let’s begin to fix things, shall we?

My first thought was a Canadian Super Division:

  • St. John’s
  • Toronto
  • Hamilton
  • Abbotsford

Think about it, it has to be cheaper to stay in your country if you’re going to fly anyway. I checked flights from St. John’s to Vancouver and Charlotte to Vancouver for a weekend in February. The trip from St. John’s was about USD$930 round trip and about 23 hours of travel time, plus driving to and from airports and check in time, so about 26 hours of total travel. Staggeringly, the price from Charlotte was USD$601 (with even lower taxes than the domestic flight!) and travel time was a “brief” 16 (so 20) hours. Well, there goes the super conference! At least now I won’t have to go find a team to fit in the fifth spot! So, back to the drawing board:

I thought about keeping St. John’s with Toronto and Hamilton, but there was no scenario where that worked in the current setup, so I guess we will keep the Atlantic Division as is.

Atlantic Division

  • Manchester
  • Portland
  • Providence
  • St. John’s
  • Worcester

Noe, about that silly Northeast Division. Well Adirondack is out, so HELLO UTICA! That’s right, Utica gets a home in the Northeast Division!

Northeast Division

  • Albany
  • Bridgeport
  • Hartford
  • Springfield
  • Utica

This is perfect for the rivalry with Albany. They are the midpoint. Albany-Utica-Syracuse. I would have loved to put them in the East, but they make up for the loss of the Albany-Adirondack rivalry and keep Albany from being an anomaly. So Where does Adirondack go?

East Division

  • Binghamton
  • Hershey
  • Lehigh Valley
  • Syracuse
  • Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

Re-branded as the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, they fit in perfectly as the division now houses two Upstate New York teams and three Central Pennsylvania teams. So where is Norfolk? You’ll find out in a bit.

First, let’s take a trip up north. I could have put Abbotsford in this division, but as you will see, I swapped in Grand Rapids instead:

North Division

  • Grand Rapids
  • Hamilton
  • Lake Erie
  • Rochester
  • Toronto

O.K. so you take away the Detroit-Chicago rivalry, but replace it with Detroit-Toronto. Chalk that up as a draw. You keep Grand Rapids in the Eastern Time Zone for divisional play. Chalk that as a win. As you will see, the Midwest now has to face Abbotsford, but they are much better equipped than that Southwest (re-branded as the South) would be.

Midwest Division

  • Abbotsford
  • Chicago
  • Milwaukee
  • Rockford
  • Iowa

Abbotsford, like St. John’s HAS to be somewhere. This isn’t as bad as you would think, as all of these teams would use a direct Chicago-Vancouver flight, which is a roughly 4 hour flight about USD$670 round trip. Not horrible.

South Division

  • Charlotte
  • Norfolk
  • Oklahoma City
  • San Antonio
  • Texas

Yes, the travel in this division is annoying, but it’s symmetrical. Charlotte and Norfolk could do 3 game weekends in Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Texas. The other three teams can do 2 or 3 game weekends the other way around. It’s not perfect, but it gets Charlotte off the “island” and matches a few sets of rivals together.

Now, this could be the end of the opinion piece. In fact, those divisions are so good, I thought about ending it here. Feel free to stop reading if you’d like, but I’m going to take things one step further below:

What if the AHL decided to adopt the NHL’s four division concept. Let me begin by saying the four division concept is not my favorite, but we’ve seen the NHL step in and push the AHL to make these moves before, so how would they align? Well, a lot of rivalries would return. To some, having seven or six divisional opponents is great. To others, it’s the worst idea ever. Let’s take a look at how it would pan out, mimicking the current NHL divisions.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

Atlantic Division

  • Bridgeport
  • Hartford
  • Manchester
  • Portland
  • Providence
  • St. John’s
  • Springfield
  • Worcester

This would really take a weird turn if Portland moved, but in all honesty, it’s not a bad division. St. John’s could survive playing mostly divisional games, and the symmetry in the division is perfect. A true “New England” division, sans St. John’s. Springfield is paired with their Massachusetts rivals and Hartford gets both Bridgeport and the Falcons. It also sets up a new Bridgeport-Providence rivalry. Hey, this idea is starting to look OK!

Eastern Division

  • Albany
  • Binghamton
  • Hershey
  • Lehigh Valley
  • Rochester
  • Syracuse
  • Utica
  • Wilkes-Barre Scranton

I could have gone two ways with this division. First, I could have stuck to a strict conference idea and kept Rochester in the West and moved  Norfolk in their spot. Instead, I saw the symmetry in a New York-Pennsylvania division of exactly eight teams. Binghamton gains a rivalry with Albany (as does Syracuse and Utica), and Albany and Lehigh Valley keep their rivalry (Devils-Flyers). The other current rivalries remain, as the distance between teams is marginal. I like this division.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

North Division

  • Abbotsford
  • Chicago
  • Grand Rapids
  • Hamilton
  • Milwaukee
  • Rockford

Here is where the problems begin! You have to keep Abbotsford up north, but there are nine teams that can be in a seven team division. This means Lake Erie and Iowa will move to the south. Keep in mind that Lake Erie is smack in the middle of Grand Rapids and Hamilton! Three time zones are covered in this division, which is also unacceptable (although being done in the current structure). Maybe this plan isn’t looking too good.

“South Division”

  • Charlotte
  • Iowa
  • Lake Erie
  • Norfolk
  • Oklahoma City
  • San Antonio
  • Texas

The “put whoever is left in this division” bug strikes again! This division sees seven teams in six states separated over hundreds of miles. This division alone proves why the AHL should not go to the four division format.

In conclusion, the AHL SHOULD realign, while remaining in its current format. This benefits all of the AHL franchises as both travel is reduced and natural rivalries are created. Nothing about this realignment is set in stone, and teams can always move, but it’s time. If and when the AHL listens and creates the new alignment, I only hope I will get the credit for a positive change.

Atlantic Division

  • Manchester
  • Portland
  • Providence
  • St. John’s
  • Worcester

Northeast Division

  • Albany
  • Bridgeport
  • Hartford
  • Springfield
  • Utica

East Division

  • Binghamton
  • Hershey
  • Lehigh Valley
  • Syracuse
  • Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

North Division

  • Grand Rapids
  • Hamilton
  • Lake Erie
  • Rochester
  • Toronto

Midwest Division

  • Abbotsford
  • Chicago
  • Milwaukee
  • Rockford
  • Iowa

South Division

  • Charlotte
  • Norfolk
  • Oklahoma City
  • San Antonio
  • Texas

Justin Cohen is a beat writer covering the AHL for Inside Hockey. He focuses on the Binghamton Senators and New York and Pennsylvania based AHL franchises in his writing. You can follow his AHL coverage on twitter @IHAHL.

 

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  1. Sn 10 Ep 8: Adam Clendenning, Brandon DeFazio, Justin Cohen & Jessica Higham - PPPShow.net - The Home of the Power Play Post Show - October 31, 2013

    […] Justin Cohen – Inside Hockey.com – Beat-writer -On Twitter: @JustinCohen87 – Justin joined Bob this week to talk about the start of the Syracuse Crunch and Binghamton Senators before talking with Bob about his polarizing article about realignment in the AHL and the changes they may be on rise for the league. You can read Justin’s article on AHL realignment here. […]