The AHL brought the curtain down on the remainder of the 2019-2020 season early Monday morning. The anticipated announcement was due in large part to the fact that the league relies heavily on gate and concession revenues from games, and fan attendance at games is still a long ways off due to restrictions and health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the cancellation of the AHL’s 2019-2020 season and the likely lengthy delayed start of the 2020-2021 AHL season, NHL prospects in the AHL system (and other development and professional leagues) are looking at a very lengthy period of time with no organized hockey, maybe as much as a full year.
“We’re actively building our 2020-21 schedule using the typical October to April timeframe. We hope to put that on the board by mid-July,” Andrews told TSN. “But we’re also modelling later starts in November, December and January with shorter schedules so we can go to the teams with models.”
Even if NHL teams allow 30 players instead of the usual maximum of 23, a likely target given the ongoing pandemic and health concerns, teams still want to know where and how the rest of their prospects will continue to develop.
So what are some of the early options?
Join the club – A possible option is for the NHL to remove the roster cap in its entirety, and allow as many prospects to join the “big club” as possible, maybe even to form a complete taxi squad. This would allow at least organized practices, inner-squad scrimmages and instruction for prospects. The issue would be managing all of the additional players in these times. Testing, quarantine and health monitoring expected for all NHL players when they return would also need to be extended to each and every prospect, and that would be a huge task and cost. NHL teams would be looking at twice as many moving parts to track, with health concerns at the top of the list. Current and expiring contracts are an additional hurdle that would need to be addressed.
Europe/Russia – Could we see some prospect players depart for Europe or other leagues around the globe, assuming they will resume play without fans in the stands? (Still unknown at this point). For example, would it be better for Capitals defensive prospect Alex Alexeyev to find playing time in the KHL? Would it be better for Axel Jonsson-Fjallby to return to Djurgården in the SHL? One could argue any playing time would be helpful in the players overall development, but would it be safe? This is not like the lockout season, where players had less restrictions on where they went to play. Would the Capitals simply allow it? Will they deem that any organized work is better than no organized work? These leagues could potentially provide the best competition for prospects, in lieu of a shuttered AHL, but would teams allow their talent to play unwatched and unmonitored?
Semi-Organized Scrimmages – Another possibly is the rise of less organized scrimmages, something similar to the NBA’s summer league. Prospects could gather in regions deemed safer, say Las Vegas, for example. Then test, practice and scrimmage for short periods of time, say for two weeks, then have two weeks off to monitor health, etc. Another option would be regional in nature. “It’s solely been speculation at this time, but I think we’re all contemplating alternative competitive formats that might be a potential workaround for a limited period of time until the AHL could start up again,” said John Ferguson Jr., the Boston Bruins assistant GM who serves as general manager of the AHL’s Providence Bruins. Ferguson suggested that with Providence located within a two-hour drive of three other AHL clubs in Springfield, Hartford and Bridgeport, a mini-circuit of games or scrimmages could be arranged with limited travel involved and no need for stays in hotels.
We are certainly entering uncharted waters. The Calder Cup will not be awarded for the first time in the 83-year history of the league. The AHL playoffs were a constant on the pro hockey calendar, taking place through the Second World War and a cancelled NHL season in 2004-05. More of a constant than the NHL.
Prospect development over the next year will likely be uneven, with some players afforded better opportunities to develop their game. Some prospects development will suffer more than others, and that’s just the fact of the matter. It will be important for the Capitals to find the best situation for each and every one of their prospects, to find an optimal development path, all while providing safe working conditions. That’s a tall task.
By Jon Sorensen