The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect developmental hockey league operations throughout North America. In the last week the AHL, OHL and WHL have formally announced lengthy delays to the start of the 2020-21 seasons, with those dates potentially sliding even further, depending on the status of the pandemic. When you consider that all players put down their competitive hockey sticks in early March, some NHL prospects may be looking at close to a full year away from competitive hockey.
Managing prospects and finding meaningful ice time for them over the next 4-6 months will be a challenging task for every NHL team, as potential options are minimal and the pool of players looking for a game is immense.
The NHL differs from other North American hockey leagues in that lucractive media (television) deals make it fiscally plausible to operate without ticket and concession revenues. Other leagues are not as fortunate, and thus are more directly impacted by the pandemic and crowd restrictions enacted by local governments.
As a result, teams are looking to other leagues that will be operating this fall in hopes of finding a spot for their prospects to play, most notably in Europe and Russia where lower COVID-19 infection rates, lighter restrictions on crowd sizes or media deals are allowing some leagues to return to play next month.
An additional challenge in finding interim spots for prospects is the fact that most teams want their players to return to North American assignments once the season begins, thus, a mass exodus and return will likely take place in December should current schedules hold true, leaving foster European teams without those players for the second half of the season and the playoffs.
CURRENT START DATES FOR NORTH AMERICAN LEAGUES
AHL – The Board of Governors announced this week that the anticipated start of the 2020-21 regular season has been moved to no earlier than December 4, 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.
OHL – The Ontario Hockey League announced this week that it is planning to return to play on December 1, 2020, subject to ensuring that the players, fans, staff and community are able to play and attend games safely.
WHL – The Western Hockey League announced this week that it is now scheduled to open its 2020-21 Regular Season on Friday, December 4, 2020.
The extended closings have therefore created a significant need for teams and prospects looking for competitive games and to continue development. As a result general managers are looking for alternative opportunities for their prospects, and have begun loaning (re-assigning) players on a temporary basis.
PROSPECT REASSIGNMENTS ALREADY MADE
Just this week the Capitals announced the following re-assignments:
Aliaksei Protas – KHL (Dinamo Minsk) – The Capitals announced this week that Aliaksei Protas has been loaned to Dinamo Minsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The KHL released their schedule for the opening week with games starting on September 2. Dinamo Minsk is struggling on and off the ice. The team finished 17-45 last season, next to last place in the Tarasov Division, and has had severe difficulty in finding players to come to Minsk and finding the money to pay those players. However, while the level of play may be on the low side as far as KHL is concerned, a top six centerman role will still be a good developmental experience for Protas. His first game with Dinamo is September 3.
Damien Riat – SNL (Geneve-Servette) – The Capitals confirmed this week earlier reports that forward Damien Riat would return to the Swiss National League. Riat played for Geneve-Servette for three seasons from 2015-2018. It is expected that the Capitals will recall Riat when the organization’s 2020-21 training camps open. Although Riat did not attend the Capitals return to play training camp last month, he did participate in the Swiss National teams training camp last week.
Tobias Geisser – SNL (EV-Zug) – The Capitals also confirmed this week that defenseman Tobias Geisser would start the 2020-21 season in the Swiss National League. Geisser transferred from Hershey to EV-Zug after the start of last season to find more playing time. It is expected that the Capitals will recall Geisser to North America when the organization’s 2020-21 training camps open.
It is very likely that these moves are the first of many by the Capitals as they continue to look for temporary openings for their prospects.
Remaining prospects are still in need of a temporary assignment, so we decided to assess and project a few ideal transfers. Some projections provide the best competitive and developmental environment, while others serve more as a placeholder.
Here are a few projections:
Connor McMichael – If McMichael cannot make his current stop in Washington a permanent one, Europe may be the best place for him for the next 12 months. The appealing part of allowing McMichael to join a team in Europe is the fact it would likely be for the entire season, as he is not old enough to join the Hershey Bears this season. McMichael will also be participating in the world Juniors for Team Canada in late December and early January.
Alex Alexeyev – Alexeyev is still very green and at least a year away from potentially playing for the Capitals. He could find a spot on a KHL roster, preferably with SKA in his hometown of Saint Petersburg, although that is a tall order as SKA is one of the elite teams in the KHL. More realistically Alexeyev finds a top four spot on a middle tier team. The KHL released their schedule for the opening week with games starting on September 2.
Vitek Vanecek – Vanecek is an interesting case. He is currently with the team inside the bubble in Toronto and could see time as the Capitals backup netminder next season, but possibly not full time. Depending on how long the Capitals postseason run is, Vanecek may just get the remaining time off, but will need a plan ‘b’ assuming the Capitals will not be going with a ‘three-headed monster’ in goal next season. The Czech League would be an ideal plan ‘b’.
Daniel Sprong – Sprong may be best suited for the Swedish Hockey League, with regards to style of play and his corresponding developmental needs, but would also greatly benefit from a KHL assignment. Like Vanecek, Sprong is currently with the team in Toronto, and could likely compete for a bottom six role with the Capitals for the 2020-21 season. Depending on how long the Capitals postseason run is, Sprong may just get the remaining time off.
Beck Malenstyn – Like Sprong, Malenstyn is currently with the team in Toronto, and could likely compete for a bottom six role for the Capitals for the 2020-21 season, which is currently scheduled to begin in December. Depending on how long the Capitals postseason run is, Malenstyn may just get the remaining time off. As for a plan ‘b’, the Swedish League would be a good landing spot fo Malenstyn, and help him focus more on stick handling and passing and less on his physical game.
Brian Pinho – Brian Pinho is in the same boat as Sprong and Malenstyn, as he could likely compete for a bottom six role for the Capitals for the 2020-21 season. An ideal plan ‘b’ would be a spot in the Swedish Hockey League.
Tyler Lewington – Lewington is also currently with the Capitals inside the bubble in Toronto, and a consideration for a cost-savings spot on the Capitals blueline. An ideal plan ‘b’ would be a spot in the KHL.
OTHER KEY CONSIDERATIONS
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby – Ideally Axel would return to Djurgarden in the SHL where he has played a number of seasons prior to coming to America.
Martin Hugo Has – The best move for Has would be to return to the Finish league, preferably with one of his previous teams. Has will also be participating in the world Juniors for the Czech Republic in late December and early January.
Other players, including Garrett Pilon, Brett Leason, Shane Gersich, Bobby Nardella, Joe Snively, Cody Klark and Riley Sutter could be the most in need of finding a playing spot this fall. While most participated in the Capitals return to play training camp, they could be looking at nearly a year away from competitive games as competition for available spots abroad will be fierce.
Consideration will also need to be made for the new prospects, as the Capitals 2020 draft class will need initial assignments.
HELP FROM THE LEAGUES
As noted, finding ice time for prospects is a league-wide issue. The NHL should allow teams to field taxi squads of 6-8 players for the next 12 months, allowing the players to workout and scrimmage with the NHL teams.
There has also been initial discussions of potentially there being AHL regional scrimmages for those independent teams or teams that have funding to do so.
By Jon Sorensen