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Photo Credit: Lindsay Mogle

Rearranging the AHL to fit Canucks needs

The Utica Comets have failed to reach the AHL playoffs this season. From a developmental perspective, it’s unfortunate that players like Thatcher Demko, Jake Virtanen, Nikolay Goldobin and Jordan Subban would’ve benefitted from the experience.

With the Canucks season over, it’s time to look ahead to next season, and that includes their AHL team. That includes the location of the Comets.

To be clear, Utica has been a fantastic home for the Canucks AHL affiliate. The fans have been supportive since day one, and the location in upper New York State allows the Comets to have many rivals within a short distance.

The Vegas Golden Knights entering the league will have a trickle down effect on the AHL, though. The Chicago Wolves are likely to be the Golden Knights’ affiliate next season. Sin.Bin Vegas has been following the story closely, with updates a few weeks ago when the Golden Knights only signed player, Reid Duke, was signed to an ATO by the Wolves.

Many around the league expect Vegas will announce their partnership with Chicago in the coming weeks.

That means that St Louis, currently affiliated with the Wolves, will be looking for a new AHL team. At this moment, many expect the Blues will build their own AHL expansion franchise. And they’ll get to choose its location, pending league approval, etc.

It makes sense because the AHL and the NHL prefer to have one AHL affiliate to one NHL team. Though these arrangements aren’t official yet, they’re fair conclusions to reach

That brings us to the Canucks and the Comets.

The Canucks and Comets have just completed year four of a six-year deal, that was signed in June 2013. Prior to this season, there was talk about extending the deal, but nothing has come to fruition.

The obvious flaws of having their AHL affiliate on the other side of the continent. At various times through the season, the Canucks were left to dress a defenceman as a forward or even had Anton Rodin just sit on the bench for a game. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was clear that given the Canucks schedule, being so far apart doesn’t make sense.

Jeremy Davis looked at the distance and the challenges it presented last summer.

One important note in all this is the Canucks have 41 home games plus 16 away games in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. So 70% of their schedule was ‘close’.

The best way to remedy this would be to move their AHL affiliate to one of those time zones, and the Pacific timezone makes sense. I’ve broken down the location of AHL franchises for you below:

This is the movement expected prior to the 2017-18 AHL Season:

  • The Albany Devils relocated to become the Binghamton Devils to replace the Binghamton Senators.
  • The Binghamton Senators were purchased by their parent club, the Ottawa Senators, and relocating the team to Belleville as the Belleville Senators.
  • The Montreal Canadiens’ AHL franchise, then operating as the St. John’s IceCaps, is announced as relocating to the Montreal suburb of Laval, Quebec, as the Laval Rocket

Through the shuffling there, Albany and St. John’s will be losing their team. It’s entirely possible that the St Louis Blues will be granted an expansion franchise, and slide right into one of those markets.

But Albany is currently 30th in the AHL in attendance, while Utica is 28th, and St John’s is 26th. The difference here is that the Comets are selling out their building every game, and there is a huge passion for the team.

What could happen here is the Canucks could negotiate a deal with the Comets and Blues groups, where the Blues would move their expansion franchise into Utica. The Canucks would then be able to get out of the final two years of their six-year agreement and move their franchise closer to Vancouver.

Davis will speculate and suggest some spots in California in the future as it makes the most sense because of the Pacific Division already set-up there (it would be the most logical choice). But there would be some other options in the mid-west to set up the AHL franchise, whether that is in California, Nevada, Utah, British Columbia, Washington or Oregon.

It would solve the Canucks travel issues between their AHL affiliate and NHL team. With the Pacific Division set up in California and Arizona already, the Canucks farm team would have a geographically close division to play in already, thus reducing their travel time to a manageable amount. Not the same benefits that the Comets experience right now, but not an outrageous amount of travel. Jeremy created this image to show the distance between NHL and AHL teams:

Information is taken from Google maps and is actual distance, not travel distance. Furthermore, doesn’t include the changes that will happen next season. But as we can see, Vancouver and Utica is currently the farthest by a large margin.

The reason why the Abbotsford Heat were unsuccessful was that they were so far out on their own, the newly formed division helps to nullify that concern.

Lastly, the Pacific Division plays a shorter season (68 games compared to 76) to make up being in the west. This would aid in the concern of ‘practice time’ that the Canucks management preaches for the development of their AHL team.

There is no doubt that the Comets and their fans have been fantastic to the Canucks organization. They have done everything they can to support the team. But as Jeremy pointed out in the article linked above, the Canucks have the furthest distance between their AHL team and the NHL parent club.

The expansion franchise the AHL will add allows the Canucks to take advantage of the rearrangement to fix this issue and move forward. There are obvious roadblocks, including but not limited to the agreement, but these won’t be unable to overcome.

This year might be the best opportunity for the Canucks to get their AHL team in the West and make it a more streamlined process for the entire organization.

  • Luongod

    Can we get some clarification on how the Pacific Division plays a shorter season than the rest of the league? I don’t understand how is that possible.

    It is a shame that we may cut ties with Utica, they have been a great partner franchise for us. That being said, the vast geographic separation is just not feasible as a long-term solution, and this is a good a chance as any to find a better fit.

  • diesel8019

    Move Comets to Pacific Coliseum – more money in the owners pockets since overall more tickets sold. Wouldn’t hurt the Canucks and would create a lot more buzz.

  • Maybe moving the farm team to somewhere like Seattle can be a good thing. It could create a lot of long-distance fans, like how we Vancouverites adopt the Mariners as our own. It would also allow players to get used to the inconvenient travel.

    I find the issue about call-ups and injury to be a little overblown. If the farm team was close but the team got a significant injury on the road, you’ll still run into the same problem of team on one side of the continent and farm team on the other side.

  • Killer Marmot

    You are measuring the distance from Utica to Vancouver in kilometers, but that’s the wrong way to do it. The more important measure is travel time.

    Utica does not have a major airport, so I presume call-up players have to travel to Syracuse. There’s no direct flight from Syracuse to Vancouver, so this means at least one connection. Add it all up and it must be at least 11 hours — and often much more, depending on connections — from the player’s door to Vancouver Airport.

    The farm team would actually be “nearer” if it were in the north part of Houston, where players would be able to get from their door to YVR in 7 or 8 hours.

    Calgary’s farm team is in Stockton, California. This makes far more sense than Utica, as players can travel to San Francisco and catch a direct 3-hour flight.

  • Jabs

    Some may argue that the Canucks farm team was actually located in Vancouver this past season.

    All joking aside, maybe the Pacific Coliseum would be a good place for an AHL team but seeing the poor attendance of the big club, this may be too close and prove to be competition for the Canucks as far as attendance goes.

  • DJ_44

    I think this is an incomplete analysis. Firstly, I believe the whole call-up argument is over-blown. The schedule this year was an anomaly, however there are two far more important issues.

    One is the distance travelled for games (which relates mostly to practice time, but also to a few other points); this will be far greater in the west, especially in a smaller town without good airport connections.

    The second point is that the team, if moved west, should be in the same metro area as the parent. This will be more attractive players from Europe or players with a younger family that are tweeners or young players, since they will not have to get more than one place to live.

    A further point, I bet it was nothing but beneficial for a kid like Jake Virtanen to get away from the Vancouver media, and Utica is the perfect place for “witness protection”.

    • I am Ted

      Some good points. Also, I know a number of people how being an eastern farm team allows for more practice time which is ideal for a farm team. The goal is to develop the prospects and that is done via practice. I believe the actual number of additional practice days was approximately 30. So, I am fine with the AHL team being out east. Canucks need to properly develop their talent.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    I think the occasional ordeal of a couple of players flying a few extra hours for an NHL callup pales in comparison to the much more challenging travel schedule for the entire team that would come with moving west. As it is, the Comets are so close to most of their division that they don’t even need to fly. That’s much more preferable to being slightly closer to Vancouver.

    If the team does decide to move west, what are the arrangements to be made to set up in Abbotsford (eg: do the Flames still own the rights)? I think it was obvious that team failed more due to the Flames connection than to any defect in the Abbotsford market, and as you say, having more western teams in place does mitigate the travel issues somewhat.

    If the team does end up

    • Chris the Curmudgeon

      So yeah, comment editing would be nice. If the team does end up out west, I think they’ll do better financially but the effects on development would be hard to predict.

  • Ranger2k2

    Selfishly I would love it if they moved the team to Abbotsford. The problem that the Abbotsford Heat had was the team was affiliated with one of the Canucks biggest rivals, I love hockey but I had a difficult time cheering for players that I knew were going to end up playing for a rival. Any time the Heat played the Chicago Wolves (The Canucks Farm team at the time) the place was sold out. Obviously if they were to move to the Fraser Valley they wouldn’t be setting any attendance records but I do think that they would do well.

  • Walker

    I find it curious that a site that has been banging the drum on drafting and development for years would advocate for a move that could potentially damage player development in order to make it easier for the team to make call ups (and therefore, I assume, be more competitive).

    As has already been pointed out, the reason for Comets being where they are is because of the reduced amount of travel time within the AHL itself. Makes a lot of sense to me. Why mess with this?

  • Steampuck

    The worst part of being a professional athlete is the endless amount of waiting and traveling. Reducing travel and exchanges by being in the east helps with that (and probably costs less in overhead). If St. Louis is hot on Utica, though, the Comets should move to Hamilton, ON, where there is an arena, a sizeable hockey fanbase, and much greater access to Vancouver by air. But that’s just me being relatively selfish more than a serious proposal.

  • Vanoxy

    I think Vancouver Washington would be a good spot for our AHL team.

    It’s basically a suburb of Portland, which is an untapped market. They support Junior Hockey very well.

    There’s an arena in place for tier 2 Junior hockey already, I think its called Mountain View Arena, which would need some upgrades, but it’s a nice rink.

    It would work travel wise, and would also expose the Canuck brand to a lot of fans in the Southern Washington, North Oregon area.

  • YouppiKiYay

    I wondered for awhile, given the way the AHL is developing, why there is no team in Salt Lake City, Utah. Great winter sports and Olympic tradition and pretty proximate to both the California and the midwest markets. Also, there are direct, under 3 hour, flights between SLC and Vancouver. I think that’s where I’d look to put a team if I were the Canucks.

    • Vanoxy

      I agree, SLC would be great. They must have arenas that are ready to host an AHL team left over from the Olympics.
      There’s an ECHL team in West Valley that draws well, so the market is tested.

      Travel wise it would be a good way to split the difference, being centrally located.

    • Vanoxy

      I agree, SLC would be great. They must have arenas that are ready to host an AHL team left over from the Olympics.
      There’s an ECHL team in West Valley that draws well, so the market is tested.

      Travel wise it would be a good way to split the difference, being centrally located.

      I wonder if they could pull off a swap, move the ECHL team to Utica, and turn the Utah Grizzlies into an AHL team. Or, put a new team in SLC, and also take on the Grizzlies as an ECHL affiliate, if the market can support both teams. The Alaska Aces have folded so the Nucks are in the market. Having both farm teams in the same area could be beneficial. The Comets got screwed last year because flying a kid from Anchorage to Syracuse on short notice was tough.