I want to talk about NHL teams and their American Hockey League affiliations. More specifically, I want to talk about the distance between those two, geographically, which has become kind of an obsession for me.
That obsession fully formed when Seattle was awarded an NHL franchise in December of 2018. The seeds of that obsession were planted when my wife and I decided to move to Atlanta, where the only hockey club is the ECHL Atlanta Gladiators. But it was Seattle that got my hopes up that maybe, just like hockey fans saw in 2015, that some realigning will take place that move some teams up from the ECHL, and some NHL clubs see their farm team move a little closer.
First, let’s take a look at how the NHL clubs and their farm teams are aligned right now.
As you can see, blue points represent the Metropolitan Division, green for the Atlantic, red for the Central, and grey for the Pacific. (Feel free to uncheck the different layers for better viewing, especially in the Northeast.)
Let’s get the teams out of the way that have a very cushy NHL/AHL relationship: Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Boston, the Islanders, the Rangers, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Arizona. All of these teams, if they’re not located within the same city as the parent club, are less than two hours away by car.
The obvious winner is playing in the Metro or Atlantic divisions, but keeping with tradition, Vancouver is getting a raw deal when it comes to travel, with their AHL team being the farthest away at 2,290 miles. Next is Las Vegas, with their Chicago Wolves 1,523 miles away.
These measurements, however, do not take into account any additional travel required. Scenarios where Edmonton or Calgary, for example, cannot get direct flights to their AHL cities of Bakersfield or Stockton, respectively, instead needing to fly into Sacramento to drive an extra hour to arrive in Stockton, or catch a connecting flight through Phoenix to arrive in Bakersfield.
I’m no travel agent, but I am going to assume that there are not a ton of daily direct flights from Vancouver to Utica, NY. Vegas may have the second longest distance to travel, but they have the advantage of having both of their teams in major cities with major airports.
The ones that stand out to me, personally, is Tampa Bay and Florida. The Lightning look at a 1,102 mile distance to their affiliate in Syracuse, NY, while the Panthers have a similar trek of 1,185 miles to Springfield, Mass.
If you haven’t already, add the ECHL Teams layer on the map above.
Focusing on these ECHL affiliations is not important because the solution is to reshuffle the entire scope of the league. For example, there are three ECHL teams in Florida- the Jacksonville Icemen, the Orlando Solar Bears, and the Florida Everblades. Adding two of these teams to the AHL- again, like what happened in 2015- now means the Panthers and Lightning have their teams right down the street.
Selfishly, I would suggest that Atlanta gets bumped up to the AHL and become the affiliate for the Nashville Predators, making it a three hour car ride as opposed to Nashville waiting on a player’s one-to-three hour flight with at least one stop from Milwaukee.
Additional tweaks would include Vancouver’s new AHL club being the Idaho Steelheads and Las Vegas gaining the Utah Grizzlies. Also, if you hadn’t noticed on the above map, the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche currently share their AHL team, the San Antonio Rampage. Calling up one or two of the Allen Americans, Tulsa Oilers, Wichita Thunder, or Kansas City Mavericks, would solve any sharing issues currently seen.
I know I’m not the only one thinking and talking about this idea. When mulling over realignment, the options are almost infinite, but playing around with some maps to see the actual correlation between cities and teams is a fun, harmless exercise.
The Seattle ownership group has said that they will have their own AHL team. Where that would be, it’s hard to tell, but no matter where that farm team is located it will throw off and present even more ideas for shuffling around AHL affiliations and the futures of ECHL teams.