Are The Wolf Pack On The Move??

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While the going away parties for the Albany and St. John’s hockey community in the AHL, thought both of them could be making the playoffs, there’s one area where not much news about the AHL coming back in 2017-18 and that’s Hartford.

In the middle of last season, the Wolf Pack and the XL Center announced a lease extension for 2016-17, which was the first of two possible option years from the previous agreement. There has not been much news about talks or anything in regards to the lease agreement coming forth in the 2017-18 season for the Wolf Pack.

There’s a reason to wonder if Hartford would be back in the AHL, especially with the push that is on to bring the New York Islanders to the XL Center and the possibility of huge upgrades needed in order to get the Isles into the old arena. Should XL Center be serious about it and the Isles take them up on that offer, obviously the Wolf Pack would be out. Yet, the Wolf Pack has been discussed in shuffling, too– with rumors of the Rangers moving their AHL affiliate to Bridgeport after the Islanders moving out their affiliate to the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum (though that has been denied by the Sound Tigers’ president).

(NOTE: Emails to the XL Center and Wolf Pack have not been replied to as of the time of this writing. This post will be updated if/when they are replied to) 

It has been a rough past couple of years for the Wolf Pack on the ice, as they are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Yet, in the only time they’ve made the playoffs, they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals– which they were swept by eventual champion Manchester. This season will also be the first time the Wolf Pack will not reach the 30-win plateau and not reaching the .500 mark since moving to Hartford in 1997. There has been some identity crisis with the Connecticut Whale being a thing from 2010 until 2013, they still had competitive teams– especially considering they’ve always been over-.500 until this year.

Though Nicklas Jensen has been leading the way on offense with Matt Carey as his secondary scorer (and only two with 20+ goals) as Taylor Beck is shuttled up and down to the Rangers, the defense has been pretty horrific. The goaltending has been a big let-down, with Magnus Hellberg ranked 31st in GAA…and he got called up for the Rangers’ playoffs. Rookie Brandon Halverson is ranked 45th out of 46 goalies qualified in the AHL in GAA. The loss of Mat Bodie to the NHL has been a huge hit to not only the defense, but as the captain of the Wolf Pack– it took away an important voice in the room for the young team. Chris Summers is the only defenseman who has played over 30 games and has a plus/minus under double-digits for that blue line. Much is needed for this team going forward– whether it’s in Hartford or otherwise.

Attendance hasn’t been a big drop-off by Wolf Pack standards as they are around 4,200 a game and last season they were around 4,400– so the losing has hit them a bit, but not enough to say losing is the reason for a box-office problem.

If nothing else, should the Wolf Pack move, it wouldn’t be the first time in this team’s lineage. They are considered the oldest continuous AHL team despite the Wolf Pack not recognizing the past. This team started in Providence as the Reds in 1926 until 1976, then moved to Binghamton from 1977 until 1997 when they moved to Hartford. Where they land next is anyone’s guess, but wherever that is– that’s some useless info to carry with you despite not recognizing it in the rafters or record books.

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Can Minor Leaguers Play Major Role in Olympics??

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How feasible is it that minor league players go to the 2018 Winter Olympics?? With the NHL declaring they won’t be going, this opens up plenty of opportunity for players to get into the Olympiad– but who knows which way the governing bodies would go with picking their roster. Many think they’ll go for the World Juniors approach, but I doubt they would want to face the best of the KHL, as well as the Finnish and Swedish leagues.

[Full disclosure– I couldn’t care less that the NHL isn’t going. I understand people get upset not seeing the top players in the Olympics, but for business– which is what sports are now– it doesn’t make sense with how the IOC and IIHF are not giving the NHL anything to make them want to go to the Olympics. To shut down a league for two weeks in the middle of the season and to have a risk of losing a top player (right John Tavares) on top of the having to truncate the schedule seems like a recipe for disaster. But more importantly…money. Not enough going the NHL’s way which– rightly or wrongly– is the bottom line. And let’s be honest, how many of these guys take a pass when they get a call to represent their nation in the World Championship??]

In any case, the minor leagues could be the next reasonable step for governing bodies to look at where they want to pluck the players. Sure, Hockey Canada could go the Spengler Cup route and get the best Canadians playing in Euro Leagues– but I doubt they want to do that. Nor do they want to put their World Junior teams out there and get eaten up by the best in the KHL, Finnish, and Swedish leagues. We’ve even seen minor leaguers in the last Olympics with Henrik Odegaard (Missouri) and Kristers Gudjevskis (Syracuse) appearing for Norway and Latvia respectively.

The US Olympic teams in 1992 and 1994 had plenty of minor league involvement with eight players in the AHL and IHL going to play in ’92, while that number doubled to 16 in the ’94 Games. The Canadian team, however, had an established national team of their own made up of overaged players out of Major Juniors, as well as players who were holding out on their NHL clubs. They played exhibition games and other random worl tournaments to tune up for the Olympics.

However, another hurdle that would need to be jumped would be the NHL teams releasing their players to the national teams, which could be worse if the players are guys who are shuttled back and forth to the NHL or AHL frequently.  That said, it could be a giant opportunity for some of these guys who may never have thought about representing their country based on their peer group. Not just those from the US and Canada, but Finnish and Swedish AHLers may get a sniff should there not be enough talent over in Europe…hey, they can dream, right??

I believe that the minor leaguers win in all of this, regardless of what happens. If there are NHL players who are allowed to go somehow, someway (looking at you, Washington Capitals); a slew of guys on the Hershey Bears will get called up to play in the NHL. If the NHLers do stay, then it’s a chance for some AHLer to go ahead and maybe get the call to play for their nation; they get a boost in any instance

While I’m not about the NHL-pro guys going to overshadow the other amateur athletes who’s only goal is to participate in the Games, the idea of young talent in the AHL or ECHL going over is something that intrigues me. If not only for the underdog story of these guys going over and facing off against the other best in the world– but it’s their hardwork being promoted on the big stage and have their stories shared to across the world. Thus, when it is all over, maybe even having people pay more attention to those players in the minors when they get back to playing there.

Lalonde Helping Iowa Climb From Obscurity

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When Derek Lalonde got hired by the Iowa Wild, there were many people scratching their heads. Not so much in wondering why Iowa would want Lalonde as their coach, but more why would Lalonde leave a great situation like he had in Toledo with the Walleye to go to a team that was limited success in the AHL?? One could only assume that not only did Lalonde like the promotion, he welcomed the challenge of trying to elevate a that has festered in the basement of the AHL standings, while also employing a system that will work not only on the AHL level, but in the NHL as well.

So far, so great for Lalonde’s vision.

On Saturday night, the Iowa Wild won their 29th games of the season, thus setting a franchise record for wins in a season with 16 games left to play. They sit in 4th place in the Central Division, four points up on Cleveland, though Cleveland has two games in hand. This is after a trade deadline which saw Iowa’s leading scorer Teemu Pulkkinen get dealt, along with secondary scoring center Grayson Downing, as well as Zac Dalpe being lost to waivers. Couple that with injuries and call-ups, the Iowa roster has taken a licking, but keeps on ticking.

While they’re not the most offensive team in the league (ranking 26th in the league in goals-for), the defense has been superb for Iowa, ranking 9th in goals-against with 158 goals given up on the season. That has put a lot of the spotlight on Alex Stalock and Steve Michalek, both of whom have performed admirably. Yet, defense has always been the calling card for a Lalonde coached team. In his short time as a head coach, Lalonde’s teams have only one given up more than 200 goals-against, and that was the 2012-13 Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.

However, the modus operandi of Lalonde seems to be that when he takes over a team, he makes them better. While he took over a rather successful Green Bay Gamblers team in 2011-12, he was able to make them better by winning six more games than the year before, while also helping them win a championship in the same year. When he took over the Toledo Walleye, he helped that team get out of the one-year lurch by more than doubling the team’s win total in a year (21 wins in 2013-14, 50 in 2014-15), while also helping the team capture their first Brabham Cup for most points in the regular season in the ECHL. The model continue to work in Iowa, as I stated before, with the team eclipsing their top mark for wins in a season with 16 games to spare.

As Iowa play in the ultra-competitive Central Division, it remains to be seen whether or not the playoff streak of Lalonde’s continues (he has made the playoffs in all five seasons he’s been a head coach), the success that Laldone has already had with Iowa is showing by locking down the defensive side that Iowa has had in its existence (235 GA in 2013-14, 245 GA in 2014-15, 225 GA in 2015-16), while also make this team a winning commodity. Players have bought into his system, also getting help from Minnesota in stocking their AHL affiliate with solid talent with experience in the AHL to help the team climb out of the basement of the league. The fans have seen it, too, as Iowa has cracked the 6,000-person average attendance mark as the time of this writing, proving that winning helps attendance.

Chuck Fletcher has also helped Iowa by helping the team stock up with some AHL veterans (Pat Cannone, Jeff Hoggan), as well as bright, young talent (Alex Tuch, Sam Anas, Mario Lucia) to help Lalonde’s success. The last time a Minnesota AHL team had this much success was in 2012-13 when the Houston Aeros had the likes of Justin Fontaine, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella, and Jason Zucker on their squad– all of whom made the jump to become regulars in the NHL. With the NHL parent club caring for the AHL squad, it helps immensely in the AHL squad trying to have success on top of development. 

The future is bright for Lalonde, especially if this turnaround ends in a playoff run for Iowa. While there’s always the issue of what could happen if an NHL goes after the AHL “Flavor of the Month Coach” as they have in the past with Dallas Eakins and Jared Bednar (though the situations weren’t keen to success for either), the success Lalonde has had in the past at every level should help his cause a little bit, so long as his players buy into his system as they have before, however– only time will tell if that long-term vision becomes maintained success.

First Month in the Sin Bin

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So, it’s been a month since I joined TheSinBin.net and it’s been pretty solid overall. Here’s what you may have been missing if you haven’t checked it out yet.

-The Stockton Heat not only are going through a change on the ice in their league play, but also off the ice in renovations to get the Stockton Arena up to AHL caliber.

-The AHL schedule was announced and boy howdy, it’s as bad as you think it was and it will cause a plenty of confusion with math and stuff to determine the playoffs.

-With the possibility of expansion in the NHL, it means the AHL and ECHL will need expansion as well to have a “One Team, One Affiliation” gimmick going. Hat Trick Consultants are looking at different markets to see what is actually viable.

-And, it’s two weeks– so the podcast is up and going.

It’s been a great time and the people there have been super supportive and we’ve been noticed– with is the main goal. Hope you keep coming along for the journey.

Coaching Carousel in the AHL

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With the coaching jobs getting less and less in the minor league hockey, the one constant remains– Roy Sommer will be coaching the San Jose Barracuda, putting his tenure with the Sharks’ AHL coach at 18 seasons, which has carried him through Kentucky, Cleveland, and Worcester. Outside of that, the trend with the most recent hirings by AHL teams is that of former NHL coaches who weren’t able to keep afloat in the NHL by their own doing or circumstances beyond their control.

The Grand Rapids Griffins got the top name out there in Todd Nelson, who gets back into the AHL after a subpar first outing in Edmonton; which is something no one could have salvaged. Nelson did the smart thing and decided to bail out of Edmonton with their sweeping changes to head to the Grand Rapids side, who should fit Nelson’s style perfectly. With the Oklahoma City Barons, however, Nelson was stellar with a 176-111-46 over four-plus seasons and if given a better goaltender and defense, maybe have been able to stick with Edmonton. However, with Grand Rapids having stellar prospects in their line-up already, it’s a matter of Nelson not getting too far off course from what the Griffins already have and get back to his winning ways in the AHL.

After surprisingly letting go their entire coaching staff, the Arizona Coyotes will start with a new coach in their new affiliation in Springfield, as Ron Rolston will take the helm there. Rolston, who was last seen behind the bench of the Buffalo Sabres– but only for 20 games, gets back the AHL after three seasons away. From 2011 until 2013, Rolston was behind the bench of the Rochester Americans, where he led them to a 79-55-18 record during that time. However, Rolston hasn’t really got himself into a head coaching style. Even with his short stint as the Sabres coach, Rolston is better regarded as an assistant, as he went through the college ranks as one and only has 206 head coaching games to his resume. It will be interesting to see how much rope the Coyotes give Rolston in developing their young stars.

In Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Mike Sullivan will be taking over for John Hynes— who departed for the New Jersey Devils. Sullivan, who was a player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks this season, will return behind the bench in the head gig for the first time since 2006 when he coached the Boston Bruins. However, Sullivan has been behind the bench as an assistant in New York, Tampa Bay, and Vancouver. The AHL is where Sullivan had a great year with the 2002-03 Providence Bruins (41-17-9-4), which was all Boston needed to promote him to the NHL. Sullivan does have tough shoes to fill, as Hynes was a stalwart for the Baby Pens and led them to five straight playoff appearances and two conference finals. Whether or not Sullivan can revive his magic that he had back in 2002-03 remains to be seen, but odds are he will have to make sure this transition goes off without a hitch, lest he finds himself back looking for another job.

There are a few jobs in the AHL left, with Lehigh Valley having an opening with the exit of Terry Murray to Buffalo, as well as the other shuffling affiliated teams and a couple of the California teams– but I wouldn’t expect much out of those except a change of address for the AHL coaches in the previous markets moving to their new locale. As per usual in minor league hockey, the minute the season ends; the next season inevitably begins. No clue what that means– just needed something to end it out and it failed horribly.

Manchester Leaving AHL on Top; What Will the ECHL Bring??

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Photo by Jon Rosen

Even before they knew the Los Angeles Kings would move their AHL operation to Ontario, California; the Monarchs looked like a team ready to finally make a big run at the Calder Cup. While this past season wasn’t their best in terms of wins and points (51 wins and 110 points was reached twice in 2004-05 and 2006-07), it is the first season they were able to have the highest wins and point total in the league (50 wins and 108 points). And while this team didn’t have a win past the first round in four previous playoffs– there was something a little more determined by the team to give their fans a good send-off to the AHL. Though, it was the first round that almost did the Monarchs in again, as they were pushed to a decisive Game Five against the Portland Pirates, but were able to make it out of their alive and then cruise through the rest of the Eastern Conference and then play a hard-fought five games to defeat the Utica Comets and win their first Calder Cup in their last season.

More over, though, is what the Monarchs have done in terms of development and who the fans have been able to see. From Jonathan Quick, Mike Cammalleri, and Matt Moulson; the Monarchs produced a decent amount of NHLers and many who have gone on to win a Stanley Cup with the Kings. Even to the end, with playoff MVP Jordan Weal, defenseman Colin Miller, goalie J-F Berube, and breakout performer Michael Mersch were all Manchester products who will be an asset to the Kings in the future. The fans lucked out big time when it came to the Kings drafting and signing great young talent for them to watch since 2001.

And the fans did turn out for this team, even though after the first few years– they weren’t able to pull in the big 8,000+ average. In the last few years, the Monarchs were at the middle of the AHL charts with attendance at the 5,500+ mark. Much can be put towards the downturn in attendance– the economy, people moving away from the area, more things to do in the area– but the die-hard fans were there to the end and were rewards with this Calder Cup victory.

Yet, the big question is whether or not they’ll turn out in the same numbers with the ECHL team in town. That has been one of the main concerns with the swaps of team is if people who had enjoyed AHL hockey for years will enjoy the “downgrade” of leagues and embrace the new players that will come in, but under the same moniker they feel is familiar with the AHL. While there are few entries in this, the numbers don’t really help the cause for support– as the Peoria Rivermen saw a drop-off of around 1,500 fans not attended the SPHL incarnation the season after they left the AHL. When the Utah Grizzlies went from the AHL to the ECHL, they saw about a 1,000 person drop-off, though their numbers were steadily declining in their last few AHL years. That said, the Grizzlies have rebounded the past few years with better teams and management decisions.

The Monarchs will join the 1967 Pittsburgh Hornets, the 1970 Buffalo Bisons, and 1982 New Brunswick Hawks as teams who won the Calder Cup and not play in the AHL the next season. It will be interesting to see how the Manchester Monarchs go about raising their championship banner. Will they do it during their parade celebration in a couple weeks or will they wait until ECHL opening night to raise their 1st Calder Cup winning banner from the rafters of the Verizon Wireless Arena?? Regardless of the decision, to leave a league out on top is anything that anyone in that organization could have hoped for as the transition happens.

The Magic Number is 68

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In discussion with AHL president David Andrews, Jon Rosen of the Los Angeles Kings Insider was able to get the skinny on what is going to happen with the games for the California teams. There is a reduction, but it isn’t as horrible as many (me included) thought it would be.

That reduction will be a 68-game schedule for the California-based Ontario Reign, San Diego Gulls, San Jose Barracuda, Bakersfield Condors and Stockton Heat, American Hockey League Commissioner David Andrews confirmed to LA Kings Insider during the first intermission of Friday’s Calder Cup Finals game in Utica, N.Y. Teams outside of the Pacific Division will play 76-game schedules. At this time, it is unclear whether the Texas-based Pacific Division teams – the San Antionio Rampage and Texas Stars – will play a 68 or 76-game schedule.

Now, in the previous discussions, including one that was done by Lindsay Kramer from Syracuse.com, the 25 other AHL teams would play a full 76. That said, should the AHL decide that the divisional play is the way they want to go; then if San Antonio and Texas are able to get a 68-game schedule– it’s not all that bad and the Pacific is on a level playing field as the rest of their counterparts. Of course, who knows if those teams want to give up four home dates that they’re used to because of schedule imbalance, but that’ll be revealed when the schedule is put out.

This brings up the debate of why there is being special things in place for the California teams. The Alaska Aces are a team in the ECHL who never got special treatment, same went for the Abbotsford Heat and Utah Grizzlies when they were in the AHL and far away from other teams in their league.

From what I recall when this idea of California teams were bandied about, the big hold-up is whether or not it would be smart to have these teams in the AHL and not hurt the integrity of the rest of the league. For me, five (or seven) teams getting eight less games than the rest of the team is a little bit of an eyebrow raiser, regardless of the travel/profit involved in it. Granted, the NHL does have better transportation; but if this is a development league– one of the things the players coming up should have to experience is the travel that involved in the hockey life.

That said, I’m just a blogger/podcaster and I’m not paid to make the decisions the AHL is doing– which is something that I don’t envy because who knows what politics are involved when making these decisions for these new teams. It has to be hard on Andrews and the staff to make this, while trying not to alienate the rest of the league in the process. Whether less games will actually be helpful or a hinderance won’t be seen for about three years; but for a league that is coming up on their 80th anniversary, one would think that they wouldn’t bend the rules for the minority of teams after doing all they could to get them into the league in the first place.