Friday, 8 August 2014

Realigning Is Hard To Do

I like a good mental exercise. It gives me a chance to stretch the old thinking muscle, and that kind of stretch feels good. What doesn't feel good, however, is running into the same problem time and again when working on one of these critical thinking exercises. Case in point? The proposed realignments of the minor-pro hockey leagues to better serve the NHL's west coast teams and their problems with the immense burden of travel some seem to face. While the ideal situation is to have every NHL team's minor-league affiliates closer to home, the reality is that this is a pipe dream as it stands.

I have worked through every possible scenario to try and move minor-league affiliates closer to home, but two things ruin these plans: the lack of minor-league teams west of the central timezone, and the high number of minor-league teams in the states of New York and Texas and across the American midwest.

We'll start in the state of New York. Including the New Jersey Devils and the three NHL teams in the state, there are a total of eleven teams in the state. If each NHL team requires an AHL and an ECHL affiliate, you're probably thinking this isn't a problem regarding the math. The issue, though, is that Hamilton, Ontario is closer to Buffalo than all other New York-based teams except Rochester. Syracuse is closer to Buffalo and Ottawa than it is to New York City. The same goes for Utica. In other words, the minor-league affiliates in New York are closer to NHL cities other than the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils. The Elmira Jackals? They're closer to Buffalo too.

The state of Texas faces the same problem. The NHL team there - the Dallas Stars - are surrounded by the Texas Stars, the San Antonio Rampage, and the Allen Americans. Again, those aren't ridiculous numbers to work with, but when you factor in that Oklahoma City and Tulsa are less than eight hours away, and suddenly there are five minor-league teams within the distance of one NHL team. The state of Texas should be thankful that the Houston Aeros left for Des Moines, right?

Actually, that also poses a problem. The Chicago Wolves and Chicago Blackhawks aren't that far from one another, and they have Rockford and Moline nearby. Indiana boasts the Indianapolis Fire, the Fort Wayne Komets, and the Evansville Icemen. The Detroit Red Wings are surrounded by the Toledo Walleye, the Kalamazoo Wings, and the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Minnesota Wild have the Rapid City Rush, the Iowa Wild, and the Milwaukee Admirals close to them. There are a pile of hockey teams crammed into that area, and there aren't enough NHL affiliates to service them all.

And that leads to the problems out west where Colorado, Edmonton, Calgary, Phoenix, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles all want teams closer. Well, there are choices, but we need to clarify one point.

The Edmonton Oilers bought the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors already, so that takes the Condors off the market as a team that can re-affiliate itself. That leaves the Alaska Aces, the Stockton Thunder, the Ontario Reign, the Colorado Eagles, the Denver Cutthroats, the Idaho Steelheads, the Las Vegas Thunder, Utah Grizzlies, and the Arizona SunDogs as the only minor-pro teams west of the Rockies. Nine teams for seven NHL franchises to share, and not one of them is an established AHL team? Yeah, that's not gonna fly for any of the NHL franchises.

I won't deny that the idea of re-aligning all of the minor-pro teams is intriguing at first glance, but there simply aren't enough lower-tiered teams to make it easier on all the NHL teams. Cities like Portland, Seattle, and Abbotsford would give the idea a major shot in the arm, but there are no owners in those cities who want to take on the risk. Seattle and Portland, on the flip side, already have solid WHL teams, and they won't be supplanted by some fly-by-night idea the NHL has unless there are major concessions made.

While I sympathize with the west coast NHL teams, their travel problems aren't going to be completely solved by reshuffling the minor-league teams. There just aren't enough western-based cities needing hockey teams to make this work while Texas, the midwest, and the northeast US are overloaded and over-saturated with teams. Realignment could make things marginally better, but there will still be travel issues for some teams.

Realignment is a good idea. Just not at this moment.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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