The American Hockey League released some big news today. They've majorly changed up the conferences, divisions, and playoff formats for the upcoming 2011-12 season. Their changes will make for a tougher pond for your Ducklings to be swimming in, that's for sure, but it might ultimately and hopefully lead to increased development through better playoff implications and increased competition.
A year ago, when the AHL finally totaled 30 teams, fans urged the league to change things to get rid of crossover rules. We wanted the divisions to be even. Barring that, we asked that they at least make things more like the NHL, perhaps using conference standings instead of divisional standings to seed teams for the playoffs. They ignored us.
Lo and behold, however, this season it appears as though they listened to us. The AHL released our new conferences, divisional, and playoff formats, and got fans all excited for the next season. This will affect the Crunch and your Ducklings in a pretty major way.
First up, the new conferences and divisions:
North Division: Grand Rapids, Hamilton, Lake Erie, Toronto, Rochester
Midwest Division: Charlotte, Chicago, Milwaukee, Peoria, Rockford
West Division: Abbotsford, Houston, OKC, San Antonio, Texas
Atlantic Division: Manchester, Portland, Providence, St. John’s, Worcester
Northeast Division: Adirondack, Albany, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Springfield
East Division: Binghamton, Hershey, Norfolk, Syracuse, WBS
What this means: Essentially, what this did was break up the AHL into smaller, more geographically-centered sections that are equal and balanced. It set the stage for the AHL to consider conference-only play during the regular season, although all reports are saying right now that those plans probably won't come to fruition this year. It also put your Ducklings into one heck of a hard division. Hershey and WBS are almost always huge in this league. Binghamton was that team last year who won the Calder Cup. The only question mark is Norfolk. They are usually middle-to-end of the pack.
The saving grace to our tough division is that, in addition to changing the divisions, the AHL also changed playoff seeding. The AHL has said the following about the playoff seeding for '11-'12:
Eight teams in each conference will qualify for the postseason, with the three division winners earning the top three seeds and the next five best teams in order of regular-season points seeded fourth through eighth.
The conference quarterfinals will be best-of-five series; the conference semifinals, conference finals and Calder Cup Finals will be best-of-seven series. Teams will be re-ordered after the first round so that the highest-remaining seed plays the lowest-remaining seed.
Thankfully, this gives the Crunch a bit of breathing room in their tough division. Technically, the entire East Division could be playoff bound if the other teams in the conference are worse than them. I know that's a bit of a stretch, but you get what I mean. Had the AHL kept the divisional seeding they had before, then they would have done something like having the top three teams in each division making the post season. In such a deep division, that could have severely crippled the Crunch's chances. This opens things up a bit more and allows for more jostling down the end of season stretch.
What this also does is add more weight to games that might have meant nothing had divisional seeding been left in place. The Crunch's proximity to Albany and Adirondack usually means a lot of visits with those teams. The Crunch also usually plays Bridgeport, Connecticut, Springfield, and Portland at least once. The new inter-conference seeding means those games have playoff implications now, making for a more exciting atmosphere. Players will have points they'll be playing for, points over teams that might prove extremely valuable at the end of the season. It also will hopefully encourage more variety in our schedule. For instance, I can't remember when we last played Manchester. I'd love to see them, especially now that we could be facing them in the playoffs.
Finally, this new format does what makes the most sense: allows the number one developmental league for the NHL to shadow them in their playoff format. Developing players should get used to following conference standings, to having nearly every game mean something for the end of the season. It's what they'll face when they reach the National Hockey League, so it's what they should do in the American Hockey League.
From what I've read, many AHL fans are really happy with these changes. NHL fans should be thrilled with them, as well, as it generally means a more competitive atmosphere for their developing players that more closely copies what they'll find when called up. All in all, we should have a pretty exciting season a head of us.
It's good to be back!