By Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
TORONTO – Bob Murray was California dreaming about the American Hockey League’s new Pacific Division because the Anaheim Ducks’ general manager will be able to wake up and drive down the coast to see his minor-league team in San Diego.
That’s impossible for Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers executives, but those Canadian NHL teams will also benefit from the AHL’s Westward relocation. Starting next season the Flames will have their top affiliate in Stockton, Calif., and the Oilers in Bakersfield in an attempt to give those organizations better development and access to minor-league players.
As part of the all-California cluster, the Los Angeles Kings will have a team in Ontario and the Sharks in their own arena in San Jose.
“Us and Calgary don’t have the luxury that the California teams do, but the division is going to be highly competitive and that will be really good on the development side,” Oilers president Kevin Lowe said on a conference call Thursday. “From our perspective, it’s the proximity for the other teams within our own division and the benefit that we’ll get for our players in terms of having more practice days. That’s the biggest benefit.”
The Flames’ AHL team currently resides in Glens Falls, N.Y., which is a drive to a major airport and then a long flight from Alberta. The Oilers’ AHL team is in Oklahoma City.
San Jose’s AHL team is now in Worcester, Mass., Anaheim’s in Norfolk, Va., and Los Angeles’s in Manchester, N.H.
One practical implication is that these teams can now recall players from the AHL on shorter notice if injuries occur.
“You can’t always control travel, but you would suspect in California you’ve got less of the travel issues as it relates to weather and those types of things,” Calgary GM Brad Treliving said in a phone interview. “The fact of the matter is it’s easier to get a body from Stockton, Calif., to Calgary than it is from the East Coast to Calgary, for a host of different reasons.”
These five AHL teams will play fewer games than the current 76 on the schedule, which Lowe said was part of the deal in creating the Pacific Division. It’s unclear just how many there will be.
“It’s going to drop, and the purpose of that is more emphasis on development and really to try to reduce completely the three (games) in three nights,” Lowe said. “Most people on the management side of hockey teams will suggest that it’s not great for development.”
This idea has been bandied about for several years. Murray said at a news conference in San Jose that he and former GM Brian Burke talked about it as soon as they got to Anaheim. The Pacific Division is the first phase of trying to geographically balance out the AHL, which historically has been centred in the East.
“I think it was just a matter of time,” Treliving said. “It’s taken a long time and it’s not an easy undertaking. There’s a lot of moving pieces here.”
AHL president David Andrews called relocating five teams a complex process but one that “launches a new era for the American Hockey League and for professional hockey in California.”
The Kings, Sharks and Ducks will get the benefit of having their teams in the same state. San Jose’s AHL team will even share SAP Center with the Sharks, an arrangement no other organization currently has.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ top affiliate, the Marlies, are in the same city, and the Philadelphia Flyers once had the Phantoms in another arena across the parking lot.
“Toronto’s a perfect example: There’s a benefit of being right there and there’s a reason why they moved their team to Toronto,” Treliving said. “A player pulls a groin in Toronto on a morning skate, you can get a guy to drive across town.”
Edmonton to Bakersfield and Calgary to Stockton isn’t that close, but it’s an improvement. Lowe estimated that the AHL’s Condors will have about 20 to 25 extra practices per season than the Barons had in Oklahoma City, when the closest opponent was a six-hour bus ride away.
This isn’t a full-scale relocation as the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL team will remain in Utica, N.Y., and the Winnipeg Jets’ in St. John’s, N.L., for at least next season. But there are rumours of each NHL club wanting the same type of move as their Western Conference Canadian counterparts.
The Jets have been linked to Thunder Bay, Ont., or even Winnipeg itself, and the Canucks potentially to Abbotsford, B.C., which used to be the home of the AHL’s Heat. The Arizona Coyotes would like to join this movement, as well, and could put a team in Scottsdale.
“There’s no question that we’ve been involved in a lot of these discussions with a lot of our compadres in the West, and we hope to be a part of the Pacific Division if at all possible as early as the following season,” Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said before his team’s game against the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. “I would anticipate we’ll be the ones to break the mould and our franchise won’t be in California but it’ll be in Arizona.”
A bigger Pacific Division is very possible for the 2016-17 season. At that point it may even include a minor-league affiliate paired with a Las Vegas expansion team.
“The division has a flexibility if it grows in the future to play strictly in our own division,” Lowe said. “We like to think that the division will grow in time, but there’s nothing concrete at this point.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter