TAMPA — The American Hockey League season is over. The highest-level minor league joins colleges, junior leagues and the second-highest minor league in calling off the season and the playoffs.
Does that mean the NHL is next?
No. The decisions will be entirely unrelated. The minor leagues’ business model relies on having fans in the arena. There are no TV deals to bring in money, so sponsors rely on spectators inside the arena to see their messaging.
The NHL can return without fans and bring in money from both TV contracts and sponsorship deals. Teams and their owners also have more reserves to pull from than their minor league counterparts.
If anything, the NHL’s potential return may make it harder for the AHL to do the same.
If the NHL expands the roster limit, as expected, teams may carry something between a training camp roster and “Black Aces.” When the AHL season ends, NHL teams typically recall most if not all players under contract to serve as “Black Aces” through the playoffs, without a salary cap hit. These players rarely play but are on hand in case they’re needed.
In this case, we might see teams use those players as everyone gets back into shape, like a typical training camp. They also might play if NHL regulars sit out the final games of the regular season once their teams’ spots in the standings have been set.
That means the Lightning could see the return of players like Alex Volkov and Mathieu Joseph. Volkov had three brief recalls this year, while Joseph spent most of the season in the AHL after a strong rookie NHL season last year. Top defense prospects Cal Foote and Dominik Masin also could make an appearance.
Players under NHL contracts are stuck in limbo, then, as they wait to see if they might be directed to report to the Lightning or another NHL team without an AHL season.
As for the AHL, CEO David Andrews told Sportsnet on Monday, the league might be something “dramatically different” when it returns at some point in 2020-21.
That may mean a cost-cutting approach to the schedule, with a smaller range of travel. The AHL also has to wait to see what the NHL will do next season. If the NHL pushes its season back, the AHL likely will have to do the same as many of its players start in NHL training camps.
Any reduction in games will hurt AHL teams financially. The Lightning’s affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, lost revenue from eight home games, plus a playoff run this season. The Lightning offered a reduced affiliate fee, which provides some relief.
In the ECHL (the next level down from the AHL), however, teams already have announced 2020-21 home openers for as soon as Oct. 17. The ECHL canceled the rest of its season on March 14, two days after the suspension of play, and teams have not been paying players.
Unlike baseball, hockey’s minor leagues are separate organizations that operate independently, though in communication with each other, and develop their own policies.
The AHL canceling the rest of its season while the NHL still optimistically explores its options demonstrates how differently the leagues operate, though they rely on each other.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.