How AHL Realignment Affects the Red Wings Affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins
Get ready to rack up some travel miles.
The Detroit Red Wings AHL affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins are currently tussling with the Utica Comets in the AHL Western Conference Final. But two weeks ago, the AHL finally announced a new divisional alignment for the 2015-16 season which became necessary after they also announced in the middle of the season the formation of a new Pacific Division. This whole operation is the attempted solution to a long-standing problem of NHL teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones being worlds away from their minor league clubs and their prospects.
It's hard to say that it's really affected teams' development models too much, considering the Los Angeles Kings (Manchester Monarchs), San Jose Sharks (Worcester Sharks) and Anaheim Ducks (Norfolk Admirals) all seem to be doing quite well despite their AHL teams being on the other side of the country. But much like the impossible-to-solve travel schedule issues within the NHL, if there's a sense of competitive imbalance, teams will do what they can to level the playing field. After all, why do the Boston Bruins get to have their AHL affiliate less than an hour away in Providence while the Edmonton Oilers have to go all the way to Oklahoma City?
So what does this AHL realignment mean for the Griffins?
In order to understand what kind of changes are happening, let's first see what situation Grand Rapids is in now. The Griffins played a 76-game schedule this season as a member of the Western Conference's Midwest Division. The regular season's scheduling matrix doesn't include any games against Eastern Conference teams in order to help teams save on travel; travel expenses are among the largest operational expenses teams incur, so if the Texas Stars can be spared from traveling to play the St. John's Ice Caps, better not to schedule it and just wait for a potential Calder Cup meeting.
Though the AHL has finalized their divisional alignment, they haven't finalized a scheduling matrix or a playoff format. Given the similarity of the AHL's new alignment to the current NHL structure, we can probably expect a divisional playoff system, under which the Griffins won't have to travel to California or Texas until the Conference Final. The flip side of the coin is that if the Griffins do make the Conference Final, all seven teams in the Pacific Division are in Texas or California, so that trek will be inevitable.
As for the regular season, being in the Western Conference means the Griffins will be playing regular season games against the five new California teams as well as the two current Texas teams. As a result, the Griffins' travel budgets will be increasing substantially; one estimate puts that increase at around 29 percent.
One other issue purely in terms of scheduling is yet to be determined. While the previous link to Peter Wallner's piece on the increased travel costs mentions that the California teams would play a 68-game schedule and the rest a 76-game one, there's still some rumbling that the entire AHL schedule will shrink to a uniform 66 or 72 games.
So far, the only real consequence of the realignment for the Griffins is increased travel. However, that increased travel carries some consequences of its own.
One advantage that the northeastern-most AHL teams have had is that less time to travel by bus or by plane means more time on the ice. For players that are trying to improve their game to get to the NHL, the more ice time they can get, the better. If the Griffins are going to be traveling more because their opponents are further away, it likely means less practice time. That means less coaching and skill development compared to past seasons.
The increased travel time also affects the parent club. Ken Holland currently can enjoy a three-hour drive to Grand Rapids from Detroit if he wants to scout the farm team. That arrangement won't be disturbed, but if the Griffins are away more often because of the increased travel burden, that's less contact for the GM with vital players for the organization's future.
That arrangement ultimately may be inconsequential, but the increased travel does affect the actual NHL team directly too. Injuries and call-ups are a necessary part of a franchise's season. But if the Red Wings play a back-to-back in Florida and Squishy the defenseman gets injured against the Tampa Bay Lightning, how feasible do you think it is for Xavier Ouellet or Nick Jensen or any call-up to make it in time to Sunrise for the following night's game against the Florida Panthers if the Griffins are in, say, Stockton, Calif.?
That potential nightmare scenario can be mitigated because in all likelihood, the possibility of the different schedules even creating that scenario in the first place is slim. And if the reduced schedule reports end up coming to fruition, it could mean more time for certain prospects with the big club — roster size and salary cap implications understood. Alexey Marchenko or even Ryan Sproul or Tyler Bertuzzi could spend a few practices with the big club, which would be a good positive for their development that could offset any potential setbacks resulting from the AHL's realignment.
There was never going to be an easy solution to the problem of NHL teams being far away from their farm clubs. Grand Rapids is going to bear some additional burden as a result of the new AHL Pacific Division. How much these changes affect the Griffins won't be certain until next season, but it will be a different experience for the western part of The Mitten in 2015-16. Whatever affect it has on the Red Wings, it's best for Holland and the gang to get a handle on the situation now and be prepared for anything.