While the focus recently has been on how the NHL will realign for the upcoming season, mention should be made of the AHL as well. The minor league will also need regional reconstruction of their divisions if they want a 2020-21 season to be possible, with the all-Canadian idea coming up once again. While the NHL is leaning towards pitting all seven Canadian teams against each other, the AHL will likely do something similar according to Bruce Garrioch of Postmedia, though it does come with some important differences.
The only AHL teams that are based in Canada are the Toronto Marlies, Belleville Senators, Laval Rocket, and Manitoba Moose. The Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, and Edmonton Oilers all have their AHL affiliates in the U.S., based in Utica, Stockton, and Bakersfield respectively. Garrioch reports that those parent teams don’t want to temporarily relocate those teams north of the border “because of the expense involved.”
Of course, if those minor league clubs are not relocated, it will bring up a whole different host of issues for the three western Canadian teams. Travel between the two countries still requires a quarantine, meaning prospects playing in the U.S. wouldn’t be available for a quick recall if needed. The whole point of an all-Canadian division in the NHL was to avoid travel back and forth, but what of the minor league players that Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary will need to use throughout the season?
For the Marlies, Senators, and Rocket, playing each other regularly wouldn’t come as much of a change. The three teams were already in the same AHL division and were scheduled against each other all the time. The Moose however are in the AHL’s Central Division, meaning it would be a very different schedule if they were to just play the three other Canadian teams over and over.
At this point, nothing has been set in stone by the AHL. Last month they changed their target start date to February 5, which would potentially give the NHL time to get underway before any minor league games begin. But with so many changing health restrictions in both countries—the province of Manitoba for instance changed to the “critical” level on the pandemic response system a few days ago, forcing sports facilities to close immediately—it is still extremely difficult to predict what an AHL season might look like, regional realignment or not.