The American Hockey League pushed back its anticipated start date for the 2020-21 season on Wednesday from Dec. 4 to Feb. 5, highlighting the nation's continuing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic. While not much is known about what the upcoming NHL season may look like, the issues are even more profound for the AHL, a league that does not have the benefit of the television revenue the NHL enjoys and whose revenue is largely dependent on fan attendance. But the struggles of the AHL are not merely an AHL problem, they could have some serious repercussions on the NHL season that could force some pretty dramatic changes.
Hopefully, by February the coronavirus is under control, but how long have we been saying that? Back in March, I did not expect to still be writing from my basement instead of at Capital One Arena or MedStar Capitals Iceplex and yet, here we are. The fact is, if there is no viable way to have fans attend games, then there is a significant chance the AHL will not be able to have a season. That's a big problem and this will severely impact the roster of NHL teams in a way I am not sure the league has prepared for yet.
According to Puck Pedia, the Capitals have 48 players under contract. They also own the rights of a number of prospects who are not yet signed. An NHL roster, however, consists of a maximum of 23 players so long as it falls under the salary cap ceiling. Those other players need somewhere to play. Some of them will play overseas, some of them will play in their junior leagues (if those junior leagues have a season), but a good number of those players are penciled in for the AHL. What happens to them if there is no AHL season?
For young, developing players, the best thing for their development is to play as much as possible. They can't just not play for an entire year. That could be disastrous for their development.
That's a future problem, but there is an even more pressing problem the NHL faces in 2020-21 if there is no AHL.
Just like every season, injuries are going to happen and will happen to every team. Players have to be called up from the minors and those call-ups have to be ready to play. But if there is no AHL season, those players may not have played a competitive hockey game in months, maybe even over year. You can't have that.
No, Wednesday's announcement does not mean the AHL season is canceled, but it does reflect the continuing challenges that league faces and the NHL needs to have contingency plans in place for what teams can do with their prospects. Finding a solution, however, may be easier said than done.
In the playoffs the roster maximum and salary cap is dropped allowing teams to recall several players they use as "black aces" who are largely just practice players. Granted, the NHL is not going to waive the salary cap given the financial losses the league has already suffered during the pandemic, but taking a similar model in which teams can have a number of practice players who don't count against the cap or the roster would allow teams to monitor their potential call-ups to ensure they are both ready to play and that they don't have COVID or bring it with them if they are recalled
But, unlike in the playoffs, figuring out what those black aces should be paid would be an issue. In the playoffs, no one is earning a salary. Players are paid their full salary over the course of the regular season. Would black aces be entitled to their full salary despite just being practice players? Would two-way players earn their NHL or minor-league salary? These would be obvious points of contention between the players and the league.
Paying players who have families and life expenses just a per diem to be a practice player isn't going to cut it but I don't think NHL teams are going to be crazy about the idea of having to pay for more players given the financial losses they have already suffered.
Teams could potentially loan out their players to other leagues that are playing, but this could get very complicated very quickly. Junior leagues such as the WHL, QMJHL and OHL are all in Canada whose border is closed to the US. If the Caps are in need of a center, would recalling a player like Connor McMichael even be an option if he is playing in Canada? The Caps have already loaned a number of prospects to teams in Europe, but that does not seem like a viable option during the season considering how long it would take players to come back to the US, especially with the NHL expected to play a condensed schedule. If the Caps wanted to recall a player in the KHL, for example, how long would it take them to make it to the team?
There are other minor leagues in North America such as the ECHL. In fact, the Caps have an affiliation with the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays. But could those leagues handle a sudden influx of prospects sent from the NHL? Would that push a high number of other players out of work who suddenly can't compete with bonafide NHL prospects?
I sincerely hope the AHL is able to play and that the pandemic is well behind us by February, but I'm also done guessing when life will return to normal. The fact is, the NHL has to have plans in place in case there is no AHL season because there are a large number of players who have to stay active in case they are needed by their NHL team. Wednesday's announcement is a reminder that this is just one more problem the NHL has to solve before the start of the 2020-21 season.