For more than eight years, the San Jose Sharks have been shuttling young players to and from Worcester, Massachusetts, for depth on their NHL roster or development at the AHL level.
Soon, the Sharks will be able to shed the cross-country flights from their budget and make those moves within their own building.
The NHL’s feeder league will undergo a sizable westward shift, designed to bring five farm teams closer to their parent clubs in a long-anticipated announcement finalized Thursday by the American Hockey League. The 30-team AHL will create a Pacific Division next season, the product of nearly three years of discussions with the NHL.
“This will make the franchise even more competitive on the ice,” Sharks chief operating officer John Tortora said at a news conference at the SAP Center, which also will be home starting this summer for their yet-to-be-named AHL affiliate. The team won’t be called the Sharks, for obvious reasons, as it was in Worcester.
The Toronto Maple Leafs already have a same-city AHL affiliate, the Marlies, but they play in a different arena.
All of the new sites will be in California, home to three of the NHL’s 30 teams. Here are the other farm club shifts:
*Anaheim Ducks: Norfolk, Virginia, to San Diego.
*Calgary Flames: Glens Falls, New York, to Stockton.
*Edmonton Oilers: Oklahoma City to Bakersfield.
*Los Angeles Kings: Manchester, New Hampshire, to Ontario.
The Sharks, Flames, Oilers and Kings already owned their AHL franchises. The Ducks will purchase the Norfolk Admirals before the relocation.
Ducks executive vice president and general manager Bob Murray spoke giddily at the news conference about the opportunity for a two-hour drive down the coast to watch his team’s prospects play. Norfolk is more than 2,700 miles away from Anaheim. Murray credited his colleagues in the NHL’s Pacific Division for making this realignment work.
“As competitive as we are, for that to happen is an amazing thing, but we all have the same vision,” Murray said.
Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe estimated that the relocation will lead to an extra 25 to 30 days of practice for the Bakersfield team, with four division foes now within driving distance. The Oklahoma City Barons have had to fly to most of their games, playing in the AHL’s isolated West Division with two teams in Texas, one in Iowa and one in North Carolina.
The realignment won’t eliminate every team’s logistical challenge. The Vancouver Canucks have their affiliate in Utica, New York, and the Arizona Coyotes have theirs in Portland, Maine.
With 18 AHL teams currently clustered among the northeast states and the province of Ontario, geographically awkward pairings have been unavoidable with only 11 NHL teams located in that same area. Only six NHL teams outside that region now have affiliates nearby: the Chicago Blackhawks (Rockford, Illinois), the Carolina Hurricanes (Charlotte, North Carolina), the Dallas Stars (Cedar Park, Texas, outside of Austin), the Detroit Red Wings (Grand Rapids, Michigan), the Minnesota Wild (Des Moines, Iowa) and the St. Louis Blues (Glenview, Illinois, outside of Chicago).
The AHL, formed in 1936, is equivalent to the Triple-A level of the Major League Baseball farm system. According to the AHL, more than 88 percent of current NHL players have AHL experience.
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