AHL Cancels 2019-20 Season

Milwaukee’s 50th season ends unceremoniously.

Last Friday afternoon, the AHL Board of Governors convened to decide the fate of the 2019-20 season. The NHL’s top development factory was the only hockey league yet to outright cancel their season, but going into Friday, that fate seemed all but certain.

Monday morning, the league officially announced the Board voted to cancel the balance of the year, unanimously, with an aim to proceed with next season as normally as possible. The news was the worst-kept secret in hockey over the weekend and some were maybe surprised it took this long. The NHL’s season is still on the table, although it seems clear where the league prefers to head (24-team playoffs), but what does this mean for prospects, for the future of the AHL and for the Milwaukee Admirals?

1. The top thing on nearly everyone’s mind around the Nashville organization is what a missed opportunity this is for the Milwaukee Admirals. The team felt unstoppable most of the year and finished atop the league standings with 90 points and a 41-14-8 record (0.714 points percentage).

There’s no doubt the Admirals seemed poised for a deep Calder Cup run and excitement for that was palpable given a) Nashville’s own struggles on the ice and b) Milwaukee’s recent playoff history. Since winning the Calder Cup in the 2003-04 season, Milwaukee has lost in the Final once (2005-06), lost in the second round twice, missed the playoffs twice and lost in the first round a shocking ten times. In that span of 15 seasons, they came in first or second in their division eight times.

Nothing about this season seemed improbable. In 2018-19 when the team went 13-2-4 from March to the end of the season, catapulting themselves into an unfamiliar playoff spot, there was maybe a small sense of hope in game five against Iowa in round one. But close observers knew that team wasn’t quite good enough to win a championship. The 2019-20 Admirals were different. Nearly every night, even a casual observer could tell this team was a force to be reckoned with—a force that scored five or more goals 16 times this season.

Unfortunately, so ends another Admirals season in disappointment. Not by controllable factors, but by something beyond hockey. Some wish the league could crown the team de facto champions. As tempting as that is, general manager Scott Nichol put it best:

2. Now that sights are fully set on next season, what does the Admirals’ roster look like? As of today, the team has the following players under contract in some capacity: 12 forwards, 10 defenders and one goalie.

There’s business still to be done. Questions remain about whether players like Yakov Trenin, Colin Blackwell and Jarred Tinordi will be in Nashville or Milwaukee. With several free agents on the blue line in the NHL, does Steven Santini or Alexandre Carrier earn a roster spot in training camp? Adam Smith and Scott Savage seem unlikely to come back, so does Nichol look for more ECHL depth on the back end? Frédérick Gaudreau and Daniel Carr are both unrestricted free agents, and you have to imagine Karl Taylor would enjoy another season of a Carr-Novak-Schneider line. Additionally, Michael McCarron, Anthony Richard and Rem Pitlick are all restricted free agents. Finally, in net, who remains with Connor Ingram? Troy Grosenick is the logical fit given Nashville’s underwhelming options overseas, but he’s a free agent. On top of that, does the team bring Niclas Westerholm or Milan Kloucek over to play in Florida?

Most of these questions won’t be resolved until the NHL season is officially over, but we already have a decent sense of what the Admirals’ roster will look like in 2020-21.

3. As the NHL cruises towards a potential 24-team playoff, it seems the annual black aces tradition will continue:

The Admirals have a number of candidates who may accompany the team to a playoff hub. To name the likely bunch: Eeli Tolvanen, Anthony Richard, Daniel Carr, Rem Pitlick, Frédérick Gaudreau, Mathieu Olivier, Patrick Harper, Jérémy Davies, Frédéric Allard, Steven Santini, Alexandre Carrier, Ben Harpur, Connor Ingram and Troy Grosenick.

[Note: Players contracted to AHL-only deals (e.g. Cole Schneider) would be ineligible.]

4. The cancellation of the 2019-20 season by no means indicates an on-time start for the 2020-21 season. In fact, I would bet against it. Bearing in mind serious considerations of a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall or the length of the current NHL season, the league has to do everything to get this right. Rushing the product back to the ice could put the league out for an even longer period should health risks re-emerge.

As Patrick notes above, a season start around the turn of the year seems more likely but, again, that is all contingent on public health matters. The AHL is a gate-driven league with little media revenue, so it’s likely teams will push to play only when fans are allowed at games again. A little over half of AHL teams (19) are owned by their parent club, but even for those franchises, I can’t imagine owners wanting to take on extraordinary costs just to start the season on time. Elliotte Friedman noted NHL teams were warned the league could potentially not operate next season if fans are not allowed.

If the season starts late or is cancelled altogether, it will have a massive ripple effect on prospects for years to come. This is the same concern clubs are facing with NCAA and Junior prospects: what can teams do to salvage lost development time for their top prospects? There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer.

5. As this AHL season concludes, so does the tenure of Dave Andrews as league President and CEO. It’s unfortunate his career ends without rewarding a team with the Calder Cup one last time, but it’s no exaggeration to say his legacy in the AHL will stand tall for a lifetime.

In Nashville, fans are blessed with an excellent affiliate relationship and good ownership group in Milwaukee, but it’s not always that way across the league. Andrews did a masterful job navigating financial worries, ownership changes, rule changes, travel costs, westward expansion and so much more. The AHL is clearly the top developmental league in the world and that is due, most significantly, to Andrews.

6. Finally, some housekeeping is in order. When the AHL returns to the ice, some things will be different. The Carolina Hurricanes shockingly walked away from their in-state partner, the Charlotte Checkers, and are expected to sign on with the Chicago Wolves. The Wolves were affiliated with the Vegas Golden Knights, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Florida also has an open spot for their affiliate with Charlotte as the logical choice (geography-wise). The St. Louis Blues will need a new affiliate, and the Springfield Falcons are looking for a parent club, too. Plus, we’re now one season closer to welcoming team 32 in Palm Springs.

I’ve touched on this before, but Vegas has bought the San Antonio Rampage (formerly St. Louis’s affiliate) and will be moving them to Henderson, NV for next season to be the Henderson Silver Knights. While that market has been an undoubted success, this is a tough blow and an awful way to end nearly two decades of hockey for fans in San Antonio.

6b. The San Antonio Spurs (NBA) ownership group, which sold the Rampage to Vegas, seem to be preparing for some potential hockey-related ventures in the future:

The San Antonio Dragons were an International Hockey League (IHL) team from 1996 to 1998; the Iguanas were a Central Hockey League (CHL) team from 1994 through 2002.