The National Hockey League’s planned start-up date has been set for January 13th, but the league still has a lot of work to do and its focus is not on the AHL just yet. But the NHL is going through a number of different scenarios that could allow the AHL to prepare to play as early as February 5th.
Bryan Helmer is the Vice President of Hockey operations for the Hershey Bears.
“As far as the AHL, we want everyone to play, so the league is trying to come up with different ways to accomplish that,” said Helmer. “But is that going to happen? Maybe not, but they want to get something that everyone will buy into.”
From the NHL’s standpoint, there is an opt-out option this season for any player or family member who is considered high-risk. The deadline to make that decision is December 24 for non-playoff teams and December 27 for playoff teams.
Like the NHL, Helmer said that the AHL will also have changes within its four divisions that might also include some teams not playing at all this season. The Atlantic Division will definitely have Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Lehigh Valley and Binghamton, along with either two or all three consisting of Rochester, Syracuse and Utica.
“The biggest thing the league is trying to accomplish is eliminating as much travel as possible and not have to fly,” said Helmer. “A team that had been in the Atlantic Division, but was not included, was Charlotte who is kind of on an island because their closest away site is Hershey. But Texas and Manitoba are also in that same situation. That means they are going to decide, probably in early January, if they will be in or out for the season.”
North of the border, the Canadian Division would include Belleville, Laval, Toronto, Ontario and Manitoba, if they play. The Central and Pacific Division will also see changes, so it’s easy to see the NHL still has a lot of work to do in a relatively short time frame.
“In preparation for the NHL’s start-up, the emphasis will be for the teams to decide what they’re going to do with their prospects,” Helmer said “There will also be a six-player taxi squad, that includes a goalie for the NHL teams, and then they will make assignments to their AHL affiliates.”
“As of now, there has been no decision as to whether the Canadian teams, in addition to the normal 22-man roster, plus the taxi players, might be allowed more than six players, to have a few more in the event that they have several injuries and wouldn’t be able to get players from the AHL,” Helmer added.
As far as Hershey’s season goes, all that is known is that the Bears are gearing up for a 44-game schedule, but they have no idea at this time what it will look like. That number might have to change, plus the NHL needs to decide what is safe for the players and what is best for both leagues.
Considering the fact that every game will be a four-point tilt, because they will all be in the division, getting off to a good start is even more important than usual. This will be a weird one so that means falling behind in the first five-plus games will make it pretty tough to get into the playoffs.
“The main objective is to hopefully have a season that allows us to have the playoffs, which means the border needs to be open in some way or there might just be a couple rounds to decide division champions,” Helmer said. “Players need something to play for, so if there is no playoff of any kind, then why play.
“All the calls I’ve been on have been positive in that we all want to play,” continued Helmer. “It’s just a matter of making sure it all makes sense for everyone.”
On the brighter side, Hershey head coach Spencer Carberry went to South Carolina for a couple days to see six players that were sent there to get some games in with the Stingrays, and he reported they were all so happy to be on the ice.
“We’re going to actually have to lean on those guys at the start of our season, because we’re not going to have the team we expected, because the guys on Washington’s taxi squad were obviously going to be a big part of our roster. But every team is in the same position,” Helmer said. “I feel we’ve signed enough depth players that we will be OK.”
“I feel we are going to play and most of the AHL teams will play,” Helmer continued. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how can we do it and still be safe. I know our fans are chomping to see games and I want them back, because no one wants to play with very few fans, or worse, none at all. But if that is an option at least we’re playing. I feel bad that when people stop me in town, I can’t really answer their questions. But it’s just like the saying, ‘I know what I know, but don’t know what I don’t know’.”