What season suspension means for the AHL and Wolf Pack
Amid growing concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus from China, to Europe and now the United States, the NHL announced on March 12th that its season would be suspended. It occurred less than 24 hours after the announcement of the NBA suspending their season when word came out that Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus and likely also infected fellow teammates, competitors, staff, media and possibly fans.
Just hours later, the AHL and the ECHL also announced the suspensions of their seasons with other sports leagues following suit. The decision made was the appropriate one as leagues looked at the safety of its players, staff, media and the fans to ensure that no further spread of the virus would happen. This was especially true for the Hartford Wolf Pack and the AHL with just over 5 weeks remaining in the regular season but also with much to be decided from a hockey standpoint. This article takes a look at several possible scenarios that await the Pack and AHL and also any potential fallout of any future decisions about the season.
Much needed break
As things stand right now, the Wolf Pack currently are in a tie for 3rd place in points with the Charlotte Checkers but are listed in 4th, the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division as the Checkers own the tiebreaker. As mentioned in my most recent article, the Pack had also been in a long slump that to this point has seen them lose their last 5 in a row and 6 of their last 8 in regulation before the announced suspension. The Pack had also been battling key injuries to players such as Boo Nieves and Tim Gettinger, personnel changes with players like Phil di Giuseppe having spent significant time on recall to the Rangers. The trade of defenseman Joey Keane to the aforementioned Checkers which has been one of the biggest reasons for the Pack’s slump as the defense corps hasn’t been the same since the deal. And of course, Igor Shesterkin.
In terms of hockey, the league suspension likely came at a good time for the Pack and possibly several other teams around the AHL who were clinging to playoff spots. This likely gives those teams a chance to rest, regroup and give injured players more time to recover. Other teams that come to mind in this scenario are the Ontario Reign, Syracuse Crunch and Laval Rocket in the North Division as those teams had been solidly in playoff spots just weeks before but find themselves on the brink or on the outside already.
On the other hand, for teams such as the Providence Bruins, winners of their last 12 in a row and finding themselves atop the Atlantic Division after their win over the Wolf Pack last Wednesday, this long layoff could hurt. Teams like Providence, the Belleville Senators, Binghamton Devils and Iowa Wild have had some form of a roller coaster type season where they’ve seen themselves get off to good starts and fall off to only rebound and find themselves among the cream of the AHL crop. Teams such as the Milwaukee Admirals who have led or have been near the top of the entire AHL for the majority of this season along with the Tucson Roadrunners could also be affected. Momentum can carry any team one way or the other at any given time over the course of a season. The big fear for any team that has seen themselves fight their way to the top of the league or their division is that not playing for several weeks could kill any positive momentum.
What happens next?
Given the current state of affairs with COVID-19 and the rate it is spreading around the United States and Canada, it could be several weeks before play resumes, if it even does. With the ECHL having announced the cancellation of their season on Saturday, the NHL and AHL have continued to monitor their situations and will make further decisions when appropriate. With an executive order signed by Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, the XL Center, the home of the Pack, is to remain closed at least through April 30th.
It’s likely that other teams will not play home games for that amount of time at least and possibly longer. The most likely scenario I see happening in this instance would be if the AHL season resumed shortly after April 30th, they would likely call the regular season with teams qualifying for the playoffs via points percentage as most teams outside the Pacific Division have only played between 61-63 of their 76 game seasons. Under this, the Pack would qualify for the playoffs along with Providence, Hershey and Charlotte in the Atlantic Division.
In the North Division it would be Belleville, Rochester, Utica and BInghamton. The Central Division would see Milwaukee, Iowa, Grand Rapids and Chicago going to the Calder Cup playoffs and the Pacific Division would see Tucson, Colorado, Stockton and San Diego. The AHL’s current playoff structure would likely remain unchanged as the first playoff round has been a best of 5 round over the last several seasons with the remaining rounds being a traditional best of 7. It’s also a possibility that the NHL would adopt a similar structure if their season were to continue.
The health and safety of everyone involved with hockey in the US and Canada, directly or even indirectly, comes first and the decisions made by the top 3 North American hockey leagues is a clear indication of such. The biggest question still surrounding this, however, is when will hockey be back? While the Stanley Cup has not been awarded on two occasions since 1893 (1919 and 2005), the Calder Cup has been awarded to the AHL champion every year since 1937. The hope is that the season does resume to some extent. If not, it could be a very long summer without hockey.