NHL lockout 2012: AHL, ECHL hope to fill void for North American fans

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The NHL's latest work stoppage might not be real good for business. In fact, it could be quite bad for business.

But it's not bad for everyone.

Those responsible for the 30 franchises that make up the American Hockey League are probably looking at this lockout as an opportunity.

After all, there are likely to be more eyes on the NHL's top developmental league than ever before as long as the lockout is in effect. That's good for business, at least AHL business.

So what will you find when you check out the AHL?

The future of the NHL

It's not totally uncommon for a player to become a star in the NHL without playing a minute in the American Hockey League. Guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, and the Sedin twins were able to do it. Jeff Skinner went right from juniors to the NHL with little ill effect.

However, when you check up on the AHL on or after Oct. 12 when the season starts, you'll find many players who are a big part of their parent franchises' futures.

Skinner will play in the AHL for the first time, as Carolina sent the forward to Charlotte.

(Established NHL players were allowed to be sent to the AHL to play, provided they were still on their entry-level deals. Skinner will be joined by defenseman Justin Faulk in Charlotte, and he didn't exactly embarrass himself as an NHL rookie last season.)

Oklahoma City will sport forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had a nice rookie year in Edmonton last year. The long-awaited North American debut of former Minnesota Wild first-round pick Mikael Granlund will happen in Houston, not Minnesota. 2011 first-rounder Jonas Brodin -- a Swedish defenseman -- will join Granlund and a host of other Wild prospects with the Aeros.

Flyers forwards Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier are heading to Adirondack. I doubt he really needs further development, but it's a chance to keep playing, and it's hard to imagine anyone turning that down.

Established veterans

Call them "career minor-leaguers" or "journeymen" if you want, but there are a lot of veteran players in the American Hockey League who are the backbones of their teams.

The Aeros might have a ton of young talent, but they're going to look to a veteran for leadership. A guy like defenseman Drew Bagnall would be a great candidate for team captain. Granlund might become Houston's best player, but that doesn't mean he's the best leader. Bagnall has two NHL games to his credit, compared to 345 games combined between the AHL and East Coast Hockey League.

Norfolk was the best team -- easily -- in the AHL last season, cruising to the Calder Cup title. The team captain wasn't leading scorer Cory Conacher or top defenseman Mark Barberio. It was forward Mike Angelidis, who has played exactly six NHL games in six professional seasons.

Repeat not likely

Don't expect Norfolk to repeat as AHL champion, by the way. It has nothing to do with a talent drain caused by free agency.

Instead, it's because Norfolk is no longer the Tampa Bay Lightning's primary affiliate. The Lightning switched AHL teams for this season, sending their minor-league players to Syracuse. The Crunch might be an AHL contender, yes, but Norfolk -- which is now the Ducks' affiliate -- is probably going to experience a bit of a drop-off from last year's outstanding team.

As far as contenders go, you shouldn't overlook 2011-12 runner-up Toronto. Oklahoma City -- stocked with Oilers prospects -- should be strong, and Houston is going to benefit from the lockout and the recent track record the Wild have put up in the NHL Draft.

Skinner and Faulk should make the Charlotte Checkers into quite a dangerous team, as long as the lockout lasts.

If there is an end to the lockout, the Marlies, Crunch, and Barons (Oklahoma City) are probably the teams that become the top contenders.

What about the ECHL?

The ECHL, which dropped the full title of East Coast Hockey League in 2003 when it absorbed the former West Coast Hockey League and established a national footprint, is also likely to see some fringe benefit from the lockout. There will be a few AHL-caliber players who fall through the cracks -- largely because of the glut of NHL-level players starting the season in the AHL -- and end up on ECHL teams. That should improve the quality of play there a bit.

There was franchise flux during the offseason, with the Chicago franchise dissolving. There are new teams in San Francisco, Orlando, and two teams in Indiana (Evansville and Fort Wayne). That makes the ECHL a 23-team league this season.

The Florida Everblades beat Las Vegas in the league championship last year.

The ECHL is not ignored in its home markets. The league averaged nearly 4,300 fans per game last year. It's averaged 4,000 or more fans in 20 of the last 22 years.

Both the AHL and ECHL bring some entertaining hockey to (mostly) non-NHL markets. The leagues will both see at least small increases in attendance during the lockout, I'd surmise, but there will also be increased interest over the internet -- especially with the AHL because of the number of NHL fans who will want the chance to at least watch their favorite teams' prospects play.

(By the way, if you want to watch, AHL Live has you covered. The ECHL has streams available, too. It can be pricey, but it exists, and it beats the product the NHL is starting the season with.)

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