It's part of the yearly life cycle in the American Hockey League: every year in July, the 28 or 29 or 30 or more or less teams that make up the league assemble and fall into line in some sort of new realignment. When there is as much franchise fluctuation as there is in the AHL (and all other minor hockey leagues), there are always going to be changes.
This year is no different. The AHL announced its alignment for the 2011-12 season on Tuesday, and with it, we learn that the relocated Manitoba Moose, now playing in St. John's, N.L., will join the league's Atlantic Divison.
It's not the only change.
Here's the full look:
Atlantic: Manchester, Portland, Providence, St. John's, Worcester
Northeast: Adirondack, Albany, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Springfield
East: Binghamton, Hershey, Norfolk, Syracuse, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
North: Grand Rapids, Hamilton, Lake Erie, Rochester, Toronto
Midwest: Charlotte, Chicago, Milwaukee, Peoria, Rockford
West: Abbotsford, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Texas
I'll just say right up front that I don't envy the job of putting together the AHL's alignment every year. There's a lot to take into consideration and a lot of different interests to please, and it's certainly not easy to do it all successfully. With that said, that doesn't mean there aren't complaints to be had, and we're here to lodge them.
(Don't worry, we won't be those horrible people that complain without offering solutions.)
For starters, the Charlotte Checkers are in the Western Conference. This makes no sense. Obviously, there are a lot more teams in the East than the West and that creates an uneven situation, but to move Charlotte, an already isolated team in the AHL, away from it's closest competitior and rival in Norfolk doesn't make any sense.
Also of note, the Rochester Americans are in the Western Conference -- despite Syracuse, Adirondack and Binghamton, the three teams that actually share a state (and a rivalry) with each the Amerks, playing in the East.
Instead of trying to create some form of equality in the Eastern and Western Conferences, the league should just play with the cards they are dealt. There are more teams in the East than the West, so there should be more teams in the Eastern Conference than the Western Conference.
Or, just get rid of conferences all together.
There's no reason long-standing rivalries should be split up. We'd move to three divisions, no conferences.
Put Charlotte and Norfolk in a group with the six New York/Pennsylvania teams. Add the two nearby Canadian teams, Toronto and Hamilton. That creates an 11 team division that works and makes sense (it's large, but so what?) Take the remaining eight teams in the East, all of which play to the East of the New England/New York State border, and lump them into a new Atlantic Division.
Two divisions that make sense. 11 teams left. Throw 'em together!
Here's what we're left with:
ATLANTIC (7): St. John's, Manchester, Portland, Providence, Worcester, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Springfield
EAST (11): Adirondack, Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester, Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Hamilton, Toronto, Charlotte, Norfolk.
WEST (11): Grand Rapids, Lake Erie, Chicago, Milwaukee, Peoria, Rockford, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Texas, Abbotsford.
How would the playoffs work, you ask? Make it a wild card system. The top four teams in each division automatically make the postseason, and after that, it's all the wild card. 16 teams total. Four wild card spots. Division winners get the top three seeds like in the NHL and it's based on regular season standing the rest of the way. 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc.
There is no perfect system in a league like the AHL, where teams come and go like people filing through a busy train terminal. But there's no reason to make travel more difficult for teams that are already isolated, nor is there any reason to ignore long-standing rivalries that have built up over years and in some cases, even decades.