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AHL preview 2012-13: Get ready for the best AHL season since ... the last NHL lockout

With an infusion of young stars, the 2012-13 AHL season should be so great it will remind you of the last time the NHL decided not to play hockey.

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It was less than a decade ago, but the 2004-05 AHL season has taken on an almost mythical quality over the years. Thanks to the NHL lockout -- Lockout II if you're counting -- several players who had already made the NHL, or who would have surely made the NHL that season, instead spent the year in North America's top minor pro league.

The result was some pretty good hockey and some outstanding performances from players who would become stars, award-winners and general household names in the years that followed.

Jason Spezza led the league with 117 points. Mike Cammalleri wasn't far behind with 109. Andy Hilbert was ... wait, Andy Hilbert? He scored a bunch too.

Eric Staal, fresh off a tough, 31-point rookie year for the Carolina Hurricanes, put up 77 points in 77 games for their AHL affiliate in Lowell (where teammate Cam Ward also shined). When NHL hockey resumed, Staal would hit 100 points in 2005-06.

Going further down that list reveals future NHL stars like Dustin Brown, Thomas Vanek and Patrice Bergeron.

The Philadelphia Phantoms, led in the regular season by future NHLers R.J. Umberger, Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg and Joni Pitkanen, were emboldened by late season additions Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. It's no surprise that they brought home the Calder Cup that year with that roster. Should this current lockout cost the NHL an entire season, Major Junior players like Carter and Richards could fuel Calder Cup contenders late in the season and boost their championship hopes.

The 2012-13 AHL season, which begins this weekend starting with seven games Friday night, promises to offer more of the same.

The list of established or budding NHL stars assigned to the AHL is staggering. A mere conservative sampling includes Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Adam Larsson, Ryan Johansen, Nick Leddy, Ryan Ellis, Travis Hamonic and last spring's playoff feel-god story, Braden Holtby.

That list, which is not comprehensive, includes already-established key cogs on NHL teams as well as players expected to make the leap as soon as, well, now.

Instead, they'll be toiling in the AHL, elevating the play of the entire league in the process.

New to the AHL? Here's a primer

So what should the poor, neglected NHL fan look for when trying the AHL on for the first time?

  • Lots of weekends: The AHL is primarily a weekend league, with its infamous three-games-in-three-nights series being red flags on every team's schedule.
  • The schedule is slightly lighter, though, as teams play "only" 76 games instead of the 82 the NHL plays and the 80 the AHL played until last season.
  • Lots of divisional play: Unlike the NHL, the AHL doesn't have every team play each other each season. This is very much a bus-ride league where geographically possible, so West and East are usually strangers until the Calder Cup playoffs. Out West where travel is particularly stretched, several teams have lots of back-to-back games against the same opponent.
  • Realignment: Typically the AHL has lots of changes -- players, teams, NHL affiliations, and divisional realignments -- but this season is fairly stable: All 30 teams return where they are, and only three teams switched divisions, with Grand Rapids moving to the Midwest Division, Abbotsford moving to the North Division and Charlotte joining a renamed South Division.
  • Transplanted defending champions: There were a couple of affiliation changes, however, including one of the most curious moves in AHL history: The Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals switched from an affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning to one with the Syracuse Crunch. Norfolk is now the Anaheim Ducks' primary affiliate, which means Syracuse just inherited the bulk of a championship roster.
  • Hybrid icing experimentation: As the NHL's primary development league, the AHL is also its guinea pig. New rules are often trialed in the AHL first. This year, that includes "hybrid icing," a change to the icing rule geared toward avoiding catastrophic injuries during icing chases. Essentially, instead of waiting to see who touches the puck first, linesman can now make a judgment call based on which player reaches the in-zone faceoff dots first. The AHL will try it through November, then make a decision on whether to continue.
  • History: The AHL is beginning its 77th season, which means one of its most historic franchises, the Hershey Bears, will be commemorating their 75th.

Finally, you can expect a lot of displaced NHL refugee fans. The AHL has continued to solidify itself in recent years, and attendance has generally trended upward. Last season's league-wide attendance of 5,637 per game was the highest since ... 2004-05. The last NHL lockout.