Will the AHL divisions be realigned in the coming seasons? I have no idea. Let me just say right up front this is nothing but speculation. But this speculation is based on certain facts, so let’s start with those.
What We Know
We know that the as-yet-unnamed NHL team in Seattle will be implementing a new AHL team in Palm Springs, California to serve as their affiliate beginning in 2021. The AHL Board of Governors also approved the purchase of the San Antonio Rampage by the Vegas Golden Knights. The team will relocate to Nevada after the current season and begin playing at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas in the fall of 2020. There are also rumors of yet another AHL team moving to Colorado, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Here’s how the league looks right now.
Western Conference (the one I’ll be talking about):
Here’s a lovely color-coded map showing the location of the teams, courtesy of the AHL mobile app. Blue stars are the Central Division, yellow are the Pacific. (Green are Atlantic and red are North, but those divisions don’t come into play in all of this.)
Notice that three of the four divisions have eight teams, but the Pacific Division only has seven. The divisions were realigned in 2018 when the Colorado Eagles moved from the ECHL to the AHL. At that point, the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars were moved from the Pacific to the Central, and Colorado was added to the Pacific.
With Palm Springs joining the league in 2021, the obvious solution was to put them into the Pacific Division, which made all the divisions equal with eight teams each. Colorado remained the geographical outlier, but so be it. That left the Western Conference looking like this:
But then the Vegas Golden Knights announced their intention to move the Rampage to Nevada. Go back up to that map above and mentally move one of those stars in Texas to Las Vegas. They’ll be a lot closer to California than Colorado. So a lot of people assumed these two teams would swap places — put the Rampage into the Pacific, and move the Eagles to the Central. That makes the Western Conference fall like this:
Perfect! But only until…
A couple of weeks ago, news outlets started reporting that Colorado Springs was in the process of securing an AHL franchise of their own. Rumor has it the Stockton Heat will move to Colorado, starting in the 2021-22 season. All of a sudden, those nice, neat divisions don’t look so nice and neat.
So what might things look like?
Obviously this is anybody’s guess, but there is no simple way to keep all divisions equal at eight teams each without leaving one Colorado team in the Pacific. Colorado will likely have two AHL teams, roughly 130 miles apart, but in separate divisions. In the hockey world, that’s pretty much unheard of. On the bright side, leaving the Heat in the Pacific would allow them to retain their existing rivalries.
The only problem with that scenario is the timing. San Antonio will be moving to Nevada effective next year. They could immediately move to the Pacific, becoming the eighth team and leaving the Central one team short, or they could stay where they are.
If they move next season, the Eagles could move to the Central at the same time, or they could wait. Either way, one division will still be one team short until 2021, when the Palm Springs team begins and the Heat (theoretically) move to Colorado.
It’s confusing, I know. I had to resort to pencil and paper to keep all this straight. But assuming that a) Stockton moves to Colorado Springs, and b) Palm Springs ends up in the Pacific (which is all but guaranteed), these are the four most likely scenarios:
- Nevada moves to the Pacific and one of the Colorado teams moves to the Central. Each division would have eight teams, but one Pacific team in Colorado would be a geographical outlier. (Image 1 below)
- Nevada moves to the Pacific, and both Colorado teams move to the Central. This would put the Central at nine teams and leave the Pacific with only seven, but all teams would be roughly in the correct geographical area. (Image 2 below)
- Nobody changes divisions at all. This leaves all divisions with eight teams (once Palm Springs joins), but also makes three teams geographical outliers who have to travel long distances for the majority of their away games. In my opinion, this is the least likely scenario.
- Both Colorado teams move to the Central and both the Rampage and the Texas Stars return to the Pacific. This keeps all divisions at eight and leaves Texas as the one big geographical outlier. Personally, this is my favorite scenario, but I doubt they would move the Stars just to make life easier for a team in Colorado.
Obviously, anything can happen. Maybe we’ll find out tomorrow that another team is moving. But based on what we know right now, it’s not unreasonable to assume the Colorado Eagles will end up in the Central Division in the next two years.