The AHL has been a big help to the NHL in recent years by acting as a sort of "testing laboratory" for rule changes that the Big Show is contemplating.
Concepts auditioned in the AHL in the past have included the four-on-four overtime and the shootout, and there is a very interesting tweak to the post-regulation setup on the way for this coming season.
At its annual meeting this past week, the AHL's Board of Governors enacted a new procedure that will extend regular-season overtime to seven minutes, and provide for a "dry scrape" of the whole ice surface by the ice resurfacers prior to the beginning of OT. Even more significantly, while the first three minutes of the extra session will be played four-on-four, if more play is necessary beyond the three-minute mark, the teams will go to three-on-three at the next stoppage.
If the tie holds up through the entire seven minutes of extra play, then the game goes to a three-player, best-of-three shootout.
Obviously, this is in the interest of trying to decide more games without having to use the shootout, which has always been distasteful to most hockey purists, and to many of those in charge of running the game.
The idea of a three-on-three overtime is not new--Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland was pushing it two years ago--but this will be the first time it will have been tried in a pro league.
While I enjoy the shootout, I am excited to see how this new idea works. I think it definitely will reduce the incidence of shootouts, as it will be much harder for teams to have the mindset of just surviving OT and taking their chances in the shootout. While coaches seem to have figured out how to take away time and space fairly successfully in the four-on-four setup, there is so much open ice in three-on-three, you would think that would be nearly impossible. Also, knowing that there is that much more clock time to get through in overtime, I think, will help keep teams from going into that "survival" mode in the four-on-four, and motivate them to attack more.
Another intriguing element to this experiment is the question of how the process of dry-scraping the ice before overtime will affect the momentum of the game. Those that know tell me that a dry scrape of the full surface will take six to seven minutes, as opposed to the two or three minutes that was required for the dry scrape of the middle of the ice before the shootout. Those 6-7 minutes represent a fairly extended break, especially compared to what we are used to leading into overtime, certainly long enough for any real momentum generated by either team towards the end of regulation to dissipate. On the other hand, though, it would also seem to be a long enough time for the teams to get a rejuvenating breather, such that they may come out with renewed and entertaining energy for the extra session. Either way, I think the benefit of having a smoother sheet of ice to start the OT, which should enhance the pace, is well worth waiting through the dry scrape.
In addition to this major change, the league also decided on two smaller ones. One is the dictum that a player will receive a game misconduct for incurring two fighting majors, or a total of three majors of any type, in the same game. It used to be that it was three across the board, but this is another step towards further limiting of the fisticuffs. Also, there will be no more bareheaded players skating around, under any circumstances. A new rule states that a player who loses his helmet on the ice must either pick it up immediately and put it back on his head, with the chin strap secured, or skate directly to the bench, with those who fail to do either of those receiving a minor penalty.
Those were the on-ice changes, and the franchise movement coming out of this past season also brought on a divisional realignment.
The Wolf Pack's divisional address will stay the same, as they remain in the Northeast Division, but that division became less geographically compact. The Adirondack Phantoms, whom the Pack battled ten times in 2013-14, have moved from Glens Falls to Allentown, PA, and that franchise, now called the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, has been moved to the East Division. Replacing the Phantoms in the Northeast are the Syracuse Crunch, who played the last five years in the East Division. It will be interesting to see how many times the Wolf Pack play the Crunch, as Syracuse, at 254 miles from Hartford, is 83 miles further than Glens Falls. Glens Falls is less than a three-hour ride from the XL Center, and the Wolf Pack did that as a day trip several times, but Syracuse, at about four hours, is too long to do the day of a game.
Happily for the good fans of Glens Falls, who are near and dear to my heart, the Abbotsford Heat moved in to replace the departed Phantoms. That relocated Heat franchise, re-christened the Adirondack Flames, will have to remain in the Western Conference, lest there be an imbalance in the number of teams in the two conferences. In the Western Conference, the Lake Erie Monsters will be moving into the Midwest Division from the North and the Iowa Wild, in their second year of play in Des Moines, will be in the Midwest Division instead of the West.
Another perennial summer story line is coaching changes, and there have already been several in the AHL.
In the Wolf Pack's division, defending divisional champ Springfield will have Jared Bednar calling the shots next year, after Brad Larsen was promoted to an assistant's position with parent-club Columbus. Bednar was one of Larsen's assistants the last two seasons. And in Bridgeport, former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson is returning for his second stint as the Sound Tigers' head man. Thompson, who had served as an assistant for the parent New York Islanders for the past two years, after one year in the Bridgeport head job in 2011-12, replaces the fired Scott Pellerin.
The Calder Cup-winning head coach, the Texas Stars' Willie Desjardins, has parlayed the Stars' championship into an NHL head job with the Vancouver Canucks. He will be replaced in Cedar Park by Derek Laxdal, who was hired away from the Western Hockey League's Edmonton Oil Kings. And Manchester Monarchs bench boss Mark Morris (pictured, courtesy of theahl.com), the second longest-serving head man in the league behind Worcester's Roy Sommer, was not brought back, despite leading the Monarchs to an Eastern Conference regular-season championship. His replacement behind the Monarch bench will be former Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Mike Stothers, who spent the last three years battling Laxdal in the WHL, as coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Two new coaches have been hired in the East Division, with Troy Mann replacing Mike Haviland in Hershey and Jarrod Skalde taking over for Trent Yawney down in Norfolk. Haviland left the Bears after one season to become head coach of Colorado College, while Mann, an ex-Hershey assistant, returns to Chocolatetown after one year piloting the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL. Yawney was elevated from Norfolk to become an assistant with the parent club in Anaheim, and Skalde, who has head-coaching experience in the IHL and ECHL, gets his first AHL head gig after one season as Yawney's assistant.
Along with a new location for their AHL affiliate, the Flames also have a new AHL coach, as they elected not to keep Troy Ward, their head man in Abbotsford the last three years. He has been supplanted by Ryan Huska, another WHL product. Huska has been the top man of the Kelowna Rockets for the past seven seasons.
And the latest AHL team to be in the market for a new leader is the Toronto Marlies, as the parent Maple Leafs announced just yesterday that Steve Spott, who led the Marlies to a North Division championship and to within one win of the Calder Cup Finals this year, will be rewarded with an assistant's spot on the Leafs' staff for 2014-15.