The NHL hasn’t diverted from its plan of tentatively starting the 2021 season on Jan. 1 (for now), but the American Hockey League — facing a worsening COVID climate and the likelihood of empty arenas across North America — is going to be waiting for a bit longer.
The AHL announced in a statement Wednesday evening that they are pushing their tentative start date for the 2021 season back to Feb. 5 — a step back from the initial plans to get the NHL’s primary developmental league up to speed and running by Dec. 4, 2020.
The league release noted: “The AHL continues to work with its member clubs to monitor developments and local guidelines in all 31 league cities. Further details regarding the 2020-21 American Hockey League season are still to be determined.”
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the AHL is opting to remain in a holding pattern for the time being, especially given the fact that the league is so reliant on gate revenue (which will be all but decimated for however long COVID-19 remans an omnipresent threat).
A number of other leagues have also followed suit when it comes to pushing back the starts of their respective seasons, with the Ontario Hockey League also opting to open a new campaign in early February 2021.
Fair to say, Wednesday’s announcement has already created a major ripple effect across multiple hockey leagues, chief of them now being the NHL. Here are three main takeaways from the AHL's decision to hold off on hockey until February.
A number of prospects are going to miss crucial development time:
I don't think this is breaking any new ground here, but the safety of players, coaches, fans, team officials and all involved in a 2021 AHL season should remain the paramount priority when it comes to getting a 2021 AHL season off the ground.
If the league is able to open the season in February with limited to no capacity (the most daunting challenge for the AHL), a shortened schedule and an added emphasis on regional-based play, then this upcoming campaign should be viewed as nothing short of a success — given the daunting climate we're all in.
But for the players themselves, this very well could be viewed as a lost year in terms of development — especially if these prospects are either spending the next couple of months player against lesser competition in other leagues or are limited to around 30+ games of AHL action before the 2021 season comes to a close.
If the likes of Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic and Urho Vaakanainen don't crack the NHL roster out of camp, time down in the AHL ranks should still serve as a productive stretch, guaranteeing heavy minutes and stout competition night in and night out. Even prospects who weren't expected to contribute to the B's in 2021 are still going to be hampered by an augmented AHL schedule.
In a perfect world (a foolhardy qualifier in 2020, I know), a full AHL campaign would have guaranteed that both Dan Vladar and Jeremy Swayman would each have an extended amount of reps in net, with Boston's top goalie prospects ideally battling for the No. 1 spot between the pipes and solidifying their spots as the next wave of netminding talent for this franchise. After an injury-riddled opening season of pro hockey, Jakub Lauko was set to benefit from a full slate of games down in Providence, while Boston's top college UFA in Jack Ahcan (already 23 years old) was expected to hit the ground running down in the AHL ranks.
While a February start will at least guarantee some much-needed reps and in-game experience for top prospects across the NHL, it's hard not to view this upcoming campaign as a lost season when it comes to crucial development time.
Plenty of prospects might be heading overseas:
Already, there are a number of B's prospects on loan over in Europe, allowing them to keep the rust off and continue to develop while hockey in North American remains at a standstill.
The list right now includes:
Robert Lantosi – HK Nitra / Slovakia
Jakub Lauko – HC Karlovy Vary / Czech Republic
Jakub Zboril – HC Kometa Brno / Czech Republic
Oskar Steen – IF Björklöven / Sweden
Joona Koppanen – Ilves/ Finland
Nick Wolff – DVTK Jegesmedvék / Hungary
If the AHL is stuck in limbo for the foreseeable future, we could see a number of other prospects head elsewhere on loans, although a number of these leagues are already underway (with primarily full rosters, of course). There are only so many minutes to go around, even in a sport as widespread as hockey. If collegiate hockey or another top is also impacted later this year (whether it be postponements or outright cancellations) it could create an even larger logjam of top prospects suddenly without a team this season.
The NHL could follow suit with a later start:
The NHL has yet to make any announcement about potentially pushing its tentative starting date back from its current Jan. 1, although the spiking COVID rates across the county and the AHL's decision do seem to be the writing on the wall that a potential return for hockey right around the new year just isn't feasible right now.
Traditionally, the NHL and AHL have usually started their respective campaigns around the same time, with these concurrent slate of games allowing giving the parent club the chance to draw into its reserves and call up fresh players when needed. But if the NHL does begin in early January, it does raise questions as to why the league doesn't just opt to ride the storm out for a few more weeks this winter and begin right around the same time as their top development league.
At this point, as painful as it might be for hockey-starved fans, beginning the new season in late January/early February likely is the preferred move at this point, given that — barring a medical breakthrough — things might still be looking pretty dire in November and December, right when the gears would begin to start turning for a new NHL campaign.
We're starting to sound like a broken record here, but there's truly no clear or easy way to map out what lies ahead for the NHL and various other pro sports in 2021 — nor are there any set protocols in place to prevent a new campaign from going off the rails and endangering players, fans and many more. At this point, the best course for the NHL is simply to wait things out and see where the chips fall ahead of what should be a very bleak winter.