As I’ve mentioned before, I spent many years watching tons of ECHL games in person here in Charlotte. I’d seen American Hockey League games a handful of times previously, but after experiencing a full season at AAA, I’d be hesitant to go back down to a lower level. The AHL requires member franchises to have established NHL affiliations, and this adds strength and stability to the league.
The 2010 off-season saw a few changes leading into the AHL’s 75th Anniversary. The Albany River Rats had been purchased in the 09-10 season and moved to Charlotte becoming the Checkers as soon as the Rats’ season was over. The void in Albany was filled when the New Jersey Devils moved their affiliate from Lowell (MA) retaining the Devils moniker. The Texas Stars were coming off an incredibly successful inaugural campaign as a probationary franchise that led them to the Calder Cup Finals. Technically the “baby Stars” were the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL franchise in 09-10, but after their success they were transferred to the Dallas Stars. This allowed Edmonton to move their AHL franchise to Oklahoma City giving OKC the Barons. The final team change didn’t happen until after Thanksgiving following the start of the 10-11 season. The Hartford Wolf Pack rebranded themselves the Connecticut Whale in an attempt to regain the support of Hartford fans.
The start of the 2010-11 AHL season was marked by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins winning their first nine games. Naturally that streak had to end, but the Pens still only lost 21 games all year and finished with 117 points. The Portland Pirates, Milwaukee Admirals, and Hershey Bears all finished with more than 100 points as well. The new guys in town, the Charlotte Checkers, topped defending back-to-back Calder Cup champs Hershey in six games to open the playoffs. Next the Checkers drew the WBS Penguins who had won four in a row versus Norfolk in their first round match-up after the Admirals took the first two. Despite winning only once versus WBS in the regular season, the Checkers quickly dispatched them in six games. Next up for the Checkers were the Binghamton Senators, and this is where it got ugly for the boys from the Queen City.
Traditionally the top four teams from each of the AHL’s four divisions make the postseason. Binghamton finished fifth in the East Division, but due to an unusual “crossover rule” they assumed the fourth seed in the Atlantic Division based on their record versus that of the actual fourth place Worcester Sharks. As you may guess, the B-Sens are the affiliate of the NHL Ottawa Senators, who were terrible this year. Due to a myriad of injuries Ottawa had called eight B-Sens on their roster when their season mercifully ended. This caused Binghamton to slip to that fifth spot towards the end of the AHL regular season. Once Ottawa sent the guys back that Binghamton was owed, the baby Sens turned it on. They masterfully swept the Checkers in the Eastern Conference Finals, never giving Charlotte a chance to lead much less win a game.
In the Calder Cup Finals, the Sens would meet the Houston Aeros. The Aeros were fresh off back-to-back seven game series that saw the demise of the two Western Conference division winners fall to the Minnesota farm club. Houston played a very tough six game Finals, but Binghamton was too rested and too strong. The Calder Cup victory gave Binghamton their first AHL title in club history. Swedish goalie Robin Lehner took home the playoff MVP in his rookie season. Keep your eyes open for him, he is sure to be part of Ottawa’s long term plan in net.
That brings us to this 2011 off-season. The venerable AHL will be losing a storied franchise with the NHL’s Thrashers moving to Winnipeg. The Manitoba Moose just completed their 15th season but will be forced out of town. They’ve already announced a move to St. John’s (NL) – that’s Newfoundland and Labrador for you Yanks, and it’s northeast of Maine in the Maritime Provinces. The AHL was in St. John’s for 14 seasons until the Maple Leafs moved their affiliate to Toronto to join the big club. The QMJHL fielded a St. John’s squad briefly, but they soon moved to Montreal after just three seasons. The success of the AHL in St. John’s will hinge on attendance. The team’s travel bill will be substantial as they are alone on an island, both figuratively and literally. With the Canadian economy in better shape than the American, I suspect people will come out for the as yet unnamed team.
That wraps up my postseason wrapups. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me in Home Cooked’s inaugural week. The first round of the NHL Entry Draft is tonight from Minnesota. I’ll touch on who the southern teams picked, and there will be some uniform/logo/jersey news to discuss too. Thanks again for reading, hope you come back.