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Weighing the options: Should the AHL skip this season?

The Providence Bruins and the rest of the AHL are currently slated to start the season on Feb. 5, but is it even worth it to start that late?

Providence Bruins v Laval Rocket
Will the Providence Bruins have a season in 2021?
Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Boston Bruins, along with the other 30 NHL franchises, are currently facing a developmental dilemma: with COVID cases spiking and no current plan in place, how can the NHL teams develop their young talent with an extremely brief AHL season?

The AHL is currently scheduled to start an abbreviated season on Feb. 5, four months after a typical year would start at the minor league level.

With a deep talent pool in the Boston organization, concern is starting to mount about potential setbacks and delays developing some of the team’s more promising prospects.

We’ve recently seen a few players make the move up to the NHL after spending some time in Providence, including Jeremy Lauzon, Matt Grzelcyk, Jack Studnicka; pretty soon, we should see the same with the likes of Trent Frederic, Jakub Zboril, and Urho Vaakanainen.

Without game time under the watchful eyes of the organization or competition against other NHL prospects, Boston may have to make some tough decisions without the ability to analyze or tinker with their young players.

So begs the question: is it even worth playing an AHL season this year at all? There are a few options the AHL can explore before any final decisions are made.

Play a shortened season against strictly divisional opponents

Over the summer, I wrote an article proposing a possible return-to-play format for the AHL similar to what fellow second-tier professional league, the USL Championship, succeeded with this year.

This idea would reinforce those same ideas with even more restrictions. Teams would only play opponents in their division to limit travel, with two-game weekends against the same opponent, much like how Hockey East is set up this year.

Despite fewer games, Providence would be able to get its players some much-needed game action while minimizing their risks of contracting COVID.

Of course, there are a ton more details to be hashed out like testing protocol, what to do if teams have outbreaks, and postseason format. But at least the teams would be able to get on the ice before the end of the 2021 season.

A downside to this format is the lack of a true schedule to prepare prospects for life in the NHL. The furthest road trip for Providence would be Charlotte, and there’d likely only be one trip down there during the shortened season. Combine that with only playing seven other teams all season, it could also make for less parity within a small group of teams.

It also doesn’t account for Canadian teams, who could likely still face travel restrictions in February. While major league franchises have the ability to relocate temporarily, the amount of Canadian AHL teams and their respective budgets wouldn’t allow that to happen.

In lieu of a season, take the MLB development approach

One *potential* alternative to playing competitive games would be turning Providence into a mini hub for the organizations prospects, including those from the Atlanta Gladiators, which won’t be playing this season.

Getting anywhere from 40 to 50 players together and playing a slew of intrasquad games with player movement and more intense practices could help make up for a loss of game action at a crucial developmental point.

Other teams could aim to do the same with their AHL and ECHL affiliates, combining at one central site close to the NHL market in order to monitor progress and keep the young players ready.

While minor league baseball was missed this year, the hub plan did allow for development to take place in a more intimate and safe setting.

This comes with a huge downside in the form of no real games. While prospects would be competing against each other, they wouldn’t have a chance to play against opposing players and teams in settings where real improvements are made.

Play one 2021 season through the end of the calendar year

One other idea could be to totally alter the league calendar and play a 2021 season starting Feb. 5 and concluding sometime in the mid- to late fall next year.

This could open up some potentially interesting options in terms of allowing prospects to get plenty of time in the AHL level while leaving most of the winter open for some players to practice or even get added games at the NHL level without rushing call-ups or emergency recalls.

It’s just a thought, and one that could bear fruit. The NHL, and hockey as a whole, is looking for ways to remain relevant while struggling to compete with the NBA, NFL, and even soccer.

By giving fans an option to watch tomorrow’s stars during the summer months, the NHL can earn added exposure in the summer months typically dedicated to prospect development.

However, the warmer weather outside has been known to affect ice conditions inside. It also makes some top prospects more susceptible to injury without a normal routine or suitable amounts of off time with separate league calendars.

It’s just a thought, and will likely stay that way, but it is an intriguing possibility to consider.