AHL’s 80th season opens

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Just 118 days after the Calder Cup was handed out, the American Hockey League is ready to drop the puck on its 80th-anniversary season with five games on Friday night.

With 30 active franchises again in 2015-16, the American Hockey League remains the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League clubs – but there is a decidedly new look to the AHL for Season 80.

Five Western Conference NHL teams have moved their affiliates to California, giving the AHL its first-ever presence in the Golden State. The Bakersfield Condors (top affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers), Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings), San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks), San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks) and Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames) all hit the ice as members of the Pacific Division this fall.

The AHL is also returning to Winnipeg in 2015-16 with the return of the Manitoba Moose as the top affiliate of the NHL’s Jets. The Moose spent 10 seasons in the AHL from 2001 to 2011.

Other affiliation shuffles heading into the new season have resulted in new parent clubs for the St. John’s IceCaps (Montreal Canadiens), Lake Erie Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets), Springfield Falcons (Arizona Coyotes), San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche) and Portland Pirates (Florida Panthers).

The AHL’s alignment underwent a change as well, with the league splitting into four divisions – the Atlantic and the North in the Eastern Conference, and the Central and the Pacific in the Western Conference. Teams will play a 76-game schedule, 38 home and 38 away, with the exception of the five California-based teams, who will play 68 games apiece (34 home, 34 away). Standings order will be determined by points percentage.

The regular season is scheduled to end on Sunday, Apr. 17.

During the 2014-15 season, more than 88 percent of all NHL players were graduates of the American Hockey League. Seventeen NHL teams were led in scoring by an AHL alumnus, and 28 former AHL goaltenders led their NHL team in victories.

There were 254 former first- and second-round NHL draft picks who skated in the AHL last year, including standouts like David Pastrnak, William Nylander, Matt Dumba and 2015 Stanley Cup champion Teuvo Teravainen. There were also 341 players who saw action in both the AHL and the NHL last season alone.

As the 2015-16 National Hockey League season began earlier this week, there were 628 AHL graduates on the opening-night rosters of the NHL’s 30 clubs, including last year’s AHL MVP and scoring champion Brian O’Neill (New Jersey Devils), reigning Eddie Shore Award winner Chris Wideman (Ottawa Senators) and 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs MVP Jordan Weal (Los Angeles Kings).

The AHL’s 30 teams drew nearly 6.6 million fans to games across North America in 2014-15, with the Hershey Bears leading the way for the ninth season in a row at an average of 9,791 fans per regular-season game. The Utica Comets sold out a total of 40 home dates last year, including all 13 games at the Memorial Auditorium on their run to the Calder Cup Finals.

Contests in AHL rinks in Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Charlotte and San Antonio all drew single-game crowds of more than 13,000 last season, and the Toyota Frozen Dome Classic brought 30,715 fans inside the Carrier Dome in Syracuse to watch the Crunch take on Utica, the largest crowd ever for an indoor professional hockey game in the United States.

The marquee event on this year’s regular-season schedule is set for Dec. 18, when the Stockton Heat take on the Bakersfield Condors in the eighth outdoor game in AHL history, part of the Golden State Hockey Rush festival at Raley Field in Sacramento, Calif.

And the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, N.Y., will be packed on January 31 and February 1 for the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic.

There were eight head coaching vacancies filled during the summer of 2015, but only one of the AHL’s bench bosses will enter 2015-16 with no previous AHL experience.

Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe is the only rookie head coach in the AHL, joining the Marlies after earning Canadian Hockey League coach of the year honors at Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) last season. Charlotte’s Mark Morris, Grand Rapids’ Todd Nelson, Lehigh Valley’s Scott Gordon, Rochester’s Randy Cunneyworth, San Diego’s Dallas Eakins, Springfield’s Ron Rolston and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Mike Sullivan bring a combined 1,346 AHL victories to their new addresses.

Former AHL head coaches who have moved up to the NHL since last season include Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, promoted after three seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins that included the 2013 Calder Cup championship and the 2013-14 Louis A.R. Pieri Award as AHL coach of the year, and the New Jersey Devils’ John Hynes, whose Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins reached at least the second round of the playoffs in each of his five seasons at the helm. In addition, Terry Murray joins the Buffalo Sabres as an assistant coach after three seasons leading the Adirondack/Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

Roy Sommer of the San Jose Barracuda, entering his 18th season as head coach of the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate, needs 20 victories to pass Hockey Hall of Famer Fred “Bun” Cook (636) as the winningest AHL head coach of all time, and the Chicago Wolves’ John Anderson (391) is nine wins shy of becoming just the fifth 400-game winner in league history.

The 2015-16 season will feature some new rules, most notably a five-minute overtime period during the regular season played at three skaters aside for the duration.

Last season, playing a combination of 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 during a seven-minute overtime, the AHL saw 201 of its 268 OT games (75.0 percent) decided in the extra session – a dramatic increase from 2013-14, when 35.3 percent of OT games were decided during the 4-on-4 period used that season.

Rule 85.1 (“Overtime”) now says that during the regular season, the sudden-death overtime period will be 5 minutes long and will be preceded by a dry scrape of the entire ice surface. Teams will change ends at the start of the overtime period, and full strength will be 3-on-3 for the duration of the period.

Rule 79.4 (“Video Review – Coaches Challenge”) permits a team – if it has its timeout available – to request a video review of any situation that would normally be subject to official review under Rule 79.3. If the challenge is successful, the team retains its timeout.

Rule 76.4 (“Face-Offs”) calls for the defending player to place his stick on the ice first for all face-offs except those at center ice, where the visiting player will place his stick on the ice first.

The entire AHL Rule Book is available for viewing on theahl.com, as is the AHL Guide & Record Book.

The AHL’s presence in social media continues to grow, and the league’s official Twitter feed and Facebook page remain great sources for breaking AHL news, special offers, behind-the-scenes insights and fan interaction. Heading into opening weekend, the AHL has more than 105,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (fb.com/theahl) and nearly 70,000 followers of its official Twitter account, @TheAHL. The AHL communications department also maintains a news feed on Twitter (@AHLPR).

The AHL’s digital properties are anchored by the league’s official website, theahl.com. A mobile version of the site is also available for easy use on smartphones, and an official AHL app is available for free for iPhone and Android devices.

Once again in 2015-16, every AHL game will be delivered both live and on-demand through AHL Live. Subscribers can watch high-quality AHL action on their desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones or Android devices; visit ahllive.com for more information.

In operation since 1936, the American Hockey League continues to serve as the top development league for the players, coaches, managers, trainers, executives and broadcasters of all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 88 percent of NHL players last season were AHL graduates, and for the 14th year in a row, more than 6 million fans attended AHL games across North America in 2014-15. Through the years, the AHL has been home to more than 100 future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.