📝 by Patrick Williams
Plenty has changed in the American Hockey League since the Chicago Wolves lifted the Calder Cup 87 days ago.
The league has grown to an all-time high of 32 teams as it prepares to open its 87th season on October 14. All 32 clubs will play a uniform 72-game regular-season schedule, and the AHL will utilize last season’s Calder Cup Playoff format with 23 teams qualifying for postseason play.
With NHL training camps set to begin this week, plenty of familiar AHL names will put a long summer of on- and off-ice training to the test. Those players bidding for full-time NHL roles will be following a familiar path ― nearly 90 percent of today’s NHL players are AHL graduates.
Here is a look back at the 2021-22 season as well as what’s new this fall.
A force throughout 2021-22, the Chicago Wolves posted a league-high 50 wins and 110 points before embarking on their Calder Cup run. The top affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago secured the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as regular-season champions on the final day of the season, then went 14-4 in the playoffs with series wins over Rockford (3-0), Milwaukee (3-1), Stockton (4-2) and Springfield (4-1) to win the franchise’s third Calder Cup.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation of the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2020 and 2021, the Wolves became the first team to skate the Calder Cup since the Charlotte Checkers – then a Carolina affiliate themselves – did so in 2019.
NHL clubs want winners like the Wolves, and NHL general managers came with contracts in hand when free agency opened July 13.
Josh Leivo, the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player in the postseason after rolling up 29 points in 18 games, earned a contract with the St. Louis Blues. Andrew Poturalski, whose career-high 101 points (28 goals, 73 assists) won him the AHL scoring title for the second consecutive campaign, signed with the Seattle Kraken. Linemate Stefan Noesen led the AHL with 48 regular-season goals to win the Willie Marshall Award and received a new two-year contract with Carolina. Josh Jacobs and Spencer Smallman went to the Colorado Avalanche. Goaltender Alex Lyon signed with the Florida Panthers, while head coach Ryan Warsofsky moved on to the San Jose Sharks as an assistant coach.
After sharing an affiliation with the Florida Panthers in Charlotte last season, the Seattle Kraken will have their own AHL affiliate this season with the addition of the Coachella Valley Firebirds as the league’s 32nd team. The Kraken named Dan Bylsma as Coachella Valley’s first head coach; Bylsma’s extensive resume includes winning the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, being named the Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s outstanding coach in 2010-11, and serving as head coach of the United States at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Joining Bylsma with the Firebirds will be Jessica Campbell, the first female assistant coach in the AHL.
Coachella Valley will open the brand-new Acrisure Arena on Dec. 18 against the Tucson Roadrunners. Before then, they will spend two months on the road, including four “home” games in the Seattle area in October.
The AHL also makes another move into Western Canada this season with the addition of the Calgary Wranglers, the new affiliate of the Calgary Flames. Last season in Stockton, the Flames’ top prospects finished second overall during the AHL regular season and pushed Chicago to six games in the Western Conference Finals.
The Wranglers, playing their home games in the Scotiabank Saddledome, will also have a familiar leader in Brett Sutter, who signed an AHL deal with the team this summer following six seasons with the Ontario Reign. With 974 regular-season AHL games to his name, this season Sutter could become only the eighth player in league history to reach 1,000 regular-season games.
The San Jose Barracuda also have a new home in 2022-23, making their debut at Tech CU Arena on Oct. 22 when they host Henderson. The multi-purpose arena is an expansion of the Sharks Ice at San Jose complex and will host the AHL All-Star Classic in 2024.
STARS ON DISPLAY
The pandemic put the All-Star event on ice the last two seasons, but the AHL’s showcase will be back in February as the Laval Rocket host the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell. The event is set for February 5-6 at Place Bell.
UP NEXT: A look at a host of new – and familiar faces – behind AHL benches this season.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.