The minor leagues are receiving major attention.
Since the NHL lockout went into effect Saturday night, owners and players have yet to reestablish contact and the state of the 2012-2013 hockey reason remains very questionable.
But there is good news: the work stoppage won't stop the AHL.
The NHL's most prominent league of affiliates—typically a temporary training step for mid-range prospects and depth players—will open the year in October in North America's hockey spotlight.
Now loaded with a collection of established NHL stars—youngsters with fewer than 160 NHL games under their belt are eligible for the AHL during the lockout—a plethora of tiny markets and 5,000-seat arenas will now house the best professional hockey in North America.
While Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr and others toil in their infuriating battle of Benjamins, which intriguing AHL clubs could capture your attention span this fall? We discuss five particular teams to watch on the following slides.
Up-and-coming winger Brett Connolly will lead Tampa Bay's championship-caliber prospect system to Syracuse this fall.
55-18-3 regular season record.
28-0 in their final 28 regular season games.
43-3 in their final 46 games, including the entire AHL playoffs.
The 2012 Calder Cup-winning Norfolk Admirals set unbelievable standards for the 2012-13 Syracuse Crunch, the new title of the Tampa Bay Lightning's superpowered prospect system that tore up coastal Virginia last year.
Despite the surprising venue change, Syracuse could rather closely resemble an NHL market this fall.
Loaded with high-profile youngsters Brett Connolly, Vladislav Namestikov, Mark Barbiero and 80-point scorer Cory Conacher, the Crunch have the firepower to draw hungry hockey fans from Buffalo, New York and Boston to the Oncenter Arena come October.
Hamilton billionaire Jim Balsillie has long tried to bring an NHL franchise to his home city; now hockey's spotlight will come to him, at least for a month or two.
The Bulldogs—affiliates of the Montreal Canadiens—struggled as much as their parent club last year, finishing second-to-last in the AHL's Western Conference. The club managed to push a mere two players, Brian Willsie and Andreas Enqvist, over the 40-point plateau—and both are now playing in Europe.
The Habs did send down promising youngsters Louis Leblanc and Jarrod Tinordi, and hoards of dedicated Canadiens fans could flock to the suburbs for their dose of hockey this autumn. Hamilton's attendance numbers, which ranked a mediocre 21st last year at 4,848 per game, should be interesting to track this season.
Established NHL stars Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk could draw hockey to Charlotte's sports forefront.
The Carolina Hurricanes' 2012 switch of AHL affiliates, dropping the Albany River Rats for a former ECHL franchise—the Charlotte Checkers—has paid off beautifully.
In addition to the significantly-reduced travel time for call-ups (just two hours of driving), Charlotte and hockey have meshed perfectly. The team's attendance, urged on by an exciting Eastern Conference Finals run in 2011, has ranked in the AHL's top 10 for two years running—ahead of traditional hockey markets Milwaukee, Toronto and Hartford, among others.
The club was already sporting a stacked roster—forwards Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe and Brett Sutter and defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti—but the additions of former Calder Trophy candidates Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk make this an indisputable title contender if the NHL's season is lost.
Skinner won the 2011 Calder with his 31-goal, 63-point performance—and just made the under-160 AHL eligibility cut at 146 career appearances—while Faulk finished among the top 10 in 2012 and lead all 'Canes rearguards in average ice time.
North Carolina's on-ice spotlight will be shining brightly on Charlotte this fall.
The Toronto Marlies could be sellout-worthy while the Maple Leafs' season is on hold.
The AHL's 2012 Western Conference champions—also known as "the team that had to play Norfolk in the finals"—posted a solid 44-24-8 record last year and will be ready for more in 2012-13.
Reloaded with former graduates Jake Gardiner (who was the highest vote-getting defenseman for the 2012 Calder Trophy), and Nazem Kadri, the Marlies' top-ranked AHL defense should draw plenty of heartbroken Maple Leafs fans to Ricoh Coliseum this season.
The three-goaltender rotation of Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya is certainly one to watch while Toronto's NHL netminding situation remains cloudier than a Seattle winter.
Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz will all head to Oklahoma City come October.
The AHL's most star-laden squad, without question, will attempt to turn Oklahoma City—of all places—into a hockey hubbub in 2012-13.
The list of household names slated to wear a Barons uniform this fall is astounding.
How about Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, Magnus Paajarvi, Alex Plante, Colten Teubert and, of course, consecutive top-two draft picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, to name a few?
Those youngsters, of which all but one are former first-round picks, will join a Oklahoma City team that was already second best in the league last year.
The Barons put seven players into the 30- or 40-point range in 2011-12, including top scorers Ryan Keller and Mark Arcobello and defenseman Bryan Rodney. Goalies Yann Danis and David LeNeveu also form a solid tandem in goal.
With seemingly half of the Oilers' talent now tacked on to the roster, expect Oklahoma City to tear up the AHL in true Gretzky fashion come October.