When will the AHL return? Key dates, NHL impact for the 2021 season

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across North America, the American Hockey League announced Wednesday that it has once again pushed back the start date for the upcoming season.

The NHL’s top developmental league normally starts around the same time as its parent league — early October — but has now changed the date twice for the new season. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently announced the postponement of the league’s upcoming  Winter Classic and All-Star Weekend, but he also stressed that the NHL is still planning on dropping the puck on Jan. 1, 2021.

NHL POSTPONEMENTS: Winter Classic | All-Star Game

Here’s everything we know about the AHL’s return and what to expect for what now can be coined the 2021 season.

When will the AHL return in 2021?

AHL president and CEO Scott Howson announced on July 31 that the league’s Board of Governors approved moving the start of the 2020-21 season to Dec. 4 because of the pandemic. On Wednesday, they moved the date to Feb. 5.

“This gives us the best chance to have a significant season,” Howson told The Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno. “We’re going to be flexible and we’re going to do everything we can to play.”

What are the AHL teams’ NHL affiliations?

The upcoming season marks the start of AHL play in Paradise, Nev., after the Golden Knights purchased the San Antonio Rampage (formerly a Blues affiliate) and moved them west to become their new affiliate.

Vegas’ old affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, are now the baby franchise for the Hurricanes — who switched over from the Charlotte Checkers, who are now affilated with the Panthers.

And, yep, you guessed, it the Panthers’ old affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, are now with the Blues.

What AHL, NHL affiliations are cross-border?

While the AHL’s statement did not go into detail beyond announcing the tentative start date of the season, the impact of the Canada-United States border remaining closed raises questions. 

Three Canadian NHL teams, the Oilers (Bakersfield, Calif.), Flames (Stockton, Calif.) and Canucks (Utica, N.Y.), have affiliates in the United States.

Although this doesn’t necessarily impact the AHL’s functioning as a league (we’ll get into that more below), it does call into question how NHL teams will be able to utilize their minor league squad when injury replacements are needed and promotions are warranted.

The border, for now, is closed until Nov. 21; however, the date has been moved numerous times since the pandemic began and the closure is expected to be extended.

It should also be noted that some states in the U.S. (i.e., New York and New Jersey) also have restrictions regarding travel to and from with required 14-day quarantines upon arrival.

What will the 2021 AHL season look like?

As noted, the AHL hasn’t given any direction on how things will actually look once the season gets underway but there have been a few peeks behind the curtain.

Will all 31 teams play?

The day before the amended start date, ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski reported that there’s no guarantee all 31 teams will suit up in 2021. 

“I’m confident that they’ll all be given the opportunity to decide,” Howson, who is in his first year as the AHL’s commissioner, told ESPN last week. “I think a lot of it will be driven by what the economics are going to look like. I can’t tell you right now that I’m sure 31 teams are going to play. But in talking to all the teams, there’s nobody that’s saying, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ Everyone has an optimistic view and are going to try and find a way to make this work.”

It should be noted that the ECHL, the league below the AHL, had two teams — the Atlanta Gladiators (Bruins affiliate) and the Norfolk Admirals (no NHL affiliation) — opt out of the upcoming season with plans to return in 2021-22.

Will there be an all-Canadian division?

While three of the seven Canadian NHL teams have affiliates in the United States, the rest have affiliates nearby. Wyshynski hinted that the three affiliates south of the border could be temporarily moved north for the season and realigned into an all-Canadian division — something the NHL is reportedly considering for itself when its season begins.

“It’s strictly tied to the border, what the border looks like when we start to play. And I think it’s probably the same with the NHL, right? If the border is open, then maybe they don’t have to go an all-Canadian division, either. It’s not something I’m committed to. I’d rather have all our teams play in all of our markets,” Howson told ESPN. “Nothing is off the table here. It just doesn’t make sense, if the border is closed, to be developing players in the U.S. that [teams] can’t get their hands on in case of injuries or recalls.”

Will fans be allowed?

That is still undecided with the pandemic showing an uptick in cases. Howson told ESPN that having fans is key to the season and seven teams are currently allowed to have a limited number in the seats.

How many games will be played?

Another unknown, but considering there is a February start date, the season will most likely be truncated.

Unlike the NHL, which as Golden Knights owner Bill Foley said during a recent radio interview on “Vegas Hockey Hotline” will probably need to wrap its season before the 2021 Summer Olympics — which are scheduled to begin July 23 — because of NBC Sports’ coverage of the Games and the Stanley Cup Final, the AHL does not face the same scenario.

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