The American Hockey League packed a lot into 2019.
The league, in its 84th season, had plenty of storylines this year. Here are the top five:
5. Big in Bakersfield
The Edmonton Oilers had struggled to build a culture in the AHL that combined winning and player development equally, but that changed dramatically when coach Jay Woodcroft arrived last season.
Bakersfield had a 17-game winning streak from Jan. 12-Feb. 25, tied for the second-longest streak in AHL history. That surge led Bakersfield (42-21-3-2) to the Pacific Division regular-season title. It advanced to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs before losing a six-game series to San Diego (Anaheim Ducks).
Several Oilers prospects played prominent roles in the run, including goalie Shane Starrett (27-7-5, .918 save percentage, 42 games), along with forwards Tyler Benson, who led Bakersfield with 66 points (15 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games), and Cooper Marody, who was second with 64 points(19 goals, 45 assists) in 58 games.
4. Hot in Hershey
Hershey (Washington Capitals) had its work cut out when January arrived. It was last in the difficult Atlantic Division and had three teams standing between it and a potential playoff berth.
Led by first-year coach Spencer Carbery, Hershey went 29-7-4-2 after Jan. 1, including a franchise-record 17-game point streak (16-0-0-1) from Jan. 12 to Feb. 22. Hershey (43-25-4-4) finished third in the Atlantic Division and eliminated Bridgeport (New York Islanders) in five games in the first round before being swept in four games in the second round against Charlotte (Carolina Hurricanes), the eventual Calder Cup champion.
That Hershey roster graduated goalie Ilya Samsonov and defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler to full-time roles with the Capitals.
3. Palm Springs added to league
The AHL added a sixth team in California for the 2021-22 season with the addition Palm Springs, an expansion team affiliated with the NHL Seattle team that starts play that same season. Palm Springs was approved by the AHL on Sept. 30.
Adding Palm Springs allows the AHL to add a record 32nd team and further expand the Western Conference map. Palm Springs will have convenient access to nearby Ontario (Los Angeles Kings) and San Diego. The Seattle/Palm Springs affiliation also will have favorable player-movement logistics with regular flights between the two cities.
Oak View Group, which is helping renovate New Arena at Seattle Center, where the NHL Seattle will play, has partnered with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians to build a $250 million arena in Palm Springs that will seat 10,000. The project also will feature a practice facility for the team.
2. Charlotte wins Calder Cup
Charlotte completed a dream season by defeating Chicago (Vegas Golden Knights) 4-1 in the best-of-7 Calder Cup Final in June.
Charlotte (51-17-7-1) had 110 points, eight more than any other team in the league, and defeated Providence (Boston Bruins), Hershey, and Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs), the 2018 Calder Cup champion, to play Chicago in the final.
It was the Carolina organization’s first Calder Cup championship since Springfield won in 1991 as an affiliate of the Hartford Whalers.
Mike Vellucci won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the top coach in the AHL before moving on to become coach/general manager of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pittsburgh Penguins). He oversaw the development of key prospects who did much of the work for Charlotte’s championship.
Forward Martin Necas and defenseman Haydn Fleury have earned full-time promotions to the Hurricanes from that Charlotte team, with several other players on the brink of NHL jobs.
Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic went 34-9-5 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in 51 games and won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the top goalie in the AHL. Defenseman Jake Bean earned a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team.
1. Dave Andrews’ final season
In a league that features regular player turnover, Andrews has been a fixture as president and chief executive officer for more than a quarter-century.
This is the 26th and final season for Andrews, who announced in May that he would retired on June 30, 2020.
Andrews and the late Jack Butterfield are the only people to lead the AHL since 1966. A former goalie, coach and general manager, Andrews began in his current position in July 1994 and has overseen the league’s remarkable growth while leading it through a challenging business landscape.
The AHL was a 16-team league confined to the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada when Andrews assumed the presidency. It also faced an intensifying battle for NHL affiliations with the International Hockey League. The AHL outlasted the IHL and absorbed six of its teams in 2001. In 2015 he completed the AHL’s expansion to the West Coast, something that had been a goal for Western-based NHL teams seeking more geographically friendly affiliations.
The AHL has grown from 16 to 31 teams under Andrews’ leadership and each NHL team has a full-time AHL affiliate. That growth has cemented the AHL as the top developmental league for the NHL. At the start of the 2019-20 NHL season, 82 percent of its players had played in the AHL. The league also has sent a steady stream of team executives, coaches and officials on to the NHL.