This week, we got a bit of an outline of what the Vancouver Canucks' first season with their AHL affiliate in Abbotsford will look like.
The new club doesn't have a name yet — and the Utica Comets are retaining their name and logo. They're just changing their colours as they shift their affiliation over to the New Jersey Devils.
Since the AHL introduced its Pacific Division in 2015, the league's western teams have played fewer games than those across the rest of the country — a tweak designed to give them more practice time and make up for the fact that because they're more spread out, they have to travel more.
That structure will remain next season. The AHL announced earlier this week
that teams in the Pacific, including Abbotsford, will play 68 games, while the teams in the rest of the league will play either 72 or 76 games.
But with the arrival of Abbotsford this year and Seattle's AHL affiliate in Palm Springs for the 2022-23 season, this will be the last year for the unbalanced schedule. When Palm Springs comes on board, bringing the league to 32 teams, the schedule will also be reset so that all teams play 72 games.
It'll be interesting to see if they also re-align the divisions to eight teams each. For next season, the North Division (Eastern Conference) and Central Division (Western Conference) each have just seven teams, while the Atlantic (Eastern Conference) has eight and Abbotsford's arrival brings the Pacific up to nine:
AHL Pacific Division
Bakersfield Condors (Oilers)
Colorado Eagles (Avalanche)
Henderson Silver Knights (Golden Knights)
Ontario Reign (Kings)
San Diego Gulls (Ducks)
San Jose Barracuda (Sharks)
Stockton Heat (Flames)
Tucson Roadrunners (Coyotes)
Even though there are now more teams out west than when the Abbotsford Heat operated as the Calgary Flames' farm team from 2009 to 2014, I would assume the days of bus rides are now over for Vancouver's farmhands. Their closest geographical rivals, even after Seattle's farm team comes on board, will be San Jose and Stockton, both about 1,000 miles away.
By comparison, the Comets' 'long' road trip to Toronto was less than 300 miles.
The Abbotsford crew will be flying, right?
Two other details we know so far:
• The 2021-22 AHL regular season is set to begin on October 15. The NHL is aiming for an October 12 start date.
• The AHL also announced that it will be restructuring its playoff next season, with more qualifying teams. Makes sense: more premium home games should mean more revenue for team owners.
On Saturday, we learned that Lukas Jasek will not be part of the Abbotsford organization next season. The 23-year-old Czech has inked a contract to play with the Lahti Pelicans of Finland's Liiga next season.
I'm sorry to hear this. I always felt like Jasek was a versatile forward who just needed more of a chance to break through.
Drafted in the sixth round in 2015, Jasek came over to North America on an amateur tryout contract at the end of the 2017-18 season. He put up seven points in six regular-season games with the Comets, which was enough to earn him an entry-level deal.
That contract just finished, leaving him as a restricted free agent if the Canucks issue him a qualifying offer. All told, he put up 30 goals and 86 points in 153 AHL games with the Comets. This season, he finished tied for the team scoring lead, with 23 points in 28 games.
Without a single call-up to the big club — not even this year, when the door was wide open for Comets prospects during the late stages of the season — I guess I can understand why Jasek feels his best option is to take his talents elsewhere. I imagine he'll probably earn something better than an AHL salary in Finland, too.
Best of luck to him!
Also on the AHL front, Ben Kuzma has a good interview up with Mikey DiPietro — freshly returned to Canada with a new gold medal after serving as Canada's third goalie at the World Championship in Latvia.
As Kuzma points out, DiPietro got a terrific birthday present on Wednesday, when the Canucks announced their five-year contract extension for goalie coach Ian Clark.
“He recognizes a goalie’s strength and will apply concepts and not to expose weaknesses, but showing where it will help your game," DiPietro told Kuzma. "There’s always a why. He’s not just telling you to do something, there’s a reason behind it. Clark and Sanford (AHL goalie coach Curtis) are on the same page, and when you’re hearing the same message, it’s a lot easier to make changes in your game — you’re not half-in-and-half-out."
DiPietro spent most of this season on the Canucks' taxi squad, in a sort of purgatory of endless practice before being assigned to the Comets in late April. Though he got into just four games, when he did play, he did well — putting up a 3-1-0 record with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.
To start, at least, I'd assume the Canucks will try to get DiPietro into that No. 1 slot in Abbotsford next season — with 20-year-old Arturs Silovs as his backup? If DiPietro's game continues to improve as it was before all the Covid confusion, he should be set to make the jump to the NHL no later than the beginning of the 2022-23 season, if Braden Holtby ends up sticking around.