NHL Week in Review (March 8-14)

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The NHL is in the midst of the playoff race but that didn’t stop them from some major changes in the league. It may not have been apparent to most but the league did make some major changes this week but none will be seen in the top-level of the league.

Instead the changes came in the minor leagues of the NHL with movement in the AHL and the ECHL. The ever evolving game has not only been limited to the NHL ice or the franchises in the NHL alone. It has reached down to the lower levels and has spread to the developmental leagues as they continue to expand.

There may be no better system in professional sports than that of Major League Baseball where top talent often takes some time to develop.

That leads to a system with multiple tiers and leagues where talent can take their time with players at their same level. The best of these players can move up the system and find their way to the major leagues as a fully developed major league player. It is the oldest North American professional sport and after over 100 years that system has produced some great results.

Other top leagues are just beginning to catch up though as they look for ways to find young unproven talent and develop them to be stars in the main league. That way they can find those players that other teams missed and give them the chance to prove that they can hang with the best players in the world.

In the NFL there are no leagues meant for development with only NFL Europe providing that service for a brief time but a development league is in talks.

The NBA has the D-League which is only now starting to take shape as a true minor league system.

In the NHL the system is relatively young as well but is beginning to evolve into something resembling the MLB system. In time for the 2010-11 every NHL team had a minor league affiliate located in the American Hockey League.

hockey-sidebarThe AHL has become the place where NHL franchises can closely monitor their top young talent while storing potential replacements in case of injuries.

It is a simple system that allows teams to hold on to players they see potential in or players that they think can fill in at a moment’s notice without having to negotiate and sign someone last-minute.

The system has only grown from there though as the East Coast Hockey League has become the second tier of the system with all but one NHL franchise having an affiliate in the league.

The two tiered system is evolving into something that the NHL can use to get better. The problem for many teams is the fact that they can’t get those players at a moment’s notice with teams spread out across the continent.

That was no truer than for teams in the Western Conference who had their AHL affiliates placed further east as there were only two teams located somewhat west in Texas, one affiliated with Dallas and the other with Florida.

So the NHL made a move to help improve the AHL in announcing a new Pacific division where teams will be moved to California making it easier for their western conference affiliates.

That new division began to take shape recently and along with it came some major changes to the league as a whole.

Five teams were moved to the new division including the affiliates for the Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers, and San Jose Sharks.

The Adirondack Flames will become the Stockton Heat, the Manchester Monarchs will become the Ontario Reign, the Norfolk Admirals will become the San Diego Gulls, the Oklahoma City Barons, and the Worcester Sharks will move to San Jose where their name will be determined.

It wasn’t the only change though as this week the Winnipeg Jets moved their affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps, to Winnipeg while the Montreal Canadiens moved their affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, to St. John’s.

The moves have also brought changes to the ECHL as many of these new Pacific coast AHL teams will replace ECHL teams forcing them to move as the Bakersfield Condors become the Norfolk Admirals, the Ontario Reign become the Manchester Monarchs, and the Stockton Thunder become the Adirondack Thunder.

The AHL and ECHL have seen some major changes but all of the moves are evidence that the NHL is beginning to truly think about their development system as a valuable asset. The moves to put teams closer to the west coast where they are easier to access for Western Conference teams is a move that shows the NHL is thinking about their system and trying to improve it by making it more accessible.

This new commitment to the development system shows the growing strength of a league that is beginning to find its legs in the U.S.

Overtime
(Extra Thoughts on this week in hockey)

Hitchcock’s Milestone
Ken Hitchcock seemed to be on his way out of the NHL before he was hired by the St. Louis Blues and saw a resurgence by bringing the Blues into the list of contenders and now has become only the fourth coach in NHL history to win 700 games

Historic day for Referees
The NHL rarely celebrates the men in the stripes as they are often the forgotten question of the game but this week there was some time to celebrate them as Evgeny Romasko became the first ever Russian referee to officiate a game

Kadri’s Wake-up Call
The Toronto Maple Leafs continue to fall into the basement and it seems like everything is becoming magnified including the healthy scratch of Nazem Kadri after he missed a meeting which was reportedly not the first time

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Key Scores:
New Jersey Devils 5 – 2 Philadelphia Flyers
– On a night where the Devils celebrated the 1995 Stanley cup Champions the Devils made their predecessor’s proud beating the Flyers 5-2 although it didn’t help in their attempt to earn a playoff spot

New York Rangers 2 – 1 New York Islanders
– The Battle of New York has been one of the most important series in the NHL this year with both teams standing on top of the NHL and this time it was the Rangers coming out on top and taking over the division lead

San Jose Sharks 2 – 0 Nashville Predators
– The Predators were the best team in the NHL only a few short weeks ago but lately they have fallen off of their hot streak and are beginning to fall down the standings after the Sharks took the win in their attempt to stay in the hunt

Montreal Canadiens 3 – 1 New York Islanders
– The Islanders are losing their momentum at the worst time as the playoff race is beginning to shape the next few weeks and the Islanders are beginning to fall out of the top spot especially after this loss to the Canadiens

Next Week:
Detroit Red Wings vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (Sunday March 15th; 12:30 pm ET)
– The Red Wings and Penguins are in very similar situations when it comes to the playoff race as they are holding on to the last of their divisional spots and are hoping to keep that spot theirs as they face off

New York Islanders vs. Chicago Blackhawks (Tuesday March 17th; 8:30 pm ET)
– The Blackhawks will be celebrating their city’s culture on St. Patrick’s Day and will be looking to try to hold the last spot in the top three of the Central while the Islanders try to simply get back in first place in the Metropolitan Division

Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks (Wednesday March 18th; 10:30 pm ET)
– The Ducks are sitting in a good spot as the playoffs approach at the top of the Pacific division but the Kings are in a different area as they are outside of the playoffs and hoping to use this game to help them back

Boston Bruins vs. Florida Panthers (Saturday March 21st; 7:00 pm ET)
– The Panthers are finally seeing some promise after years of staying in the basement they are finally fighting for the playoffs but in their way are the Boston Bruins as they face off in a battle for the wild card

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