Every single article relating to the NHL over the last few months has been related to the current CBA expiring in less than two weeks and the threat of a lockout if an agreement between the owners and the NHLPA is not reached. The outlook on this whole scenario has been nothing been nothing but gloom and doom from the fans because they have saw the NHL shut itself down for an entire season the last time there was a lockout and the last thing they want to see is it happening again. It doesn't seem like the NHL will go into a lockout for an entire season, but it is very likely that fans could have to go without it for the rest of 2012, which is going to be difficult to cope with if you're starving for some hockey right about now.
This is kind of a difficult time period if you're a hockey blogger like me. Around this time of the year is when I usually start doing projections and previews to give everyone a closer look at the upcoming season but doing that right now seems fruitless because no one knows if the year will start on time or if there will even be a season. If the season does get shortened, then I will be very interested to see what the playoff picture ends up looking like. We've seen a lot of teams have great starts and fall off once they get into the second half of the season (see the Toronto Maple Leafs last year), so playing only half or three-fourths of the season could mean that we end up seeing some new or different teams make the playoffs. Basically, every game would mean a lot more than it normally does and a good/bad stretch of games could end up being the difference between making the playoffs and ending up out of the picture. That is going to play a major impact on a division that's as wide open as the Southeast appears to be right now.
Whether or not there is a lockout remains to be seen but if a significant portion of the season gets cancelled, Hurricanes fans do not have to travel far to get their hockey fix as the team's AHL affiliate is only a three hour drive away from the PNC Arena. Regardless of what happens with the NHL, the AHL season will still go on and we could see some familiar faces in Charlotte this year if the owners and player's association can not get their differences settled. If you go back to the last lockout, you may recall a Lowell Lock Monsters team (Carolina's AHL affiliate at the time) that featured Eric Staal, Cam Ward and other future Stanley Cup winners like Chad LaRose and Mike Commodore. Both Staal and Ward were only 20 years old and playing under their ELC's while LaRose and Commodore had two-way deals, which allowed all of them to play in the AHL during the lockout and all of them had very successful years that helped Lowell acheive a 100 point season and a playoff birth.
The Checkers could potentially do the same thing if there is a lockout because the Hurricanes have a few players under entry level contracts who are still eligible to play in the AHL, the two biggest names being Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk. It's pretty interesting to think how strong this Checkers team could be if there is no NHL season because they were a borderline playoff team last year, have a lot of proven NHL talents in Zach Boychuk, Bobby Sanguinetti, Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe and could receive a big boost if both Skinner and Faulk are added to the mix. Not only will the team be stronger, but attendance figures at the Time Warner Cable Arena may also go up with some bigger names playing on the team.
As good as this sounds, there are a few things that stand in the way of it happening. The first of which being whether or not Skinner wants to play in the AHL next season because while he is eligible, he may also sign with another league overseas if he wants to play against some tougher competition. I'm not sure if his contract allows him to do that but then again, I'm not completely sure what will happen if no CBA agreement is reached within the next 11 days. The other thing that may stand in the way is whether or not players have to pass through waivers to go through the NHL. My thought is that if there is a lockout, and no NHL season, then waiver rules go out the window because their purpose is to give every player a chance to be in the NHL. Both Skinner and Faulk are exempt from waivers because they are in their ELC's and haven't played in enough games to not be exempt but players like Boychuk, Bowman, Gragnani, Sanguinetti, Samson and many others need to pass through waivers to play in the AHL if those rules are still in effect.
If none of these players have to pass through waivers to play in the AHL during the lockout, then Charlotte is going to have a good looking team for the upcoming AHL season. Unfortunately for the Checkers, other teams are going to get stronger too if other NHL clubs let their younger talents play in the AHL next season. Going back to the lockout year, Lowell had a 100 point season, which was good enough to finish only third in the Atlantic Division. One team that finished ahead of them were the Manchester Monarchs who featured names like Mike Cammalleri, Dustin Brown, Tim Gleason, Tom Kostopoulos, Mike Weaver and Denis Grebeshkov, all future NHL-ers and very good players. You might also remember the league's leading scorer that season was 21-year-old Jason Spezaa of the Binghamton Senators who also went on to win the East Division. The team that took home the Calder Trophy that season was the Philadelphia Phantoms, who had a roster that included Patrick Sharp, RJ Umberger, Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg.
So, while the Checkers are going to get stronger, so will other teams and we could see some very interesting names playing in the AHL next season. The Edmonton Oilers' affiliate in Oklahoma City went to the conference semi-finals last season and that team is going to look ridiculous if some of Edmonton's younger players decide to go to the AHL during the lockout. That's just one example but I'm sure there are other AHL clubs who are going to feature some great young, NHL-ready talent in this coming year if there isn't an NHL season. It's going to lead to a very interesting season in the AHL regardless and could lead to some fans and scouts taking notice of some players who may have not been previously recognized.
Another lockout might sound like the end of the world for some people but hockey will still be played regardless. I've spent most of this article talking about the AHL but there is also college hockey, junior hockey and plenty of other leagues around the world to keep you interested until the owners and players association can settle on an agreement. Lucky for Hurricanes fans, they won't have to travel all the way to Massachusetts to get their hockey fix in this season. Is it the same? No, but it's still the game I grew up loving and that is good enough for me.