On Saturday, the ECHL’s Allen Americans announced they had signed a new NHL affiliation agreement with the Minnesota Wild, ending a four-year run as the ECHL farm club for the Sharks and Barracuda.
While an AHL team’s main role is developing the NHL’s best prospects, the ECHL is meant to provide ice time for fringe AHLers and help young players rise through the pro hockey ranks. Even though many ECHL players won’t reach their NHL dreams, the success stories like Aaron Dell, Alex Burrows and James Reimer that show why the league is becoming more and more valuable.
With the Americans moving on, the Sharks find themselves without an affiliate at the ECHL level, and the options they have to fix that are limited. Here are the three scenarios San Jose has left going into this season:
Option 1: No ECHL affiliation
With the NHL enforcing a 50-contract limit, having a AA affiliate isn’t an absolute necessity. In fact, the Sharks are one of eight NHL clubs currently without one. The other seven are the Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights.
The ECHL, meanwhile, has only four teams without an NHL parent; the Fort Wayne Komets, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Orlando Solar Bears and Rapid City Rush. So if the Sharks don’t find a good fit with any of the remaining clubs or feel as though an ECHL affiliate is an immediate need for the organization, it’s possible that the Sharks go without one completely in 2018-19 and/or wait for a league expansion to bring teams farther west.
With several of their prospects still juniors eligible and many in the NCAA, it might make sense to put it on hold while the ECHL continues to expand.
Option 2: Split affiliation
With only so many players under contract at a time, most NHL teams send just a handful of players to the ECHL. This means a AA team could potentially have more than one NHL affiliate at a time. Currently, none of the 23 affiliate deals are split between two teams, but just last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning shared an affiliate with the New Jersey Devils in the Adirondack Thunder.
If the Sharks want a nearby ECHL deal and don’t mind splitting with another team, their closest options geographically would be the Idaho Steelheads, who are under contract with the Dallas Stars until 2019-20, and the Utah Grizzlies, who signed with the Colorado Avalanche back in June. If neither of those suit the team’s needs, there are 21 other clubs to choose from.
Option 3: Sign a free agent franchise
Aside from the four teams mentioned earlier, there are technically four other clubs available for the Sharks to choose from. According to icethetics.com, at least four other affiliation deals have expired this summer, with those teams being the Brampton Beast (Montreal Canadiens), Kalamazoo Wings (Vancouver Canucks), Toledo Walleye (Detroit Red Wings) and Wheeling Nailers (Pittsburgh Penguins).
These might be the most unlikely options, as Brampton, Toledo and Wheeling all having a long-standing relationship with their NHL parent. As for Kalamazoo and the Canucks, it’s believed that barring anything unforeseen, they’ll be extending their relationship sometime this summer.
If the Sharks want a new affiliation deal in place for this season, going with one of Fort Wayne, Greenville, Orlando or Rapid City are likely still their only options. Distance clearly matters to San Jose management, considering the team put time and money into bringing the Barracuda to the Bay Area back in 2015, which makes the South Dakota-based Rush the team’s best choice right now.