As we hit December not only are we approaching the traditional holiday season we’re also starting to hit what many minor league hockey fans dub the “silly season” as affiliation changes and franchise moves turn from rumors to actual happenings. When it comes to the fans of the Worcester Railers, only one portion of “silly season” matters: who will be the NHL affiliate for RailersHC when the puck drops in October 2017.
Now if you follow me on twitter you already know who I think the Railers NHL affiliate will be, as I tweed out my guess a few days ago. As I mentioned there, if I was a gambling man –and I am– I would wager the Railers NHL affiliate will be the New York Islanders. It sparked a bit of conversation as to why both on and off of social media. I figured a blog post explaining my thoughts might be in order.
If you look back on the Railers “Skate to the Date” event, head coach and GM Jamie Russell laid out a couple things RailerHC would be looking for in an NHL affiliate. To get the maximum about of games from your NHL or AHL contracted players Russell indicated that being geographically close the AHL affiliate is a must. Drawing a circle around Worcester at a travel distance of three or so hours you’re now looking at several AHL franchises, including the team everyone has as their number one choice: The Bruins.
While it would be nice to have them as our affiliate, I don’t see any way that it happens.
The Providence Bruins see Worcester as being in their territory now, and having a Bruins ECHL affiliate in their “bubble” does nothing for them or the Boston Bruins in the long run. In the WorSharks days Providence’s territorial bubble actually bordered the city of Worcester, so it’s not like they had to extend their marketing much to encompass the city.
The Bruins primary asset for a New England based minor league affiliate would be the name “Bruins”. With the Manchester Monarchs being sold to Boston based PPI Sports this past summer I see it as almost a slam dunk that once the 2016-17 season is over they’re going to become the Manchester Bruins and begin using a “spoked M” logo on new black and gold uniforms.
Adding Manchester to the Bruins organizational chart works well for both Boston and Providence. It’s far enough away from Providence that the organization wouldn’t be competing against itself in ticket sales, and yet close enough so that fans from Manchester can easily get to Providence to watch games there. Another strike against a Bruins affiliation is P-Bruins owner H. Larue Renfroe is also the owner of the New England Sports Center, which RailersHC owner Cliff Rucker’s Worcester Sports Center would be in direct competition with.
These things pretty much rule out Boston as a potential NHL affiliate.
So looking in that three hour circle around Worcester you next get to T&G reporter Bill Ballou’s guess, the Springfield Thunderbirds. The reason I quickly crossed them off my list of possibilities is that I’m not sold they’re even going to be there in a couple years. Now add on top of that their NHL affiliate is the Florida Panthers, a team that’s affiliated with Springfield because they didn’t have any other logical choice.
Florida doesn’t currently have an ECHL affiliate and could sign a deal right now for next season, but there’s way too much drama in the situation involving the Thunderbirds and Panthers, and that’s likely not what the Railers are looking for. Plus the potential for a move of the Thunderbirds and an NHL affiliate so far from Springfield and Worcester makes Florida an unattractive affiliate for the Railers.
Next in the circle is the Hartford Wolf Pack, the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers. As a person that hates the New York Rangers so much that I root against the Texas Rangers on the off chance they’re somehow related, I am relieved to say that they appear to be out as a potential RailersHC affiliate as the Rangers ECHL affiliation with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits expires after the 2017-18 season.
A look a little further south leads us to Bridgeport and the New York Islanders. This represents what I think is the best option for the Railers. Bridgeport is close enough so that Worcester should get a good amount of games from Sound Tigers/Islanders contracted players, and has the added benefit of the Sound Tigers being close to the Islanders so the NHL club can have easy access to their own players there if needed. That means Bridgeport would often have an extra man or two that isn’t needed on the Islanders roster, and along with that comes a better chance of getting Bridgeport players in Worcester.
Currently the Islanders ECHL affiliate is the Missouri Mavericks, and that affiliation ends after this season. Even before the reports that the Mavericks might jump to the AHL and become the league’s 31st team the Islanders looked to be the best option for RailersHC. The Islanders and Sound Tigers meet Russell’s criteria for being close geographically, they have a history of assigning multiple players to the ECHL, and those assigned players all contribute at the ECHL level.
To me, a perfect fit.