During the 2005-06 AHL season, I got quite the lesson on being an AHL fan. It was only my second year as both a Crunch and a hockey fan, so I was still feeling my way around everything. At the start of the season, I knew we were "affiliated" with the Columbus Blue Jackets, although I only had a surface idea of what that meant. Feeder systems, drafts, development, and call ups were all words and phrases that had yet to work their way into my regular vocabulary.
That season, though, I got a crash course in what it meant to be an AHL fan. And by crash, I really mean crash.
Last season, as the affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Crunch dressed 21 total forwards over the course of the season. What I mean by that is: From start to finish of the regular season, 21 different names pulled on a Crunch jersey at some point as a forward. 14 different total players were defensemen from October to April. 4 were goalies.
Not bad, all in all, when you consider that any given game day roster usually consists of about 12-13 forwards, 6-7 defensemen and 2 goalies per game. With what one might consider the "regular" flow of injuries at both levels, let's-look-and-see call ups and the like, that's probably pretty normal.
Well, during '05-'06, the Syracuse Crunch dressed 29 total forwards, 12 total defensemen, and 8 total goaltenders.
Holy roster turn over, Batman!
This is what I mean when I say that being an AHL club is kind of like being on Batman's end of that red phone up there. For those of you who don't understand the reference, that red phone is what connected Batman to Commissioner Gordon in some adaptions--usually TV--of Batman. That phone represented a direct line to help for when the villains of Arkham Asylum were running loose.
There's no one nearly that insane in the NHL, of course, and the AHL delivers an entirely different brand of help. But, the connection between an NHL team and an AHL club is very similar: when all hell breaks loose, the AHL is there to provide relief to their parent club. It's the AHL's job, it's what the league does, and the league does it well, as this helpful infographic shows:
As a fan, though, it can be difficult to deal with the constant personnel change. In addition to NHL injuries that cause call ups from our team, we also have our own injuries to contend with. And although I would never, ever say that we have it worse than NHL fans when an injury or other reason for a call up occurs, I will volunteer that perhaps the pain is felt a little more acutely.
Here's why: no matter what player went down at the NHL level, the call up from the AHL is almost always one of the most valuable pieces that AHL club has.
Say your NHL backup goalie, a solid number two in the organization, goes down. Who gets called up? The number three in the organization, the one that was on the front lines in the AHL club. Now, in an ideal situation, the goalie behind that guy is still a stable go to. But think about it: how many organizations have enough goalie depth that the number four on the organizational depth chart is truly a one-hundred-percent viable option for either level? There's usually a reason that guy is number four. Not only that, but if that guy is having a rough night or string of games, the AHL club has to rely on goalie number five in line to pull them through.
Off the top of my head right now, I can think of one organization that has that kind of depth: Ours.
Honestly, being able to extend that depth back to the number five in the organization is practically unheard of.
Lucky us, and I mean that with incredible sincerity.
The 2005-06 Syracuse dressed 8 different goaltenders throughout the course of the season, and you can bet we saw some ugly, ugly games. We had to go to guys from way outside the organization, guys who hadn't even been inside an AHL arena, to try to right our floundering ship.
I'm sure you can imagine how that went.
A few other example situations: a guy who plays sparingly on the fourth line goes down in the NHL, and who (usually) gets called up? Someone from the AHL's club first line, of course. A random defenseman goes down? That team just nabbed their AHL club's power play quarter back or our penalty killing expert, depending on what was needed. Whether that talent will be able to flourish at the NHL level is always kind of a crap shoot, but NHL clubs are usually pretty good at making educated guesses at who will be able to help the most.
Like I said, I will never downplay the loss of a guy like Steven Stamkos. Nor will I bemoan the call up of J.T. Brown to try to fill in the huge gap left behind in the wake of Stamokos' injury. Why? Because this is where a good NHL partner can come in and ease the pain NHL call ups cause AHL fan bases. When you have a partner, not just a parent club but a real partner who actually weighs the course of their actions and then proceeds accordingly, things don't have to be so bad.
In this case, the Lightning looked at all of their options. Many Lightning fans have voiced desire for one of two players: center Vladislav Namestnikov or rookie wing Nikita Kucherov. Namestnikov is third in the AHL in scoring. Kucherov is second. Neither have had any NHL time, but some would say they're ready to make the jump. Tampa, knowing that both players are essential to Syracuse's success, and knowing they need to weigh development goals and options, decided to go in a different direction and called up Brown.
Brown, although part of Syracuse's top line, isn't even in the top 50 right now when it comes to AHL scoring. He's a spark and he's an extremely positive presence. He's taken setbacks and injuries with a positive attitude that would make the Jolly Green Giant jealous. He has the poise and the NHL experience that, perhaps, the Bolts were looking for.
But, it's also obvious that if Tampa was looking to do as little damage as possible to Syracuse while still getting a piece they could use, Brown was the way to go. I know the life-without-Stamkos injury situation is still developing, and that a personnel change could be made at any point. But the good thing about having a fantastic relationship with your parent club is that the anxiety eases a little. As a fan, you know your NHL partner will take your needs into consideration, and you genuinely appreciate that.
Now, the season the Syracuse Crunch dressed 8 goalies and almost 30 forwards? Well, let's just say it was probably good I had no real idea what was going on.