If the Arizona Coyotes are in the forefront of using analytics as a principal tool of evaluation, they are also part of another important trend involving several NHL teams.
With the ability to keep careful tabs on prospects and monitor development more closely, most NHL Western Conference teams now have their AHL affiliates in near proximity. When the American Hockey League expanded and created the Western Division in January 2015, several clubs purchased their affiliated AHL teams and moved these franchises closer to their home base of operation.
On Thursday, the Coyotes continued that trend by purchasing their Springfield, Mass. AHL affiliate, and moving the franchise to Tucson, Arizona. Now 100 miles and a 2-hour drive down Interstate 10 from their Gila River Arena, the Coyotes now can keep a closer look on prospects. While the organization was recently rated among the top for NHL prospects, head coach David Tippett and new general manager John Chayka can actual see younger players on the ice rather than rely on scouting reports and crunching data.
“This is a no-brainer for us,” Chayka said Thursday at a news conference at the Tucson Convention Center, home of the new franchise. “This is close to our home base and we plan to incorporate the same player system at both the NHL and AHL level. When players are called up from there, their transition to the NHL, we hope, will be seamless.”
Tucson now joins the Bakersfield Condors (Oilers), Ontario Reign (Kings), San Antonio Rampage (Avs), San Diego Gulls (Ducks), San Jose Barracudas (Sharks), Stockton Heat (Flames), and the Texas Stars (Stars) as teams in the AHL West Division.
Plus, a new start to a struggling franchise is not a bad idea. The Coyotes’ Springfield affiliate turned in the second-worst record in the AHL last season. They managed just 60 standings points, and that was only one point better than the Iowa Wild.
“We would like to model the Tucson franchise after what the Ducks did in San Diego,” said Anthony LeBlanc, the Coyotes’ CEO, and president. “It’s great model for business operation and very close to Anaheim. I think San Diego led the league in attendance so that a goal worthy of achieving.”
Actually, the Gulls were second in AHL attendance this past season. They averaged 8,675 fans per game, and that was slightly behind the league-leading Hershey Bears (9,790).
For Tucson, the club will relocate to a building constructed in 1971 and a seating capacity of 9,275. After the Tucson city council agreed, by a vote of 7-0, to a 10-year arena lease agreement with the Coyotes during their May 17 meeting, the Rio Nuevo Board approved $3.7 million in upgrades to the facility.
Improvements include locker room renovation, a new Zamboni, new dasher boards, a new video board, upgrades to the ice-making equipment, a new retail store, and construction of a new press box. The Rio Nuevo Board oversees the downtown redevelopment and revitalization district, and the Tucson Convention Center is part of the city’s downtown district.
All improvements are to be completed by Oct. 1, and the franchise begins to play about a week later. The nickname and logo have yet to be formed, and both the Coyotes and city of Tucson encourage fans to send their ideas.
Depending on their status after the Coyotes’ training camp in September, the Tucson fans can expect some of the top prospects in the NHL. Last season, the speed and energy of Maxi Domi and Anthony Duclair heightened the level of excitement in the Gila River Arena, and now players like Brandan Perlini, Ryan MacInnis, Christian Dvorak, Dylan Strome, Nick Merkley and Laurent Dauphin could showcase their talents. While Strome and Markley could be sent back their junior teams for the final time, others could be on the brink of gaining a spot on the Coyotes’ roster, or land in Tucson.
Still, the close location and viability of the Coyotes’ technology and medical teams, just short ride up an interstate highway that will not be compromised by snow or bad weather, is considered a major positive in an another ambitious plan to sell and sustain hockey in the desert.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.