On Jan. 4, the Florida Panthers’ AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, announced that they are opting out of the 2020-21 season. The Checkers, in coordination with the Panthers, made the decision due to concerns with safety and logistics they would have to navigate because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September 2020, the 2018-19 Calder Cup champion Checkers ended their 10-season affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes. Shortly after, the Checkers announced a multi-year agreement to be the Panthers’ AHL affiliate. Unfortunately, the new partnership will be put on hold until the 2021-22 season. (from ‘Charlotte Checkers opt out of 2020-21 American Hockey League season, Charlotte News & Observer, 01/04/2021) When asked about the decision, Panthers’ general manager Bill Zito said,
“Working closely with the Charlotte Checkers organization, we have come to the decision together to opt-out of playing in Charlotte in 2020-21…Despite the travel and business challenges involved with this year, we feel that this decision will not impact our player development system as we continue to provide necessary environments for growth. We look forward to the continuation of our partnership with the Checkers organization and the puck drop of 2021-22 in Charlotte.”
The Checkers are one of just three AHL teams opting out. They are joined by the Milwaukee Admirals, the Nashville Predators’ affiliate, and the Springfield Thunderbirds, the St. Louis Blues’ affiliate. They are opting out in large part due to their inability to host fans, a major source of revenue for the clubs. With the NHL season beginning Jan. 13 and the AHL season set to begin on Feb. 5, the Panthers had a short window to find a home for their AHL players.
A Partnership Is Born
On Jan 6, Zito and Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois jointly announced an agreement between the organizations. The Lightning will allow the Panthers to use their AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch for the 2020-21 season. During the announcement, Zito said,
“We are excited and honored to work with our neighbors, the Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Syracuse Crunch organization. It is a unique chance to work in tandem with our cross-state rivals in a collaborative effort to provide the necessary environment for our prospects to train and compete in the 2020-21 AHL season…With safety at the forefront, this arrangement also allows our players to continue their development uninterrupted.”
This season, when the Panthers assign a player to the AHL, they’ll be assigned to the play and train with the Crunch. Although the Crunch will be adding new players to their lineup, their coaching staff will not change. So, their head coach will be Ben Groulx for the fifth straight season. Groulx has the second-most wins for a coach in Crunch franchise history. He has helped develop players such as Yanni Gourde, Slater Koekkoek, and one of the Panthers’ newest members, Carter Verhaeghe.
The Crunch will be one of 28 teams participating in the AHL this season. They will be competing in the North Division against the Binghamton Devils, Hershey Bears, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Rochester Americans, Utica Comets, and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
During such unprecedented times, it is remarkable to see cross-state rivals work together like the Panthers and Lightning will this season. Furthermore, the Crunch will have the unique opportunity of using top prospects from both organizations. Although the Panthers’ AHL players will be at a disadvantage, it is fortunate they will be able to continue their development. The Crunch will try to bring the Calder Cup back to Syracuse for the first time since the 1937-38 season.