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Golden Knights are latest team to take AHL plunge

Updated June 26, 2020 - 5:51 pm

Golden Knights prospect Keegan Kolesar logged thousands of air miles on a sudden December trip just to be an insurance policy.

The right wing was called up from the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves on Dec. 28 before a game in Iowa. He flew to Las Vegas, warmed up in case a banged-up skater couldn’t go and ultimately watched a game against the Arizona Coyotes from the T-Mobile Arena press box. He was sent back down that same night and played a game in Chicago the following afternoon.

The Knights want that situation to play out differently next season. There’s a chance Kolesar could go through the same transactions without having to get on a plane.

The Knights hope having a local AHL affiliate will cut down their prospects’ flight time and help in many other ways. By turning the San Antonio Rampage into the Henderson Silver Knights, the organization wants to improve communication, cut down on logistical challenges and increase its foothold in the Las Vegas community.

Those potential positives are why the Knights are just the latest NHL team to bring their affiliate closer to home.

“There’s going to be a lot of advantages from a developmental standpoint,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “The popularity of the (Silver Knights) already has been incredible. That’s going to make for a great environment for players and for fans. It’ll be much different than what we’ve had in regards to the players traveling back and forth. I believe they’ll really appreciate that.”

Growing trend

NHL clubs became more serious about controlling their affiliates after the 2004-05 lockout, according to outgoing AHL president David Andrews. Suddenly, with a salary cap in place, inexpensive young talent was a more important commodity.

Thirteen AHL franchises have been purchased by NHL organizations since then. The majority subsequently relocated to be closer to their parent club. That trend was accelerated in 2015 when the AHL created a Pacific Division with five California teams. That has since expanded to include teams in Arizona, Colorado and soon Henderson.

Overall, NHL teams own 20 of the 32 AHL franchises, including future Seattle affiliate Palm Springs.

“The investment the NHL teams have made in player development just keeps going up every year because it’s the road to success,” said Andrews, who will step down Tuesday after 26 seasons in charge. “It’s one of the areas where NHL teams aren’t capped, so they can invest whatever they feel they’re able to invest or need to invest to develop players for their club.”

The Knights are the latest team to take the plunge. By purchasing the Rampage in February and moving them to Henderson, the team reduced the distance between its arena and the future home of its AHL affiliate from 1,750 miles to 11.

Only one NHL team, the Vancouver Canucks, was previously farther from its AHL club. Now only three partners will be closer.

“It’s a huge advantage,” Knights coach Pete DeBoer said in February. DeBoer’s previous team, the San Jose Sharks, shares an arena with its AHL affiliate. “Having those guys in the same city … for us to be able to have a real good handle on them (is great).”

Closing the gap

Shortening that distance comes with all sorts of pluses. Call-ups and call-downs when both teams are home will be accomplished with a drive, not a flight. And players can find more permanent homes in the Las Vegas Valley rather than worrying about being constantly relocated.

Knights left wing Brandon Pirri, for example, moved his family to Las Vegas before this season only to be waived and sent to Chicago in November. Now he and other players can enter training camp next season secure they’ll live in the same place whether they’re in the AHL or NHL.

Ontario Reign general manager Richard Seeley, whose AHL team shares a practice facility with its parent club, the Los Angeles Kings, said basing players in one location eliminates a lot of stress.

“I think a guy … that’s on the cusp of cracking an NHL lineup, and you have a girlfriend and a dog, or a wife and some kids, I think there’s a big advantage to understanding that your kids are going to be in the same school the whole time,” Seeley said.

Keeping guys in one spot also makes communication and interaction between the two levels simple. NHL and AHL coaches can easily discuss teaching points. Equipment managers can trade notes on player preferences. The hockey operations staff can get a far better feel for how prospects are progressing.

Having the NHL in their sights should push the Silver Knights, too.

“It’s going to keep you honest,” Knights prospect Ben Jones said. “Every player is going to have to bring it every single day, every single rep. There’s no chance to slack off, otherwise people are going to be watching. People are going to know.”

Broadening reach

Developing talent is just one of the Silver Knights’ goals, however.

The Knights’ organization wants to use the team to deepen its relationships with fans and extend its influence over the Las Vegas Valley. It’s no secret Knights tickets are in high demand, which can price out some fans. So providing a less expensive alternative — plus one that provides a sneak peek at future NHL players — makes sense.

Knights owner Bill Foley appears committed to fielding a strong AHL product, too. The bottom five AHL teams in attendance this season were NHL-owned, but Foley is determined not to join that group.

His team’s Henderson city-council approved arena project — which is facing opposition from petitioners who turned in signatures to City Hall on Thursday — is set to have 6,000 seats. A sellout season would put the Silver Knights 13th in average AHL attendance but fifth among NHL-owned AHL teams.

“A lot of the affiliates of NHL teams are kind of stepchildren,” Foley said. “We’re not going to treat the Henderson Silver Knights that way.”

One of the few remaining questions regarding the move is when fans will be allowed to see the team play. Andrews said he’s “pretty optimistic” the AHL will play next season, but he was unsure when it would start. The league has looked at a number of scheduling options in case its usual October start is delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Andrews also said it’s possible some teams will start with restricted capacity or even no fans. That would make returning more difficult since the AHL is a gate-driven league with much less TV revenue than the NHL.

“I know that our NHL affiliates and partners are eager to have their young players playing,” Andrews said. “We’ll find a way to do it. I just don’t know quite what it’ll look like yet.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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