The trickle-down effect from the NHL lockout will likely send players from the Triple-A American Hockey League down to the Central Hockey League, but don’t expect to see many of them with the Thunder.
Wichita coach Kevin McClelland, a top-notch recruiter, could probably sway many such players to join the Thunder, and that option is available to him. But McClelland would rather have the players he signed during the summer than the ones who are out of options and are forced to play in the CHL because they lost jobs elsewhere.
Since AHL training camps have begun and the CHL’s begin on Monday, players cut from the AHL will become available almost immediately. But McClelland has little interest. He keeps roster spots open because of his preference to use the entire offseason, but the lockout will minimally sway his decisions.
“I’m not going to go in that direction,” McClelland said. “I’m going to go with guys who want to come here and play in Wichita and want to be part of it. The guys who I’ve had sign throughout the summer, I’m going to be loyal to those guys.”
The Thunder begins its season on Oct. 19; significant player movement between leagues could pick up on and shortly after Oct. 11, when the lockout officially wipes out NHL regular-season games. Players on two-way contracts with the NHL and AHL will play in the AHL, and some AHL players will move to the ECHL and to the CHL.
Thunder opponents will likely be eager to sign the AHL players who are released during camp this week, but signing new players might not be worth the risk even if they’re perceived as better.
Not only will those late signings disrupt the offseason work teams put in to build rosters, the new players might not last long. If the lockout is resolved quickly, players will return to the leagues in which they planned to start the season and CHL teams could be left with spots to fill.
“You get someone who is an American League-quality player or an NHL player, all of a sudden when the lockout lifts they’d probably be gone,” McClelland said. “It’s pretty hard to ask someone to come back to your dressing room that you just ditched a month and a half before.”
The lockout will almost certainly improve quality of play in minor-league hockey, but it will also have plenty of negative implications, especially in the CHL, in which three of 10 teams have NHL affiliations and four are tied to the AHL.
Many CHL players will lose jobs, while juniors players eligible to join the professional ranks will be forced to wait until spots become available. Development of players who deserve promotions but can’t get them could be stifled. Call-ups to the AHL could be more difficult, since the AHL will be stocked with NHL players.
“There’s going to be a lot of players, but it doesn’t matter,” McClelland said. “If you’re playing well and you make an impression, you can get called up from anywhere.”
The benefit for the CHL is that formerly higher-level players could improve the product for a league that needs a boost after reigning champion Fort Wayne departed for the ECHL along with Evansville.
Dayton and Rio Grande Valley suspended operations, and Laredo was sold and moved to St. Charles, Mo., where a franchise will begin play in 2013-14. The league added Denver to put the league at 10 teams with eight playoff spots.
“Every year you’re going to lose your players,” McClelland said. “I think that’s a good thing, because now they’re getting opportunities. That’s why they come down here in the first place, to get to the next level, or someone has given up them and all of a sudden they show interest again. I think it’s great, and I accept that every year you’re going to lose a bunch of hockey players and you’ve got to bring new ones in.”