Heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Hockey League (AHL) returned in October 2021 to embark on an action-packed season. A combination of close fought battles, major upsets and exceptional young talent on the ice have made 2021/22 a spectacular watch so far.
The AHL is the primary development league for the NHL, broadcast live on regional TV networks and directly-to-fans via the league’s streaming platform AHLTV. With viewership up 110% year-on-year and official league social media platforms now followed by over 4 million, the playoffs – the final stages of the season – are set to bigger and better than ever.
So whether you’re new to the league or looking for your fix of stats and analysis from its official partner, here’s all you need to know.
A rich history
The AHL, the second-tier of professional ice hockey in North America, was founded in 1936, when the International Hockey League and the Canadian-American (CanAm) Hockey League’s merged.
- 31 teams compete (26 from the U.S. and five from Canada)
- The season ordinarily runs between October and April, with the postseason playoffs taking place shortly after
- This year, the playoffs finish on June 23rd, when the winners will be crowned champions of the Calder Cup
The regular season consists of over 1,220 games, played daily from Monday to Sunday – giving ice hockey fans something to watch through the entire gameweek.
What about the NHL?
The AHL and the NHL are actually quite closely linked, and work alongside one another.
Each AHL team is affiliated with an NHL franchise, and the league operates as the main development league for future NHL players. Over 90% of NHL players previously plied their trade in the AHL. This season, 104 AHL graduates are now competing at the top-level.
The AHL is a unique pathway to budding stars, allowing them invaluable experience in a fiercely competitive league. AHL rules state that at least 12 of the players on any given matchday must not have played more than 260 professional games, supporting the development of the stars of tomorrow.
For example, 2020 AHL Graduate Igor Shesterkin is currently the starting goalkeeper for the New York Rangers – one of the NHL’s most valuable and successful teams.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 18, 2022
By and large, NHL franchises expect a degree of AHL experience before committing to drafting or signing a player. It’s a strong, reciprocal relationship that has improved the standard of both leagues dramatically.
Format and Playoffs
The AHL’s 31 teams are split into four divisions: the Atlantic division, with eight teams; the Central and North divisions, each with seven teams; and the Pacific division with nine teams.
The teams that finish in the bottom two of their division will be eliminated, with the remaining teams – a total of 23 – advancing to the playoffs. Teams are then ranked according to their points percentage, with the winner of the Pacific division, the top two of the Atlantic division and the top three of the Central and North divisions gaining a bye to the second round.
What follows is then a straight knockout tournament. Round one is a best-of-three competition; divisional semi-finals (second round) and divisional finals (third round) are best-of-five; and conference finals (fourth round) and Calder Cup (final round) games are decided on a best-of-seven tie.
Is it popular?
Yes, very. There has never been a better time to start watching the AHL.
- Viewership on AHLTV increased by 110% in the last year and will undoubtedly grow again this year.
- com receives roughly 40 million annual visits
- The league and its club’s social accounts have generated over 200 million impressions
In addition, the affiliation with the NHL means that both leagues will grow in tandem: each benefitting from the growth of the other. There will even be an expansion team for 2022 – the Coachella Valley Firebirds, who will be affiliated with Seattle Kraken.
Show of hands 🙌🏻 who’s excited about being one step closer to opening day for @AcrisureArena 🔥🏒🥅🎶 https://t.co/SFMfYaSoFd
— Coachella Valley Firebirds (@Firebirds) February 17, 2022
Who are the teams to look out for?
The current holders – having won the competition in 2019 – are the Charlotte Checkers, who came from one game down to win the series 4-1. This season has been a little more inconsistent for the Checkers, who are currently placed in third, having lost 20 of their 45 games this season.
Their opponents in that series were the Chicago Wolves, who are flying so far this season. They have won 27 of their 44 games so far, topping the Central Division. The Wolves have three players that occupy the top seven in the individual standings. Sat at the top of that table is Andrew Poturalski, who has 21 goals and a staggering 38 assists to his name.
In @DavidGust94 we trust. 🤠#WeAreChicagosTeam pic.twitter.com/jRkGzLEvjV
— Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) February 15, 2022
Utica Comets also look very strong this year, sitting pretty at the top of the Pacific division, with an average points-per-game of 1.45 – just short of Stockton Heat, who have the highest PPG average (1.49). They started their season with a remarkable 13-game unbeaten run, but have fallen away from that form of late, losing four of their last seven games.
The team that have won the AHL more than any other are the Hershey Bears, with 11 championships in their trophy cabinet. They also find themselves in favorable form this year – sitting second in the Atlantic Division.
When can I watch?
Best thing about the AHL? There is pretty much a game every day! Even as a number of top players are currently representing their countries at the Winter Olympics, fixtures continue to take place almost every day; this weekend alone there are almost 30 games for you to get stuck into.
We have just reached the halfway point in the season, and naturally there is still so much to play for. There has never been a better time to tune into the American Hockey League.