The professional hockey world shifted a bit when Atlanta Thrashers relocated to become the Winnipeg Jets in May 2011. Not only did the NHL get affected, but so did the pro minor league affiliations. Atlanta had existing affiliations with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL and the Gwinnett Glaidiators of the ECHL but because Winnipeg was already operating an AHL franchise, a new affiliation hierarchy had to be formed. The Manitoba Moose franchise was moved to St. John’s (made up of prospects from the Chicago Wolves) and a new ECHL team, the Colorado Eagles was chosen as the ECHL affiliate.
The purpose of this post is to track how the three levels of professional hockey affiliation have risen and fallen along side each other to see if there is any pattern. It tracks the 2011 to 2016 seasons. Note that the Winnipeg Jets owned the St-John’s IceCaps and then moved it to Winnipeg as the Manitoba Moose in 2015-16. The AHL team essentially has some continuity (Chicago Wolves to IceCaps to Wolves) while the various ECHL teams do not.
So what pattern do we see looking at these three levels? At the ECHL level of the affiliation, the Jets and IceCaps/Moose are not impacted by any extent of how those ECHL teams do. In a future article I will outline why this is, but essentially the Jets and IceCaps/Moose park very few players with their ECHL affiliate.
It is the AHL level of the affiliation that does have an impact on the Winnipeg Jets.
2011-12 was a Cinderella season for the St-John’s IceCaps where a combination of Thrasher prospects and good AHL veterans played inspired hockey. Perhaps it was a desire to impress the new Jets ownership? The IceCaps made it to the conference finals. Everyone must have been thinking that perhaps the Thrashers had better prospects that what was originally thought.
Whatever momentum that existed was completely lost in 2012-13 due to the NHL Lockout. The prospects who had done so well the season before were not going to get called up in a shortened NHL season. The AHL pipeline got clogged and this resulted in a discouraged campaign for the IceCaps who finished last in their division and out of the playoffs.
2013-14 saw another outstanding season for the St-John’s IceCaps, who made it to the Calder Cup finals for the second time in team history (remember that the team is a continuation of the Chicago Wolves, not the Manitoba Moose franchise who played from 2001 to 2011). Prospects played great hockey and were surrounded by an effective leadership veteran core. The IceCaps lost in the Final but the prospects who shined would go on and make an impact in the next year.
2014-15 was evidence of that impact for the Jets. IceCap prospects (Lowry, Hutchinson, and Chiarot) infused new competition in the NHL club, helping the Jets to make the playoffs for the first time since the relocation. These prospects even played some great NHL playoff hockey (Lowry co-lead the Jets in scoring during the playoffs). The IceCaps would essentially be abandoned as goal production fell by 75 as Jets Management allowed most of its AHL veterans to walk and left its young prospects to fend for themselves. Unsurprisingly the team ended up last in the division and did not make the playoffs. The IceCaps were moved to Winnipeg at the end of the season and adopted the original franchise nickname, the Manitoba Moose.
2015-16 revealed Jets Management going full speed ahead with an aggressive youth movement as both the Jets and the Moose became very young, allowing even more NHL and AHL veterans to walk in favor of promising but unproven prospects. The outcome was at times pitiful and very disappointing for fans as both teams finished last in their divisions and missed the playoffs. Fans were told that with the Moose being in the same building as the parent club we would see a hungry team. The results beg to differ.
Winnipeg Jets Management have publicly committed to making an NHL team that was competitive for a long time and the best way to do this was to have a strong prospect pipeline creating internal competition. While hope may spring eternal, count me moderately skeptical how the Jets are accomplishing this. I question how leaving the Moose so non-competitive for two seasons helps prospect development. As of the time of this writing, the Moose continue to look very young and appear to have a third consecutive season of futility ahead of them. Still some of the players who made the Jets last year may end up on the Moose and this will help improve that group.
At least the parent Jets have a huge boost in its fortunes by winning the 2nd overall draft pick for 2016. A sense of positive momentum that was lacking in 2015-16 has been established and makes for hopeful expectations for the top club.