Currently without an American Hockey League affiliate, the Florida Panthers have yet another objective to add to a busy off season: the search for a new AHL club to develop up-and-coming players for the Cats. Since it really isn't feasible to develop top prospects like Jacob Markstrom, Colby Robak, and newly signed Garrett Wilson - among many others - with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, Florida is essentially forced to affiliate with an AHL club, quick and dirty, before the 2011-12 season begins. The Panthers do have some advantages though with possible affiliate turnovers in-the-making and connections of new head coach Kevin Dineen. A few thoughts on possible affiliations after the jump.
To put it simply yet being fair to both organizations, the Florida Panthers and Rochester Americans had differences far too wide to bridge for another go-around in affiliation. The Amerks-era of the Panthers affiliation began in 2005 while sharing the team with the Buffalo Sabres, but when the Sabres ended 29 years of marriage in Rochester by jumping to the Portland Pirates, the Panthers were given sole affiliation by default, much to the displeasure of many Americans fans. Since the Sabres left, the relationship deteriorated until it was announced by the Amerks that they would not re-up with the Panthers after their contract expired following last season. So after 6 years of relative futility, both teams understandably wish to part ways in search for greener pastures and a fresh start.
For the Panthers, the main goals in the search for a new affiliate are finding a stable team with a coaching style similar to what Kevin Dineen will hopefully establish, all while being in a more central location to Sunrise. If the Panthers wish to retain sole affiliation, the only team currently open is the San Antonio Rampage, which may not renew affiliation with the Phoenix Coyotes. If this was to happen, the Panthers might open another chapter with their old friends in San Antonio, the team who served as the Panthers affiliate before Rochester. However, the hiring of Dineen and the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg may give the Cats a few more choices this summer.
Terry Pegula - new owner of the Buffalo Sabres - is by all reports well on his way to purchasing the Rochester Americans and renewing the lengthy affiliation the two teams shared, meaning the Sabres current partner in Portland could be without a parent club. The Panthers coincidentally just hired the Pirates' coach to fill the vacancy left by Peter DeBoer, meaning there could be some definite advantages to forging an affiliation between the teams. Said Dineen in an interview with the Maine Hockey Journal:
I know where I’d like for (prospects) to be. It’s a quality of life there that’s unmatched. It’s a good place to develop players and prepare them to be ready for the NHL.
That’s one of the options out there. We’ll see if there is some chemistry between Portland and Florida. I certainly hope there is.
The possibility of having a farm club on the same page coaching-wise without the demanding ownership of Rochester should be a very attractive potential option for GM Dale Tallon and a great way for Dineen to continue his positive connections to that market.
With the Thrashers off to Manitoba, look for the AHL Moose to relocate soon, possibly leaving their parent Vancouver in a difficult position. Though St. John's, Newfoundland is the highly favored landing spot for the Moose, there has been talk that the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators could be promoted to the AHL, which would offer a regionally sensible alternative affiliate for the Panthers if Portland cannot be secured. Other rumors speculate that the Anaheim Ducks wish to re-affiliate with Portland and the Tampa Bay Lightning looking at partnering with - current Ducks affiliate Syracuse - leaving the Bolts' affiliate in Norfolk open for the Panthers. Again, nothing but rumors.
The purchase of the Rochester Americans and consequent shuffling of AHL partnerships could very well be a good thing for the Panthers, allowing Tallon as many candidates as possible to find what's best for his prospects' development. The importance of the correct affiliate is easily overlooked, but it's all about giving players the best possible environment to become NHLers, which is perhaps why Rochester never quite fit. Remember, the possibility of finding that perfect affiliate hinges on the ability of Pegula to smoothly purchase the Americans, if an agreement is not reached then don't expect much to happen in the AHL. My guess? The deal will go through and the Panthers get first crack at courting Portland, it just seems to be in the best interest of all parties involved.