So it is kind of funny that with the NHL finally considering this approach (realignment is coming after the current season) the AHL has switched to the current NHL model of 6 divisions with 5 teams in each.
Yes the new format allows for more "fairness" as the best teams from each conference will get in and it won't be so weighted to a teams divisional strength.
Obviously that kind of situation can occur even with 8 team divisions due to teams struggling to compete (as the Phantoms have of late), but going to the conference format instead of the divisional format will help to diminish some rivalries.
Doesn't have quite the same intensity, does it?
Ok, now that I got that off my chest, let's take a brief look at the teams Hershey will see the most this season...their East Division Rivals.
Syracuse Crunch - 6 games
The Bears and Crunch played 6 times last season and were very even in those games. Each team won 3 games (road team won every single game) and each team scored 17 goals in the season series. The interesting part is that the games weren't that close. Syracuse outscored Hershey 13-5 in their wins while the Bears outscored them 12-4 in theirs. There was a single one goal game which Hershey won and the rest were all 2 or more.
The Crunch are affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks which is the new home of Andrew Gordon. Good news for Gordo...he made the Ducks out of camp and is expected to play on their 3rd line.
Last season the Crunch had 8 players with double digit goals during the regular season. Of those players 5 or 6 are anticipated to see time in Syracuse, including Patrick Maroon and Kyle Palmieri who combined for 50 goals while they both played for the Crunch last season (Maroon started the season in Adirondack).
Binghamton Senators - 8 games
Eventually they made it all the way through and won the Calder Cup over the Houston Aeros. They had missed the playoffs the previous 5 seasons.
They play their home games at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in downtown Binghamton which seats a little over 4,000 fans for hockey games.
Last season the Bears and B-Sens played 8 times with Hershey winning the season series 5-3-0-0. Hershey went 3-1-0-0 on home ice and the teams split 2-2-0-0 when playing in Binghamton. Hershey outscored the Sens 34-18 on the season and of the 3 one goal games Hershey went 2-1-0-0.
The Senators are affiliated with (surprise) the Ottawa Senators and is the previous home to current Bear Ryan Potulny. The B-Sens had 10 players that scored 10+ goals while playing for the team last season (Potulny only scored 3 during the regular season for the Sens). Leading point producers Corey Locke (86 points in 69 games) and Jim O'Brien (24 goals and 56 points) are both expected back in the AHL this season.
Norfolk Admirals - 10 games
They play their home games at Norfolk Scope which seats a little about 8,700 fans for hockey games.
Like the Sens, the Admirals played 8 games against the Bears last season. And similarly, they lost the season series...although it wasn't as close. Hershey won the season series 6-1-0-1. Surprisingly though the games were closer or at least the goals scored were. Hershey outscored the Admirals 24-20 overall but the games in Norfolk were split 14-14 despite Hershey winning 3 of the 4. Like Bingo, 3 of the games were one goal games with Hershey winning 2 of them.
The Ads are affiliated with the Tampa Bay Lightning. 10 different players scored double digit goals last season for the Ads. Of those 10 it appears that only 3 will be Admirals for 2011-12. James Wright, Matt Fornataro, and Mike Angelidis will be in the lineup. Also joining the Ads this season is Dana Tyrell, who spent the entire 2010-11 campaign with the Lightning (scored 6 goals and added 9 assists) and 2009 1st round pick Carter Ashton, who begins his first pro season this weekend.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins - 12 teams
Last year the Pens finished with 117 points after a 58-21-0-1 regular season. The made the playoffs for the 9th consecutive year. During that span they have made 2 Calder Cup finals (winning neither) and have only been eliminated in the 1st round one time.
The Bears and Pens played 10 times last year and most Bears fans would just as soon forget them all. Hershey finished the season 2-6-1-1 against the Baby Penguins including a record of 0-4-1-0 in Hershey. Overall the Pens outscored the Bears 36-19 including 21-10 at Giant Center. The only saving grace is that 6 of the games were decided by one goal and Hershey managed to go 2-2-1-1 in those games.
The Baby Pens are affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins (I am sure you didn't know that) and are again prepared to make a run at the Calder Cup. Last season the Baby Pens had 12 different players score 10+ goals and 7 of those players return. However, only 2 of the top 5 point producers from last season are still in the organization and only 1 of those (Ryan Craig) is expected to start the season in Wilkes-Barre.
They did add some other scorers though including Alexandre Giroux's former teammate Colin McDonald who scored 42 last season for the Oklahoma City Barons. And just today the Penguins signed Niko Dimitrakos to a professional tryout. Dimitrakos has spent the last 2 seasons playing in Europe where he has scored 34 goals over those seasons. In his most recent AHL seasons (06-07 and 07-08) he totaled 39 goals and 43 assists.
So there you have it. The divisional race will be a little less interesting this season as the top 8 teams from the overall conference will make the playoffs. The 3 division winners are locked in and then it is the next best 5 based on points and a series of complicating tiebreakers.
Hershey plays a combined 36 of their 76 games against their divisional opponents so we will get to know these teams more. In fact the first 3 games of the season (all on the road) are against Binghamton, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and Norfolk. And the fist game against Syracuse is later this month.
The season is almost here...