Today the AHL will start announcing year-end individual awards, beginning with the all-rookie team and ending with the MVP award on Friday, April 8th. Texas Stars fans are probably going to see a lot of names that they don't recognize in the award winner and nominee lists. To be fair though, it isn't your fault, and you aren't alone.
Take, for example, the Norfolk Admirals. They play no games against Western Conference opponents. What chance does the average Norfolk fan have to recognize excellent West Conference goaltenders like Richard Bachman, Mark Dekanich or Eddie Lack? Can the average Stars fan name a single player on the Norfolk Admirals roster? The Connecticut Whale? The Manchester Monarchs?
It's not just the fans. In putting together my awards ballot as the Texas Stars media representative, it was difficult to give all of the players a fair shake. How can I judge a player's season based on a stat line alone? I have heard many of these names all season, but I haven't seen those players play the game. I feel that perverts the system.
The same cuts both ways here as well. Tim Leone, who does a great job covering the Hershey Bears for The Patriot-News, said as much in his recent post handicapping the awards races:
"Admittedly, there is some voodoo and stat-sheet reading involved in the process because we don’t get to personally see every team in the league."He then went on to give his selections for the winners of each award. All of the winners, with the exception of Bryan Helmer from Oklahoma City but formerly of Hershey, were from the East Conference.
The obvious solution to this issue is to take the NHL's methodology and have every team play each other every year, alternating home and away. There has been a lot of electronic ink spilled on the topic by AHL writers on both sides. Personally, I feel the onus is on the East Conference to begin travelling more.
If you just look at a map, the spread-out nature of the West Conference geographically gives them a harder season. The Binghamton Senators, for example, have nine teams within four hours driving distance to their home arena. They play 27 of their forty away games against these teams. Another three teams are under five hours away. Texas, by contrast, has only 11 games within a five hour drive. Manitoba's nearest opponent is Milwaukee, 13 hours away, so every road trip is by plane.
It is a situation that likely has no solution until the league mandates the schedule make-up for teams. Right now, there is no evenness. Texas plays Houston 12 times a season but has yet to play against Rochester, a West Conference team, in the history of the franchise. Given that Texas and other Western Conference teams travel to nearby teams like Toronto and Hamilton already, it surely doesn't seem like West Conference teams are the ones holding up cross-conference play.