Splitting the AHL Awards Is the Best Solution to Fix the League's Awards Problems

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

Were this any normal year, the AHL would be announcing their league-wide awards this week, ending with the MVP award this Friday. Most fans aren't privy to how these selections are made, but frankly, the AHL award selection process is broken. The good news is that there is an easy way to fix it that also increases the league's primary mandate to develop players and has side benefits of increasing fan engagement with the league: double the number of awards.

Sometime in March, ballots for all the major awards go out from the league office in Springfield. From MVP and Rookie of the Year to the Bastien and Fred Hunt, there are ballots distributed to each AHL team: one for the players, one for the coaches and one for the media. Aside from the rule that teams may not select anyone from their own city for any award, there are essentially no other selection rules. Players must be placed in the correct position according to the AHL website for the All-Star team, but that's about it.

Players usually select a representative or two to make their selections. Coaching staffs generally do this together. Media selections are all over the place with some doing it by committee (like I did with Sean Shapiro before he moved to Dallas), by a single member (as I do now) or by the play-by-play or media guy in cities without good media coverage.

So, let's say that I'm voting for the MVP of the 2019-20 season right now. I probably start by pulling up the daily report from the AHL. I scroll down to the overall leaders in scoring. Most of the time, whoever is leading the league in scoring becomes the MVP. Currently, that's Sam Anas of Iowa. However, this is where the problems start. In second place is Reid Boucher (34-33=67 in 53 GP). Boucher plays for the Utica Comets, and I have never seen him play in person or on AHLtv. He's never played Texas. Who's to say his 67 points isn't better than Anas's 70 given that he did it in ten fewer games? How can we compare the two players if we never got a chance to see one of them? And this isn't a Western Conference problem, of course. The Eastern Conference teams never saw Sam Anas or Gerry Mayhew to compare to Reid Boucher.

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
As you might remember from our ballot explainers, the Texas media crew always tries to bias toward Western players because we've seen them. Unless there's an extreme outlier (e.g. WBS G Matt Murray's rookie year), we're going with a West player at the top of the ballot. In fact, I would be willing to bet many media members who think deeply about the awards do this.

The players have a similar rubric for their balloting. "You're going to probably be biased toward your own conference and someone you've played against," said Travis Morin when reached at home last week. "I always put in time. It wasn't just fill it out and forget about it. I always tried to do some research to make sure I wasn't just selecting guys that I knew from in our conference."

Morin notes the ultimate fix for this would be more cross-conference play. He admits readily, and we all know inherently, that that's not a feasible solution.

Instead, the best solution is to split every award into two: one for the West and one for the East. This solves several problems with the current award system and creates a few nice synergies as well.

First, we can get rid of the issue described above where players haven't been seen by the coaches, players and media members who are voted on the awards. If you're only looking at Western Conference players for an award, you don't have to worry about relying on just the stat sheet. You'd be able to tell from experience that the player who might have been edged out by a point or two in the stats was the absolute motor of his team because you watched him single-handedly dominate the club you cover on an occasion or two.

Next, since the league is all about development and recognition of development, isn't it a good outcome to recognize more players for their outstanding play in the league? This ties into another point which is establishing more connections with the league broadly among its fanbase. If the league is recognizing more players, there is a greater chance that you've seen a player who is a winner or you might even have that player on your team. This can also help continue to grow the connection that NHL fans should feel to the AHL as the place where future NHLers are made.

One that might not be obvious is the ability to create the new awards in the first place. The AHL has named their awards after various founders and other legendary figures in league history. The issue is that once you've set up the awards, things are a bit frozen in time. As the league hits a full 32 teams in the coming year, it's time to recognize a new class. The league could just name the awards: Sollenberger Award (East) and Sollenberger Award (West). But what if they instead looked at their Hall of Fame inductees over the last 14 years and added some new names? The Bruce Boudreau Award for outstanding coach? The Bryan Helmer Award for commitment to hockey? This would also be a good chance to recognize historic Western Conference or IHL contributors in the new expanded AHL.

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Finally, it's basically free in the long run. The league may need to make new physical awards, but that's a one-time capital expense.

To anyone who poo-poos the idea as 'participation trophy' culture or somehow anti-traditionalist, I'd point out that Major League Baseball already does this. And, if you want to get more specific to the AHL on this, they've essentially already done an accidental test run. In 2016, the AHL awarded the Rookie of the Year trophy to two players, Mikko Rantanen from San Antonio and Frank Vatrano from Providence, after they tied in voting. I imagine the lionshare of each player's votes came from their own conference.

In summary, this is an idea that costs almost nothing to implement, allows the league to recognize more of its best players, makes voting easier and more true to the on-ice performance, increases fan connection to the league as a broad entity and allows the league to recognize more of their historic players and coaches with award names. Why wouldn't you do this?