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Better Know a Hockey League: The AHL

With an NHL lockout of some length or another practically unavoidable at this point, I thought now would be a good time to start looking at other hockey leagues both here in North America and abroad that may well draw hoards of abandoned NHL fans to their rinks in no time.

Enter the American Hockey league, known as the AHL, formed in the 1930s, which has mainly served as a minor-league development system for NHL teams (See the complete list of AHL/NHL team affiliations from last season here), but teams are also free to sign undrafted and free agent players of their own accord to fill out their rosters and compete for the league trophy, the Calder Cup. Some of these players even make the jump to a big league squad (i.e. Mark Giordano, who got his start with the now defunct Lowell Loch Monsters).

There are 30 teams in six divisions in the AHL, mostly located in small to mid-sized cities across North America, and those six divisions are allocated into two conferences called Eastern and Western, just like the NHL's current set up.

The AHL's regular season is slightly shorter than it's major league affiliate at 76 games and the playoff format is different as well. The conference quarterfinals are a best of five series where the higher seeded team gets to decide where they want to start the series (at home or on the road) and plays three games on home ice. The remaining three series are each seven games long.

After the jump, the best and worst of the 2011-12 AHL season and notable dates on the schedule for the upcoming season.

We Are The Champions

The Norfolk Admirals, Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, captured the Calder Cup this past spring after defeating the Toronto Marlies in four games in the Caalder Cup Final. Some familiar names on the Admirals are former Canadian World Junior goalie Dustin Tokarski and former Flames draft pick and pawn in the Dion Phaneuf trade Keith Aulie.

The Marlies beat out the Abbotsford Heat, the Flames' AHL affiliate, in five games in the Western Conference Semifinals, ending their somewhat surprising playoff run.

The Hershey Bears, one of the league's oldest franchises, hold the most Calder Cup titles with 11.

Best of the Rest

The aforementioned Norfolk Admirals were the best team in the AHL when the regular season wrapped up, finishing with 113 points and 55 wins, including a 10-0-0 streak down the stretch.

The Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers' AHL affiliate, were #1 in the Western Conference in 2011-12 with 45 wins and 99 points. Linus Omark, Magnus Paajarvi, Olivier Roy, and Teemu Hartikainen are just a few of the players on that team that people familiar with the Oilers' upcoming crop of young players may be familiar with.

Despite finishing with 92 points, one more than the third-seeded Chicago Wolves, the Heat finished fourth in the West due to the fact that they share a division with the Barons.

There's No "I" In Team

Chris Bourque of the Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals) was the highest scoring AHL player last season, accumulating 27 goals and 93 points in 73 games. Other top scorers were Cory Gonacher (39 goals and 80 points for the Norfolk Admirals), Patrick Maroon (32 goals and 75 points for the Syracuse Crunch), and T.J. Hensick (21 goals and 70 points for the Peoria Rivermen).

Krys Kolanos was the highest scoring Heat player, collecting 30 goals and 61 points in 47 regular season outings.

Toronto's Ben Scrivens finished at the top of the pile where goalies are concerned with 22 wins, four shutouts, and a 926 SV% in 39 games.

In comparison, Leland Irving also had 22 wins in 39 games and three shutouts, but finished the season with just a .902 SV%.

Best Fans in the Game?

The Hershey Bears finished atop the league in terms of attendance last season, averaging 9,872 bums in the seats per game. The Heat finished second last in the league, averaging only 3,545 and only 2,389 throughout the playoffs. See complete attendance here. In the case of an NHL lockout, an influx of talented young players who have broken ranks with the minor league could help boost the attendance of some clubs, but it seems the league has decided to prohibit players who did not play in the AHL last season to play for its teams when players take to the ice in a month's time. As a result, NHL squads have been sending down players on two-way contracts en masse in recent days.

What's Next?

The 2012-13 AHL season begins on Friday, October 12th with seven games on the docket. The Norfolk Admirals begin their defence of the Calder Cup when they face off against the Worcester Sharks while the Heat take on the Peoria Rivermen. Head Coach Troy Ward will attempt to follow up his team's better than expected performance last season after missing out on/turning down a job with the big club this summer.

That concludes this chapter of Better Know a Hockey League, stay tuned for more as the lockout will 99.999% be declared official by one minute to midnight tomorrow.