Blues Sign Three Year Agreement With AHL's Chicago Wolves

Leech44/Wikimedia Commons

The Blues AHL affiliate is switching Illinois cities, as the Peoria Rivermen are no more.

By now, most of you have heard that the Blues have sold the Peoria Rivermen up the river to the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks would like to have an AHL team closer to their NHL club, the Calgary Flames would rather not have their AHL club in Canucks territory (Abbotsford, BC), and the Blues would like to save some cash, since the Rivermen lost about $400,000 in operating costs last year. Win win, right?

Obviously, not a win for the good people of Peoria, whose Rivermen have been there for 25 years or so, and who had to attend their final game on Wednesday evening. Special kudos go to the Rivermen for hanging around for a few hours after the game on the ice, shaking hands and signing autographs. The team might stay put if the Civic Center can wrangle the Canucks into staying, despite possibly losing a million bucks in operating costs next year, but their long-standing affiliation with the Blues is over.

The Blues yesterday agreed to a three-year agreement with the Chicago Wolves. This saves the Blues cash, since the Wolves are their own team, owned by Chicago businessmen Don Levin and Buddy Meyers - but this could be a problem for the Blues' prospects, too. The Wolves were the long-time AHL affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers, and while they won two Calder Cups during that time frame (2002 and 2008), that's not because they necessarily focused on the development of Atlanta prospects. They, as their own entity separate of the NHL club, focus on their own bottom line. They play the players that they want to play. They play the system that they want to play. They do what they want to do.

This has worked out well for them, because honestly if they played the Thrashers' system they probably never would have won anything. It didn't work out well for the Thrashers, because every time someone was called up, they had to be taught the Atlanta team's system, so there was a huge disconnect and the call-ups often looked lost and fairly confused. Of course, that's how everyone looked, but still -- they honestly looked out of place. And underdeveloped.

Here's a list of the Thrashers' prospects that spent time with the Wolves and were successful at the NHL level:

Garnet Exelby

Darcy Hordichuk

Pasi Nurminen

Dan Snyder

Jim Slater (though he barely played for the Wolves)

Nathan Oystrick

Brayden Coburn

Brett Sterling

Boris Valabik

Ondrej Pavelec

Bryan Little

That's ten. And if your standards of success are higher than mine are, really only Hordichuk (kind of), Pavelec, Coburn, and Little were successful NHL players.

Long list, huh? I'm not trying to scare Blues fans, but this affiliation troubles me. The Blues lose the control over their AHL team that's so helpful for prospect development. There is no reason that the Thrashers, who were often ranked in Hockey's Future as having a solid prospect pool, should see so many of their top young players either falter when in the NHL or not make it to the NHL at all. Arturs Kulda just now is regularly seeing ice time with the Winnipeg Jets, and he's actually someone that was expected to play for the Thrashers regularly a few years ago.

The Wolves are looking for a team that allows them more "control" over what they do, and the Canucks obviously weren't that team. The Thrashers were willing participants in that; apparently the Blues will be too. This whole article from ChicagoBusiness.com is troubling.

"To have someone else control some of the moves (we make) doesn't work well in this market with our owner," said Mike Gordon, the Wolves' president of business operations, referring to a relationship with Vancouver that didn't appear to have long-term potential for either side.

The Canucks made it clear when they purchased the Peoria Rivermen AHL franchise last month that they wanted to "assume full control of our minor league development program," as the team's owner said in a news release. The Wolves, meanwhile, as an independently owned franchise, want to say who plays when.

"Their goal is to develop players into NHL players. Our goal is to win," said Mr. Gordon, pointing to issues ranging from playing time to who foots the bill for league fines for on-ice player misconduct.

That last quote is the Chicago Wolves in a nutshell. The Thrashers had to send prospects down to the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL for icetime and experience, so the Evansville Icemen better get ready for talent.

"We don't define ourselves by our affiliate. We've never taken the colors of an NHL partner and we don't put their patch on our sleeve," Mr. Gordon said.

That strategy works well for the Wolves, who have never had a losing season and who are one of the top draws in the AHL. It's not going to work well for the Blues, though, and it is a legitimate matter of concern.

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