The Hershey Bears already have 11 Calder Cups, and with the Capitals’ depth of prospects and an organizational commitment to caring about winning more at the American Hockey League level, it seems another is never far away.
And while the new alignment for the 2011-12 season – announced Tuesday – provides a tougher division for Hershey, an easier travel schedule could help the Bears substantially. Hershey will be part of the Eastern Conference’s East Division along with the archrival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, defending Calder Cup-champion Binghamton Senators, Syracuse Crunch and the Norfolk Admirals.
That puts the Caps’ top minor league affiliate in a group with teams linked to Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Anaheim and Tampa Bay.
In a league where bus travel is the way to go, this new alignment “certainly doesn’t hurt,” according to Hershey radio and PR man John Walton.
“Everybody within our division with the exception of Norfolk is a day trip for us. That’s probably a good thing,” Walton said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It makes it better, for sure.”
From a hockey standpoint, it’s gonna be a challenge. In recent years the Bears have made four trips to the Calder Cup Finals, the Penguins have been there twice and the Senators are coming off a championship.
“The East Division has been such a monster for such a long time,” Walton said.
It’s expected that will continue – as will rivalries built up over the past decade. Lost is one with the Adirondack Phantoms, though that’s something that has slipped since the Flyers’ affiliate moved from Philadelphia two years ago.
The AHL is also introducing a new playoff format for the upcoming season. It mirrors the NHL’s – where the division winners from each conference become the top three seeds and the next five best teams make it.
“I think it’s a great move because it makes for more intriguing early-round matchups,” Walton said.
With 21 teams in the Eastern Time Zone, something had to give. That meant the Charlotte Checkers in the Midwest Division.
But for the Bears, it’s hard to find anything to complain about.
Said Walton: “From a Hershey standpoint, I don’t think it could’ve worked out any better.”