The Blues have a new affiliate in the American Hockey League, although it will be another year before the club actually takes control of the minor-league organization.
The Blues are soon expected to announce a five-year agreement with the San Antonio Rampage, a deal that will take effect beginning with the 2018-19 season, according to multiple NHL and AHL sources.
The Rampage, who are owned by Spurs Sports & Entertainment (SS&E), are currently the top affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. But the AHL has announced that it will expand by one team in 2018-19, and according to a report in the Denver Post, the Avs are in discussions with the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles for the Eagles to become the expansion franchise.
The Blues’ alignment with San Antonio will end a two-year search for a new AHL affiliate after a relationship with the Chicago Wolves turned sour and efforts to place an expansion club in Kansas City or Indianapolis came up short. The Blues will operate without an affiliate in 2017-18 because the addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights will give the NHL one more franchise than the AHL, and with the Knights collaborating with the Wolves, it will leave the Blues as the odd team out. But that will change the following year when the AHL expands.
The Blues would not confirm the new arrangement, nor would AHL President David Andrews, who in an interview with the Post-Dispatch this week only addressed the development in general terms.
“I don’t really want to comment on the San Antonio side,” Andrews said. “If and when they’re ready to make that announcement, I would leave it to them. ... But where (the Blues) are going to land is probably the best situation they could hope for as an affiliated team with an AHL owned-and-operated franchise. There is no better location in terms of a partnership and the strength of that organization. They are, if not the best operators in professional sports, they’re darn close. I would feel very comfortable if I were a Blues fan or anyone interested in the Blues that they won’t be suffering at all with the situation that they’re in for developing players going forward, including this year. They’re going to have a full-time home and it’ll be a good one.”
San Antonio has been in operation since 2002 and SS&E became sole owner of the team in 2005. Today, the Texas-based group runs five sports franchises, including the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. The Rampage play at the AT&T Center, home of the Spurs.
The Rampage have qualified for the AHL playoffs in just four out of 15 seasons of existence and had a franchise-best 98 points in 2014-15. They are currently coached by Éric Veilleux, who was 27-42-7 in his first season last year. The agreement will give the Blues complete control of the hockey operations department, similar to the conditions during their long run with the Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen and the final year of their four-year affiliation with the Wolves.
In 2013, the Blues sold Peoria and signed a three-year deal with the Wolves, who as an independently owned organization had control of both business and hockey operations. The Blues made the arrangement work initially but grew impatient with the coaching staff over the roles and playing time of their top prospects. With the contract set to expire before the 2016-17 season, the Blues negotiated a return in exchange for the authority to hire a new coaching staff. They brought in Craig Berube, who led the Wolves to a 27-point improvement and whose staff was largely responsible for the success of several prospects promoted to the parent club last season.
Such an arrangement was not possible in 2017-18 with Vegas entering the NHL via expansion, but the Blues had long known they would be losing their leverage as the Wolves’ lone option and already had begun looking for a new affiliate.
“The last season we were able to take a bigger role by taking control of the coaches and I really thought that benefited our team in the NHL,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “Our goal was to get back to that, having total control of coaches and hockey operations.”
The Blues entered talks with potential ownership groups in Kansas City and Indianapolis about an expansion club, but the price proved too expensive. The two cities already have ECHL franchises — the Kansas City Mavericks and the Indy Fuel — and the combined costs of the AHL franchise fee, ECHL exit fee and other financial factors would have totaled an estimated $7 million-plus.
“There were discussions that went well down the road with two Midwestern cities, but those in the end just didn’t work out,” Blues owner Tom Stillman said. “But (the organization) worked extremely hard over the last two years to come up with an option. Really because of some specific circumstances involved, those things didn’t work out, but believe me, it was not for lack of trying.”
Had either group finalized the purchase of an expansion franchise, the AHL would have grown this year and the Blues would not have been on the outside looking in.
“We would have liked to get to 31 teams this fall, which would have made life much simpler for the St. Louis Blues in that we would have had 31 homes for 31 teams,” Andrews said. “There were a number of opportunities that the Blues helped to develop that potentially could have created a 31st team for this year. But certainly through no fault of anyone’s, we were just not able to secure an opportunity for this year anywhere. I don’t think there were better options than those that they turned up, and both the Blues and ourselves were disappointed that those didn’t move forward in time for this year.”
Colorado’s expected expansion plans created an opening for the Blues in San Antonio, but they will have to wait a year before taking over the AHL affiliate. In the meantime, the Blues will be forced to loan approximately 16 prospects to multiple affiliates in 2017-18. Armstrong has worked out an agreement with Vegas and San Antonio and estimates that as many as eight will play with the Wolves and six with the Rampage. The remainder will play elsewhere, but he wouldn’t disclose the destination.
“We’re actually still working through the numbers right now, (but) it’s going to work out at the end of the day,” Armstrong said. “It’s a unique situation, but it can certainly work for one season.”
Vegas won’t have enough prospects to fulfill the AHL’s requirement of suiting up 13 development players, 12 of whom must have played in 260 or fewer professional games and one in less than 320 games. So the Blues might be able to send top recent picks Tage Thompson, Klim Kostin, Jake Walman and Vince Dunn to the Wolves.
“The younger players (Vegas) drafted this year will likely play junior or go back to their club teams,” Armstrong said. “So we’ll be able to accent Vegas’ good veterans with some of our younger players, which I think is a positive.”
Armstrong is not scared off by the Blues’ strained working relationship with the Wolves. His comfort factor focuses on a friendship with Vegas GM George McPhee that dates back two decades.
“Make no mistake, he’s always going to do what’s best for Vegas, and that’s his job,” Armstrong said. “But George’s belief is, it’s professional hockey and you want to create a winning culture. ... Our guys are first- and second-round picks, so I’m comfortable that our kids are going to be able to go in there and earn their ice time.”
As far as which Blues prospects will play in San Antonio or with other organizations, Armstrong said: “We’ve been working internally trying to group players together that could benefit from playing in (certain) situations. We’re going to disperse our players in a fashion that we believe is best for the team they’re going to, but more importantly best for our players’ growth and development.”
Stillman sees the situation as a small hurdle.
“It may not be ideal, but I’m sure that our prospects are going to overcome it and develop very well through the year,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in Doug and our hockey management that they will be able to ensure that we don’t miss a beat this year.”
Added Armstrong: “The best situation is when you own your franchise and you control every aspect of it. We haven’t done that for five years, ever since we left Peoria. But every American League team is run a little bit differently, and we’re going right back to the way that we really want to handle it.”
NO INTEREST IN OWNERSHIP
Stillman’s group of local investors sold Peoria in a cost-cutting move that was also made because the Rivermen weren’t being sufficiently supported by fans and the corporate community in the central Illinois city. As evidenced by their agreement with the Rampage, the Blues have no plans to purchase their own affiliate in the foreseeable future.
“We see an AHL team as our R&D (research and development) in hockey, not in business,” Stillman said. “So what we’re after is the development of our prospects and we get that through control of the hockey. We don’t have any great desire to own the team and run the business because No. 1, you’re not going to make a lot (of money) on that, and No. 2, it becomes a big distraction of management’s time at the Blues’ organization. The other part is that buying a team requires directing capital at that rather than directing it toward a competitive NHL team on the ice, improving our arena or investing in many other ways in the Blues’ organization and the Blues’ fan experience.”
After the Blues spent a couple of years of R&D on their minor-league situation, Andrews believes they have found the right fit.
“I’m happy that it’s unfolded in the right way for the Blues,” he said. “One of my responsibilities as president of the league is to work all these various relationships and try to find the best situation for NHL clubs and for our clubs in terms of partnerships that work. I feel good about where this is going and I think the Blues feel good about it as well. I think long-term they’re probably better off with this outcome than they might have been with where this was heading in time for this year. I’m really happy about it and I think they are, and I don’t think we could have asked for a better outcome all-around.”