After a three year partnership, the Carolina Hurricanes and their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Chicago Wolves have decided to part ways. This decision was announced in April after the two teams experienced turmoil throughout the 2022-23 AHL season. The Wolves will be the first AHL team to play without an NHL affiliate in almost 30 years.
In an interview with The Athletic, Wolves general manager Wendell Young, claimed that the Hurricanes philosophy toward their AHL affiliate changed drastically this season. He cited this as one of the main reasons the Wolves decided to become independent.
“I believe Carolina’s philosophy has changed. It was all about development. And our philosophy, it’s in our affiliation, that says develop and win. We think by winning, we develop. That’s where we stand,” said Young to The Athletic.
The rift between the two teams began to surface during the 2022 Calder Cup Finals when Carolina's management reportedly attempted to dictate player choices for the Wolves. According to Young, the Hurricanes even threatened to fire Wolves then-head coach Ryan Warsofsky if he continued to play goaltender Alex Lyon over Hurricanes prospect, Pyotr Kochetkov.
As time progressed, tensions continued to escalate between the two organizations.
In an interview with InsideAHL.com, Young disclosed that Chicago’s lineups had to go through and be approved by the Hurricanes. Moreover, the Hurricanes repeatedly declined loan and trade proposals at the AHL level, making it challenging for the Wolves to maintain a competitive roster.
Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly, along with AHL officials, were aware of the deteriorating relationship between the Hurricanes and Wolves. Despite Daly's attempts to mediate the dispute over six weeks, no resolution could be reached.
"We didn't make this decision. Carolina did by their actions," stated Young, making it clear that the separation was not a planned choice.
Despite the tumultuous breakup, Young expressed confidence in his ability to field a competitive team given the franchise’s newfound independence. He even revealed that several NHL teams have reached out to him about potentially loaning players to the Wolves for the 2023-24 season.
“Guys who don’t think they’re getting the proper treatment on teams, they’ll have a platform here. You’re not getting passed over by the first-rounder. You’re going to be able to play. Best player plays,” said Young. “Like right now, as an affiliate, we know certain guys have to play more and give them a chance to get better, and they have to play and they can have to be on this power play. Part of my selling point is that doesn’t happen now. We’ll be the only American League team that plays whoever is best.”
In order to stay compliant with AHL rules, the Wolves will still have to develop a roster that has 13 players who have played 260 or fewer professional games by the start of the season. The 260 game limit applies to the NHL, AHL and European Elite Leagues and eliminates a lot of available players.
Nonetheless, the Wolves can explore other avenues, such as recruiting talent from Europe, the NCAA, the United States Hockey League (USHL), and undrafted players.
Chicago's newfound independence also offers players from the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) an opportunity to compete at a professional level before they are drafted. Previously, AHL teams had no access to CHL players unless they were part of their NHL affiliate's prospect pool. Even then, CHL players were not eligible to play in the AHL until they reached 20 years of age.
It remains to be seen which players the Wolves will sign for the 2023-24 AHL season, and observers are eagerly awaiting this development.
As for the Hurricanes, they currently find themselves in a tricky situation.
Not only have they lost their AHL affiliate, but their East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, recently ended their partnership and became the affiliate for the Winnipeg Jets. This leaves the Hurricanes without a North American farm team for player development, a significant departure from their conventional approach.
Without an AHL affiliate the Hurricanes currently have no AHL veterans signed to two-way contracts. This is drastically different from last season, when Carolina had 10 two-way contracts, highlighting the depth of the franchise.
Not having an AHL affiliate also means that prospects will not be able to learn and execute the Hurricanes specific style of play. Previously, this has helped develop young players into exactly what the franchise is looking for and ensured that any call up would be ready to step in at the NHL level.
Right now, the Hurricanes have 14 players signed to entry-level contracts that cannot continue to play for the Wolves anymore. Carolina has the option to loan some of these players to other AHL teams or for European players to return to their teams overseas.
“We already have a couple of deals with NHL teams where we’ll put two or three players," Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell told The Hockey News. "It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the cards we were dealt this year, so we’re going to make the best of it and hopefully put ourselves in a position to be back with somebody for the start of next season.”
Although the Hurricanes plan to have a new affiliate for the 2024-25 NHL season, there is no guarantee that will happen. The AHL currently has 32 teams, so unless a team suddenly becomes up for sale, the Hurricanes will have to create a new AHL team.
Creating a team would not only be incredibly expensive, but the Hurricanes would have to find an appropriate area with the facilities and market to support a franchise. Considering there is already an AHL team in North Carolina with the Charlotte Checkers, finding another suitable city could be an issue. This option would also take several years to get off the ground and the Hurricanes would need an AHL affiliate in the meantime.
The separation of the Carolina Hurricanes from their AHL affiliate marks a rare and contentious move in the world of professional hockey, raising questions about the evolving philosophies surrounding player development in the NHL and AHL. It remains to be seen how this move will impact the Hurricanes' prospects and their future in the league.