IceMen to serve as ECHL affiliate for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets

During a media-only press conference this morning at the Vectren building in Downtown Evansville, the IceMen organization announced its affiliation plans for the 2012-2013 season.

Evansville will serve as the ECHL affiliate for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and their AHL affiliate, the Springfield (Mass.) Falcons.

Among hockey fans, the Blue Jackets are known primarily for their consistent futility. Columbus finished dead last in the NHL during the 2011-2012 season with a record of 29-46-7. In 11 seasons of operation since joining the NHL as an expansion team in 2000, they have never finished higher than 3rd in their division. They have only qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs once (in 2008-2009), and they were promptly swept in the first round.

The Springfield Falcons have played in the AHL since 1994, and the city of Springfield’s AHL history dates all the way back to 1926, when the Springfield Indians were one of the league’s founding members. The Falcons have been the Blue Jackets’ top affiliate since the 2010-2011 season, and are signed to continue in that role through at least the 2013-2014 season.

On the ice, the Falcons have struggled for more than a decade, not having won more than half of their games since the 1997-1998 season. Furthermore, Springfield has not qualified for the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs since the 2002-2003 season. However, they finished a respectable 36-34-6 last season, their best victory total since winning 45 games in the aforementioned ’97-98 campaign.

Interestingly, the Blue Jackets and Falcons do have a bit of history with a familiar IceMen foe. During the 2010-2011 season, they were both affiliated with the CHL’s Fort Wayne Komets. The Komets, moving from the CHL to the ECHL with the IceMen this season, returned to operating as an independent team in 2011-2012 and are expected to continue to do so in the ECHL.

For most IceMen fans, this announcement likely produces mixed feelings. The general concept of being affiliated with an NHL team is certainly exciting, and it lends some added legitimacy to the whole operation. However, the Blue Jackets are neither a winning franchise (see above) nor a popular one in this area. (One could easily argue that their four divisional opponents – the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues – are the four most popular NHL teams in the Evansville region.)

So why should IceMen fans view this announcement as GOOD news? Well, there’s the “any affiliation is better than no affiliation” mindset, for starters. Also, the Blue Jackets are no strangers to high draft picks, so there’s a decent chance that we’ll see some players who were selected very early in the NHL Draft.

Perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is that bad teams are always searching for answers – and Columbus will now be searching right here in Evansville. A successful NHL team will generally only make minor roster changes throughout the season, tinkering with role players and calling up fresh bodies when injuries strike. A struggling NHL team is far more likely to cycle players in and out in an effort to find something that works.

Translation: Affiliating with the NHL’s worst team actually gives us the BEST chance to see players make the jump from Evansville to the NHL.

And that’s why your “Why Columbus?” reaction should actually be “Yay, Columbus!”

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