The ECHL is a minor-league circuit as fluid as an actual hockey game – both feature a succession of shifts.
ECHL teams come and go. Divisions and conferences get realigned. The playoff format frequently changes.
Example: The Alaska Aces have played 13 seasons on the circuit and have competed in three different divisions — the Pacific, Mountain and West. And in Alaska's baker's dozen of seasons, the ECHL has never in consecutive seasons featured the same number of teams in the same locations.
And more change is on the way, the ECHL announced Monday, when it revealed new division and conference alignments for the 2016-17 season, and a new divisional playoff format.
The Aces last season played in the West Division – and played in the Pacific Division the season prior, and the Mountain Division two seasons ago – and will in the upcoming season play in an expanded Mountain Division.
The Mountain Division will feature seven teams – Alaska, Allen, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Rapid City and Utah. Alaska last season played in a five-team division. Allen and Missouri are new additions to the Aces' division.
Yet because the divisional realignment, approved by the league's Board of Governors, comes two months after the league released its 2016-17 season schedule, the Aces' divisional schedule is wildly unbalanced. The Aces play Colorado 13 times, Idaho 12 times, Utah 11 times and Rapid City 10 times. Yet they play Allen and Missouri just two times each.
Even stranger is the case of the Cincinnati Cyclones, who have been moved to the Eastern Conference from the Western and shifted to the South Division from the now defunct Midwest Division.
The Cyclones will play more games outside their conference (42) than inside (30). And they will play divisional opponents just five times, and will never face three of their division opponents.
The ECHL also has altered its Kelly Cup playoff format, which is not unusual – the league has employed myriad formats in the Aces' tenure.
After two consecutive seasons in which eight teams from both the Western and Eastern conferences qualified for the playoffs — the opening-round format pitted the No. 1 seed against the No. 8 seed, No. 2 seed against the No. 7 seed, and so on – the league is returning to divisional play in the first two rounds.
Four teams from each of four divisions – North, South, Central and Mountain – will qualify for the playoffs. The No. 1 seed in each division will play the No. 4 seed in the opening round and the winners of the divisional series will play a divisional final in the second round. The Conference Finals and Kelly Cup Finals make up the last two rounds of the four-round postseason.
The league said the divisional format in the first two rounds is designed to increase the chances of rivals playing in the postseason. Another aim, the league said, is to trim travel costs in the playoffs.
But the league has yet to announce the number of games for each playoff series. All playoff series in the last four seasons have been best-of-7 games.
The ECHL in Alaska's tenure has employed a best-of-5 format, and even best-of-3, in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
There will be 27 teams in the ECHL next season – 14 in the Western Conference, 13 in the Eastern Conference.
Since the Aces joined the league for the 2003-04 season, the league's membership has been as high as 31 teams (2003-04) and as low as 19 (2010-11). The league featured 28 teams in each of the last two seasons.
2016-17 ECHL Conference, Division Alignment
Top 4 teams in each division make Kelly Cup playoffs
Mountain Division (7 teams) – Alaska Aces, Allen Americans, Colorado Eagles, Idaho Steelheads, Missouri Mavericks, Rapid City Rush, Utah Grizzlies.
Central Division (7 teams) – Fort Wayne Komets, Indy Fuel, Kalamazoo Wings, Quad City Mallards, Toledo Walleye, Tulsa Oilers, Wichita Thunder.
North Division (6 teams) — Adirondack Thunder, Brampton Beast, Elmira Jackals, Manchester Monarchs, Reading Royals, Wheeling Nailers.
South Division (7 teams) – Atlanta Gladiators, Cincinnati Cyclones, Florida Everblades, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Norfolk Admirals, Orlando Solar Bears, South Carolina Stingrays.