As Scott mentioned last night, the Oilers have renewed their ECHL affiliation with the Stockton Thunder. Thunder president Dan Chapman spoke about it on the Thunder website:
"Continuing our affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers has been a high priority for our organization this off-season and we’re very much looking forward to working with them during the 2012-13 season. This will mark the seventh consecutive year we’ve partnered with the Oilers and our objectives to develop players and provide a winning and competitive team on the ice remain consistent with one another."
The Thunder provide an excellent development environment for prospects, though in this case those prospects are most often AHL players, not NHL players. The Thunder were third in the league in attendance last season, averaging 5,900 fans per game and have become a perennial playoff power in the National/Western Conference.
The move wasn't a surprise, and little about the affiliation should change. One significant change for the Thunder and the Oilers, however, is an exclusive affiliation agreement.
The Oilers and Thunder worked as exclusive partners for the first three years of the Thunder's existence. The Thunder then signed an agreement with the Sharks to become their ECHL affiliate and for the next three seasons, the Oilers and Sharks shared playing and development time in Stockton.
Prior to the 2012-12 season, the ECHL announced that the Board of Governors approved the San Francisco Bulls as an expansion team:
San Francisco is scheduled to begin play in October 2012 when the Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League will celebrate its 25th season, making it the third-longest tenured professional hockey league behind only the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
The San Francisco ownership group is by Pat Curcio and his wife Elouise, who have relocated to San Francisco from Salt Lake City. Curcio will serve as president, general manager and head coach for the Bulls. The team will play its home games at the Cow Palace, located less than 10 miles from downtown San Francisco.
The Bulls are headed to the Cow Palace, the original home of the San Jose Sharks, and from the time the expansion announcement was made, it was just a matter of time until the Sharks affiliated with the Bulls. The Sharks get a local affiliate and will likely lean on the Bulls for quick roster move rather than sending players 3,000 miles east to Massachusetts, improving their flexibility in waivers and rehab assignments.
The upside for the Oilers is exclusivity. The Oilers don't have to compete for games if they are interested in developing goalie Tyler Bunz. The Oilers also have extra roster spots to get up close looks at minor league players, either through Thunder contracts or through PTOs. If they want to bring one of their Finnish goaltending prospects to North America, the Oilers now have the roster room to do so.
The Barons are set to take in yet another influx of youth and one of the byproducts of so many young players is going to be roster overflow to Stockton. It's a near-certain bet that Bunz will start in Stockton, but the Oilers could also designate players like Brandon Davidson, Cam Abney, Ryan Martindale and Kristians Pelss to the ECHL after training camp.