NHL, AHL Using ECHL For Development

By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009

VICTORIA, British Columbia – The 2008-09 ECHL regular season — the fifth in which the Victoria Salmon Kings have been involved and a season of dramatic transition — is in the books.

The time for analysis between the end of the season and start of the Kelly Cup playoffs — West Division third-seed Victoria opens Saturday in Boise against the second-seed Idaho Steelheads — prompts one question. Which is the real ECHL?

Is it the league which lost an alarming five franchises this season? Or is it the league that dropped the curtain on the regular season over the weekend by drawing 11,417 fans to a game in Cincinnati, 9,841 in Charlotte, more than 7,000 in Salt Lake City and Bakersfield, more than 6,000 in each of Las Vegas, Naples, Fla., Reading, Pa., Gwinnett, Ga., and more than 5,000 in Trenton and Wheeling?

For a supposedly troubled league, the Double-A ECHL finished with a league average this season of 4,258 fans per game. That’s not too far off the triple-A American Hockey League’s 4,960 and superior to the Central Hockey League’s 3,806 and International League’s 3,279. It was also better than the major-junior OHL’s 4,024 and QMJHL’s 3,531. (Attendance statistics for the WHL were not available).

In a Darwinian spin, some say the ECHL may now be stronger because of the culling of the weak within the herd. There is, however, the spectre of the AHL moving into Abbotsford as its first West Coast franchise. That will have significant repercussions on the ECHL National Conference and especially Victoria.

ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna received a huge platform over the weekend, on which he explained the happenings within his league in a major Q&A with NHL.com.

“These are difficult times. I think you’re going to see more fallout in other leagues across minor-league hockey over the off-season and probably over the next 12-18 months,” he told NHL.com.

“I think we’re in good shape here [ECHL] now. At this point, we feel good going into the summer. The product on the ice is good.”

There is no arguing the latter point. It’s not the AHL, but the ECHL is the best double-A league going.

Matt Climie, the Idaho goaltender the Salmon Kings will likely face in the first round of the playoffs, made his NHL debut with a call-up Saturday to the parent Dallas Stars. Climie, who took the win in a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues, was among five ECHL alumni to make their NHL debuts over the last two weeks and one of eight players to have played in both the ECHL and NHL this season.

A total of 51 former ECHLers made their NHL debuts this season, smashing the record of 47 from 2005-06. There have been 406 former ECHL players to reach the NHL, 214 since 2002-03 when the ECHL emphatically changed its ethic from being a league for has-beens playing out the string to becoming the primary developmental and feeder league for the AHL. According to the league, 15 ECHL graduates signed NHL contracts this year totaling more than $68 million.

“This is good hockey and very competitive,” said Salmon Kings GM and head coach Mark Morrison, as he took time out from preparing his club for this weekend’s playoff openers in Boise. “And the league is getting younger. There’s more development of players going on. It’s about affiliations, draft picks and younger guys that their parent clubs want to develop.”

When Victoria first got into the league, ECHL teams would build their rosters around the four veteran players each club is allowed to carry. That, however, has changed as the younger prospects are not only being asked to develop but also to lead.

“Some ECHL teams don’t even have their veteran quota filled, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But now it’s become more about draft picks and players under contract. ECHL teams now are full of draft picks and [NHL/AHL] signed players.”

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009