Allen York earned his first victory for the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 28th in only his second start for the team. It came in an emergency role as Steve Mason was injured in the morning skate and has since won his past three starts. Moreover than that, York got his call-up this time from the ECHL’s Chicago Express, which is not really something you see all too often as the ECHL is the “AA” ranks for minor leagues, while the AHL is the “AAA” side and where many teams go to get recalls. In fact, only five players this season have played in both the ECHL and NHL this season, along with Jussi Rynnas, Brian Foster, Peter Mannino, and Milan Kytnar.
Yet, when you look at the structure of the minor league systems, you have to wonder how much use teams get out of their affiliates outside of the AHL model. The AHL has 30 teams and has a certain teams affiliated with a NHL, as per league bylaws. Yet, the lower levels don’t have that same rule or structure. In fact, of the 19 ECHL teams, only 17 teams have NHL affiliation and nine of those teams have two NHL teams as affiliates. It is those dual affiliated teams that have the most players signed to NHL deals down playing for them—Cincinnati Cyclones (Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers), Florida Everblades (Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning), and Reading Royals (Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins). If you go to the other “AA” league, the Central Hockey League, three of the 14 teams have NHL affiliations, though they are not used at all. In fact, only the Wichita Thunder have a player under NHL contract (Chris Chappell, New York Rangers) and they’re an independent team.
The lack of use begs the question whether or not the need for a league to deem itself “AA” is really necessary or if the structure of the minor league system is viable beyond the AHL level. While the duel affiliated teams are the ones who have the most NHL contracted players down there, only the South Carolina Stingrays (Washington Capitals) and Greenville Road Warriors (New York Rangers) have more than one player under NHL contract on their team. Four of the 17 ECHL teams who have NHL ties don’t even have players tied to those teams.
For the ECHL, they are very proud of how many players have come through their league and made it into the NHL. To date, 489 players from the ECHL have played in the NHL at some point—Rynnas of the Toronto Maple Leafs being the latest. They pride themselves about the players, coaches, and officials that they have had in the NHL over the past 23 seasons. They are the third longest tenured professional league behind the NHL and AHL, which is quite the feat considering the minor leagues that often come and go and merge together before folding up for good. Though, at the same time, they really don’t talk about the number of games or how long the player was in the ECHL before reaching the NHL; though for them—it probably doesn’t matter to them, just the recognition of it all is good enough.
While the idea of having NHL ties is something good for some teams, it could also bring about issues in terms of coaching style and overall chemistry with the team. That’s what made the Las Vegas Wranglers, who had ties with the Phoenix Coyotes and Calgary Flames over their existence, made the switch to the independent side of things. Wranglers coach and former ECHLer Ryan Mougenel explained to the Las Vegas Review-Journal before the start of the season why it was a good decision to make:
“I want to build a culture where guys are hungry to get to the next level, and I think the best way to do that is to just have strictly ECHL contracts, and it’s helped me in recruiting. Being in Las Vegas, guys want to play here, and guys don’t want to play behind NHL contracts. All my guys can go anywhere, so whoever’s playing the best is going up. That’s why I don’t need an NHL team to do recruiting for me.”
To have control of your own players and how you want to play is definitely something crucial not only for a team trying to find their way and players trying to find their own identity, but also from a coach who already has to listen to a general manager—no need to put more pressure on having to listen to an outside team, as well. Not only that, but it’s not like many NHL teams pick up the cost of the players they put down there, at least not in the Wranglers case. Granted, other teams could have better deals in place when it comes to paying a player and their travel costs, but for teams that may not be as well off as others—the need to have a winning team on the ice rather than players on the ice by necessity of the parent team.
That all said, the majority of the players that come through the ECHL will have ECHL contract and make their name in that league before moving up, they seem to believe the need to be directly affiliated to the biggest league in North America is something that is dire for their league’s survival. In actually, they have carved out a nice niche for themselves in their own markets without the direct need for the NHL involvement. Like every minor league, they have had trouble with teams folding and relocating, but with expansion coming next season in Orlando and San Francisco; the ECHL serves the purpose to help players get more development in order to move their own careers ahead, even if it’s not with the team who is the parent affiliated of the team they play for. The ECHL should embrace their own development rather than who they have connections with.