Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Primer: The ECHL

With the Indy Fuel set to join the ECHL next season, let's take a look at the league as a whole.

The ECHL started in 1988 as the East Coast Hockey League, and emerged as the top "AA" league, feeding players to the American Hockey League and the now-defunct International Hockey League. After the old West Coast Hockey League dissolved in 2003, the ECHL took on several franchises and simply changed its name to the acronym ECHL -- the letters no longer stand for anything.

The ECHL stands at the "AA" level of the minor pro hockey pyramid. It complements the AHL, the "AAA" league, where all teams must have NHL affiliations and have most of their rosters stocked by the parent club (not surprisingly, the AHL has 30 teams - the same number as the NHL). As a result, ECHL rosters are a hybrid of players assigned by the NHL & AHL affiliates and free agents trying to get noticed by an NHL team. More than 500 former ECHL players have gone on to play in the NHL in the league's 26-year history. It's a step above leagues such as the Central and Southern Professional Hockey Leagues, which are often billed as "AA" but are largely made up of free agents. The league itself was formed in 1988 as a merger of the short-lived Atlantic Coast and All-American Hockey Leagues. It began with five teams in eastern and southeastern markets, and quickly grew. It, along with the AHL, is one of two minor leagues recognized in the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, and its players are represented by the Professional Hockey Players Association, a union for minor pro hockey players. Of the active minor pro leagues in the United States, the ECHL is the second-oldest, trailing only the AHL, whose history dates back to the 1930s (and had a team in Indianapolis from 1939-52).

The ECHL's absorption of the western teams into the Western Conference provides for an unusual split of teams. Eight of the 22 teams are in the Western Conference, and 14 are split among three divisions in the Eastern Conference. They'll play an unbalanced schedule -- the Fuel will geographically fit into a division with Fort Wayne, Evansville, Cincinnati, Kalamazoo and Toledo.

The schedule will be unbalanced and favor geographical matchups with teams within the division. There is extremely limited cross-conference play.

For example, the Fort Wayne Komets played 40 of their 72 games against division foes, including 14 games against Kalamazoo, nine each against Evansville and Toledo, and eight against Cincinnati. They played two out-of-division teams (Elmira and Florida) seven times, and played no other team more than four times. The Komets played one series against a Western Conference team -- an early three-game roadtrip to Las Vegas. The Cincinnati Cyclones also played 40 games against division teams -- 10 against Evansville and 11 each against Kalamazoo and Toledo, in addition to the eight games played against Fort Wayne. Outside of division, the Cyclones played Wheeling 12 times, Elmira seven, Reading four, and the five South Division teams once or twice. There were no games against Western Conference teams.

Because of the limited cross-conference play and the different makeup of the teams -- the western teams largely come from the now-defunct, largely-independent WCHL, while the eastern teams draw their heritage from an ECHL that has built itself on NHL affiliations -- each has developed its own character. It's very similar to MLB in the days before interleague play. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, citing Komets players who had played in both conferences, notes that the Eastern teams are generally younger and play a more skilled, wide-open game, the Western teams generally older and more physical.

The ECHL is the second tier of the two leagues -- along with the AHL -- of the NHL's development pyramid. Of the ECHL's 22 teams, all but three (Fort Wayne, Colorado and Las Vegas) have NHL affiliations. Six teams have two. That number of multiple affiliations will drop by at least one next year as the Chicago Blackhawks move their affiliation to the Fuel. They and the Detroit Red Wings currently share an affiliation with the Toledo Walleye.

A few franchises will be familiar to Indy fans -- the Cincinnati Cyclones, Fort Wayne Komets,  Kalamazoo Wings, Orlando Solar Bears and Utah Grizzlies are descendants of teams that used to compete against the Indianapolis Ice in the IHL. In addition, the Colorado Eagles are descendants of an Indianapolis Ice CHL opponent. Also, Las Vegas and Toledo are former IHL cities from the days of the Checkers and Ice.

A few other notes about the ECHL:

  • Teams may carry 20 active players, and dress 18 for each game -- 16 skaters and two goaltenders. By comparison, NHL teams are generally allowed to roster 23 players and dress 20 (18 skaters/2 goaltenders), allowing for four forward lines and three defense pairings. The USHL, where the Ice play, has the same roster rules as the NHL.  As a result, ECHL teams will often skate with three forward lines instead of four, meaning more ice time for players.   
  • Teams are limited to four veterans (players who have played at least 260 professional games - or essentially, players who have played more than four professional seasons). Veteran limits have been a key part of "AA" minor pro hockey to keep the developmental nature of the league at heart. Veteran players are often free agents not tied to an NHL team, and are often the top players on a team. 
  • Teams are stocked in two ways: through having players assigned by the parent club, and by signing free agents. There is no draft in minor pro hockey. Often, ECHL teams receive between one and five players from their NHL parent (and possibly more who are under contract directly with the AHL affiliate), and fill out the rest of the roster with free-agent players. Because of NHL roster limits and the fact that there is no unaffiliated league between the ECHL and NHL, many of the top minor-league free agents are in the ECHL.
  • In 2013-14, ECHL teams had a salary cap of $12,000 per week and a salary floor of $8,900 per week (the cap averages out to $600/week per player). Individual players must be paid at least $400/week (rookies) or $455/week (veterans). The salary cap is slightly higher in the early part of the season.
  • The ECHL shootout is five rounds, rather than the three used in the NHL and USHL (before the NHL instituted a three-round shootout in 2005, virtually every North American league that used the shootout used a five-round version. The ECHL simply has retained that existing five-round version). Teams do play 4-on-4 overtime for five minutes prior to the shootout, which has become the standard in North American hockey at virtually all levels. This (and the limitation of using 16 skaters in a game) is really the lone major change between the ECHL and NHL rulebooks concerning gameplay.
  • Like the NHL (but unlike the USHL), the ECHL has the "trapezoid" rule where goaltenders may not play the puck below the goal line outside of a trapezoid that starts 6' outside each goalpost. 
  • Also like the NHL (but unlike the USHL), a player shooting the puck over the glass from the defensive zone will result in a minor penalty, whether intentional or unintentional. In the USHL, the play does not incur a minor penalty but the offending team is not allowed to change players, much like in an icing violation. 
  • Teams play a 72-game schedule (36 home, 36 away) that runs from mid-October through mid-April, and is followed by a 16-team playoff. The top eight teams in each conference qualify for the postseason. All playoff series are best-of-7, as in the NHL. 
  • The championship trophy is called the Kelly Cup, named for inaugural ECHL commissioner Patrick Kelly. It was renamed in 1996 - the original trophy was the Riley Cup, named after former Southern Hockey League & International Hockey League leader Jack Riley.

ECHL structure (for 2013-14)
Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division (3): Elmira Jackals (Buffalo), Reading Royals (Washington), Wheeling Nailers (Montreal/Pittsburgh)
North Division (5): Cincinnati Cyclones (Florida/Nashville), Evansville IceMen (Columbus), Fort Wayne Komets (independent), Kalamazoo Wings (St. Louis/Vancouver), Toledo Walleye (Detroit/Chicago*). The Indy Fuel will almost assuredly compete in this division
South Division (5): Florida Everblades (Carolina/Tampa Bay), Greenville Road Warriors (NY Rangers), Gwinnett Gladiators (Phoenix),  Orlando Solar Bears (Minnesota/Toronto), South Carolina Stingrays (Boston)
Western Conference
Mountain Division (4): Alaska Aces (Calgary), Colorado Eagles (independent), Idaho Steelheads (Dallas), Utah Grizzlies (Anaheim)
Pacific Division (4): Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton), Las Vegas Wranglers (independent), Ontario Reign (Los Angeles/Winnipeg), Stockton Thunder (NY Islanders)
*-Chicago affiliation leaving Toledo for the Indy Fuel in 2014-15

NHL teams without a direct ECHL affiliation: Colorado, New Jersey, Ottawa, Philadelphia, San Jose. While these teams do not have a working agreement with any current ECHL teams, they may at times make players available to ECHL teams. 

In future posts, we'll look at the Chicago Blackhawks' prospects and see who might be assigned to the Fuel. Expect a coach to be named soon and players to follow.  

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