Tuesday, June 24, 2014

ECHL: Fuel in Western Conference, rules tweaks

The ECHL wrapped up its Board of Governors meeting, with a significant change to the division structure and a couple of minor rules tweaks.

The most notable change is the division/conference structure and a new playoff setup, creating four relatively equally-sized divisions. The Indy Fuel will compete in the ECHL's Western Conference, and in the Midwest Division, along with the Colorado Eagles, Evansville IceMen, Fort Wayne Komets and Kalamazoo Wings.

The division setup is largely for playoff positioning and will, at least for 2014-15, have no bearing on regular-season scheduling. The Fuel, for example, will not play Colorado this season (and neither will most of the rest of the division), and the majority of the schedule will feature games against the three other Midwestern opponents in their own division and games against the Eastern Conference's North Division. Colorado will play nearly all of its schedule against the six Pacific Division teams.

However, for the playoffs, the top four teams from each division will qualify, with the first two rounds of the postseason being played within the division -- much like the NHL playoffs from 1982-93 -- feeding into the Conference Finals and the Kelly Cup Final. All rounds will be played best-of-7. There will be no crossover play.

The move comes because of recent changes within the ECHL. The league began last season with 13 teams in the Eastern Conference and nine in the Western Conference. In the meantime, the league lost two western squads -- the San Francisco Bulls folded midseason in 2013-14, and the Las Vegas Wranglers went on a one-year hiatus to solidify its rink situation. With only seven western teams and another east-of-the-Mississippi team coming in the Fuel, it created a need for some significant change. The new division alignment creates the most equitable means of allowing teams to reach the playoffs while keeping travel limited.

This marks the first time since the ECHL absorbed several former West Coast Hockey League teams that the former WCHL teams (and teams in the old WCHL footprint) will not be self-contained in their own conference.

The new ECHL division alignment:
Eastern Conference
North: Cincinnati, Elmira, Reading, Toledo, Wheeling
South: Florida, Greenville, Gwinnett, Orlando, South Carolina
Western Conference
Midwest: Colorado, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indy, Kalamazoo
Pacific: Alaska, Bakersfield, Idaho, Ontario, Stockton, Utah

Rules changes
The ECHL also announced two rules changes, both of which are mirroring recent NHL rules changes.

  • Hybrid icing will be implemented in the ECHL for 2014-15. Introduced in the NHL in 2013 (and piloted in the USHL prior to that), icing is called if a defending team's player wins the "race to the faceoff dots" on a puck that is iced, rather than having to touch the puck. The ECHL had previously used no-touch icing. 
  • Prior to regular-season overtime, teams will switch ends, therefore guaranteeing the "long change" for the five-minute 4-on-4 extra session, ostensibly leading to more scoring chances with the teams' defensive zones farthest from the benches. The USHL implemented the change last season, and the NHL will also be implementing it for 2014-15. 

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