Thursday, June 5, 2014

Next step for Fuel: Filling up the roster

With the opener four months away, a lot is beginning to happen with the ECHL's newest franchise, the Indy Fuel.

The team has secured an NHL affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks (and a corresponding AHL affiliation with the Rockford IceHogs). On May 27, Scott Hillman was named the team's first coach (read our interview with him here). And Wednesday, the ECHL announced the 2014-15 schedule, and so the Fuel know where they're going for 72 regular-season games spanning the Oct. 17 opener against Fort Wayne and the April 11 finale in Reading.

What's next? The Fuel will soon begin filling out the roster.

The ECHL season is still going on -- the Alaska Aces and Cincinnati Cyclones continue the Kelly Cup Finals this weekend in Cincinnati. And, with the season going into June, all player contracts are signed through June 15.

Therefore, June 16 is the key date, because that's when players become free agents and teams can begin signings. 

The existing ECHL teams released their protected lists earlier this week. Essentially, what that means is these teams retain exclusive rights through June 15 to negotiate a contract for next season.

On June 15, teams will release their final 20-player end-of-season rosters. They can protect eight players by extending qualifying offers to those eight anytime in June. They retain the rights to non-veterans who are tendered an offer sheet for one year. Veterans (players with 260+ games) who receive qualifying offers become restricted free agents if not signed by Aug. 1 -- the original team has the right to match the offer -- and unrestricted free agents if not signed by any team by Aug. 31.

Anybody who isn't tendered a qualifying offer becomes a free agent.

Those free agents will be available for the Fuel (and other teams) to sign, and will make up a substantial part of the roster.
The Fuel will also receive a handful of players from the Blackhawks and IceHogs. While the Blackhawks' roster could change with offseason trades, here is a look at their system.

ECHL teams are allowed to carry 20 players at any given time, with 16 skaters and two goaltenders suiting up in each game.

Of those 20 players on the roster, the ECHL permits four veterans -- players who have played 260 games of professional hockey (approximately four full seasons) prior to the current season (there is a provision that allows some veteran players on NHL/AHL contracts to be assigned to the ECHL and not count against the limit). The ECHL stresses development, so the rest of the roster is comprised of players with fewer than 260 games of professional experience -- players in their first few professional seasons working their way toward the AHL and NHL.

With limited spots available for veterans and the ECHL being the top level of minor pro hockey with widespread free agency, those veteran players tend to be the core players, the top scorers and defensemen, and provide leadership.

With rosters comprised of free agents and players from the NHL/AHL affiliate, competitive balance is maintained by a salary cap, which was $12,000 per week per team (except the early part of the season, when it is $400 higher), with a floor of $8,900 per week. The minimum salary is $400 per week for rookies (players with less than 25 professional games prior to the season) and $455 for all other players.

Where will Fuel players come from? As mentioned, a handful will come from the Blackhawks' system -- however, those will likely be assigned around the time of training camp. From there, it's a very vast player pool -- recruiting free agents from the top minor professional leagues, recently-graduated college players and those who have recently aged out of junior hockey -- and recruiting those players to come to Indianapolis. 

"We'll look at guys who have maybe been in Europe, guys who have been in the ECHL, CHL, AHL, all of the amateur players coming out of the amateur leagues -- the NCAA, Canadian university and major junior," Fuel coach Scott Hillman said in May. "It's a vast amount of players. We've certainly been fortunate in that I've been looking at the same pool of players for the last five years, so we're familiar with all of those sources. It's a matter of reaching out to those same groups and explaining the benefits of coming here to Indy, to the ECHL, and how exciting it's going to be. I'd struggle to find a city better than this one in the ECHL."

On-ice activities will begin in early October, with the final spots on the 20-man roster being filled before opening night Oct. 17 against Fort Wayne.

So, wait for the Kelly Cup to be presented to either Alaska or Cincinnati, wait for June 15, and then see the Fuel start filling the roster for the season opener. 

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