There are 36 players on NHL contracts in the 23-team ECHL to start the 2008-09 season. That’s down from 70 NHL-contracted players two years ago at this time, but not much has changed at the NHL or ECHL levels that would cause the decline. Instead, it’s the league in between, the AHL, where the explanation lies.
A rule change in the AHL regarding roster size is likely responsible for keeping the numbers down. While there is still no limit to the total roster in the AHL, playing rosters during the regular season have been increased to a maximum of 18 skaters and two goaltenders (up from the previous 17 skaters and two goaltenders). This means that AHL teams can dress an additional skater each game — a skater who otherwise likely would have been sent to the ECHL. This rule change, which brings the AHL in line with the NHL, has been the biggest cause of bringing the average number of NHL-contracted players down to only about 1.5 per ECHL team.
The Edmonton Oilers have assigned the most prospects to the ECHL, sending four to the Stockton Thunder. The Johnstown Chiefs have five NHL-contracted players, from both the Colorado Avalanche (3) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (2). Several teams with NHL affiliations are yet to receive any players from their NHL teams: Gwinnett Gladiators, Elmira Jackals, Las Vegas Wranglers, Alaska Aces, and Utah Grizzlies.
Four former ECHL players have made their NHL debut already this season: former Wheeling Nailers defenseman Paul Bissonnette (Pittsburgh), former Charlotte Checkers defenseman Steve MacIntyre (Edmonton), former Las Vegas Wranglers defenseman Adam Pardy (Calgary) and former Gwinnett Gladiators center Jared Ross (Philadelphia).
As a new year begins, hundreds of players hope to become the next graduate. Below is a look at the prospects to keep an eye on this year in the ECHL.
One of the top goaltending prospects in the league is Finn Riku Helenius, assigned to the Augusta Lynx by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last year with the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds, he had a 22-12-6 record and a .915 save percentage.
Jeff Zatkoff turned pro a year early out of Miami University, where he posted a 1.71 GAA and .933 save percentage last year. The 6’3 21-year-old was drafted in the third round by Los Angeles in 2006, who have now assigned him to new affiliate Ontario Reign. Given that Ontario is in the LA metro area, so Zatkoff will be able to work with Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford throughout the year.
One goaltender not under NHL contract to keep an eye on is Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, coming off a solid college career at the University of North Dakota. His height of just 5’10 may keep him out of the NHL. He’ll play for the Alaska Aces.
Rookie defenseman Chris Zarb was assigned to the Mississippi Sea Wolves by the Philadelphia Flyers. Zarb turned pro a year early out of Ferris State University. The 6’4 blueliner played just 21 games last year.
Former first-round pick Sasha Pokulok is a third-year pro who has had some injury trouble the past couple years. He looks to get back on track, starting the season with the South Carolina Stingrays. Fellow Capitals prospect Viktor Dovgan is back with the Stingrays after a year spent back in his home country of Russia.
The rough and tumble WHL graduates Jordan Bendfeld to the Stockton Thunder. Last year for Medicine Hat he had 25 points and 160 penalty minutes in 72 games. He joins fellow Edmonton prospect David Rohlfs and rookie Josef Hrabel in Stockton. Hrabel played last year in the Russian Super League.
The roster rule change in the AHL is felt at forward, the position where the 18th skater usually plays.
One of the top forwards assigned to the ECHL is Tomas Zaborsky, a Slovak who played in the OHL last year, scoring 70 points in 68 games. He was a fifth-round pick of the NY Rangers in 2006, who have assigned him to the Charlotte Checkers. He is joined in Charlotte by Ryan Hillier, a third-round pick of the Rangers who scored 72 points in 70 games last year in the QMJHL.
Nick Johnson scored 35 points in 32 games last year for Dartmouth College, and this year will start the season with the Wheeling Nailers. He was drafted in the third round of the 2004 draft by Pittsburgh.
Travis Morin put up 84 points in 68 games last year in for the Stingrays, and is back again to start the year. If he continues that production, the 24-year-old shouldn’t stay in the league long.
NHL contracted players
Alaska Aces (St. Louis Blues) — none
Augusta Lynx (Tampa Bay Lightning) – Riku Helenius, G and Kevin Quick, D
Bakersfield Condors (Anaheim Ducks) – Bobby Bolt, F; Jason Bailey, F; Chad Painchaud, F
Charlotte Checkers (NY Rangers) – Tomas Zaborsky, F; Ryan Hillier, F; Michael Busto, D
Cincinnati Cyclones (Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators) – Olivier Latendresse, F
Dayton Bombers (independent)
Elmira Jackals (Ottawa Senators) — none
Florida Everblades (Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers) – Anton Khudobin, G (MIN) and Riley Emmerson (MIN)
Fresno Falcons (Chicago Blackhawks) – Joe Fallon, G
Gwinnett Gladiators (Atlanta Thrashers) — none
Idaho Steelheads (Dallas Stars) – Matt Climie, G and John Lammers, F (IR)
Johnstown Chiefs (Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets) – Petr Pohl, F; Codey Burki; Raymond Macias, D; Trevor Hendrikx, D; Ian Keserich, G.
Las Vegas Wranglers (Calgary Flames) — none
Mississippi Sea Wolves (Philadelphia Flyers) – Chris Zarb, D and Jeremy Duchesne, G
Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings) – Jeff Zatkoff, G
Phoenix RoadRunners (San Jose Sharks) – Ashton Rome, F
Reading Royals (Toronto Maple Leafs) – James Reimer, G and Danny Taylor, G (LA)
South Carolina Stingrays (Washington Capitals) – Sasha Pokulok, D; Travis Morin, C and Viktor Dovgan, D (IR)
Stockton Thunder (Edmonton Oilers) – Jordan Bendfeld, D; Bryan Pitton, G; David Rohlfs, RW and Josef Hrabal, D
Trenton Devils (New Jersey Devils) – Jeff Frazee, G and Kevin Cormier, F
Utah Grizzlies (NY Islanders) — none
Victoria Salmon Kings (Vancouver Canucks) – Patrick Coulombe, F
Wheeling Nailers (Pittsburgh Penguins) – David Brown, G and Nick Johnson, F
NHL teams without ECHL affiliates: Boston, Detroit, Minnesota, Phoenix. Minnesota has sent two prospects to the Florida Everblades. Phoenix maintains a CHL affiliation.