Prospects to watch in the ECHL for 2009-10

By Holly Gunning

There are a few factors converging, which should make for a better crop of NHL prospects in the ECHL this season. There were fewer rookies who made opening-night rosters in the NHL this year, down from 76 last year to 41 this year, which means more talent pushed back to the AHL level.

Some of this talent will filter down to the ECHL. When it does, it will be more condensed. The league stands at 20 teams to start the year, down from 23 at this time last year. Two teams were lost mid-season last year, and three in the offseason, with two more entering the league (or re-entering in the case of Toledo). Fewer teams means that more have double affiliations with NHL teams. Only Tampa, Minnesota, Calgary and Buffalo do not have an ECHL affiliate, and only the Johnstown Chiefs do not have an NHL affiliate. See a full list of affiliates here.

One NHL team, Anaheim, is without its own AHL affiliate, so they are placing a large number of their prospects with the ECHL Bakersfield Condors, just two hours away. Anaheim has 10 prospects in Bakersfield to start the year, the most of any team.

Last year’s Kelly Cup Champions, the South Carolina Stingrays, benefited heavily from the depth of parent club Washington Capitals. They have three Capitals prospects on the roster to begin this season — Braden Holtby, Joe Finley and Josh Godfrey.

Almost every year, there are former first round NHL picks playing in the ECHL. Defenseman Nick Ross, forward Logan MacMillan, and swingman Joe Finley join the list this year.

Below is a run-down of some prospects to keep an eye on in the league this year.

Goaltender

As usual, the goaltending prospects are the cream of the ECHL crop. Last year the league saw rising stars like Michal Neuvirth, Matt Climie and James Reimer. This year, Braden Holtby is one of the bigger names. The Capitals’ fourth-round pick in 2008, Holtby had a 40-16-4 record for the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL last year. He’s already off to a good start on the season, having played three games for the AHL Hershey Bears and posting a .967 save percentage and 1.01 GAA.

Timo Pielmeier, a third round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2007, is signed by Anaheim and is currently assigned to Bakersfield. Pielmeier, 20, played for the QMJHL Shawinigan Cataractes, posting a 30-9-2 record, .913 save percentage and 2.67 GAA.

Billy Sauer, still just 21 after four years of college, was a draft pick by Colorado. The Avs declined to sign him, instead having him sign with AHL affiliate Lake Erie. He will play for the Charlotte Checkers.

Alec Richards is coming off an outstanding senior season at Yale University, where he posted a 19-5-1 record, .923 save percentage and 2.06 GAA. The 22-year-old was a free-agent signing by the Chicago Blackhawks and will begin play in Toledo.

Joining Richards in Toledo is Jordan Pearce, a free-agent signing by Detroit out of Notre Dame. Pearce posted a 30-6-3 record, .931 save percentage and 1.68 GAA last year as a senior. Pearce is one of the older rookies at 23.

Jeremy Smith, a second-round pick of Nashville in 2007, begins his pro career with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Last season, Smith played for the Plymouth Whalers and Niagara IceDogs in the OHL.

Andrew Engelage posted a .914 save percentage and 2.35 GAA as an overager in the OHL last year. He is signed by Toronto and begins play with the Reading Royals.

Justin Pogge is a well-known name, having been traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Anaheim Ducks. The fourth-year pro will try to get back on track.

Defense

Nick Ross was taken 30th overall by the Coyotes in 2007. Last year in the WHL with Kamloops and Vancouver he scored 43 points in 74 games. The 20-year-old will play for the Las Vegas Wranglers, the new affiliate of the Coyotes.

Alex Grant has been assigned to Wheeling by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2007. Last year in the QMJHL, he scored 50 points in 60 games.

Guillaume Monast, a free-agent signing by the Dallas Stars, will begin play for their ECHL affiliate, the Idaho Steelheads. The 21-year-old had 43 points in 63 games for the Quebec Remparts last year.

Joe Finley will begin his pro career in South Carolina. The 6’7 was drafted by the Capitals as a defenseman, but is expected to transition to wing as he moves up the ranks. He spent four years at the Univ. of North Dakota.

Forward

Logan MacMillan, drafted 19th overall by Anaheim in 2007, posted 31 points in 43 games for Halifax and Rimouski in the QMJHL last year. Maxime Macenauer, Anaheim’s 63rd overall pick in 2007, begins the year in Bakersfield as well. He posted 40 points in 54 games last year in the QMJHL for Rouyn-Noranda and Shawinigan. Joining them are MacGregor Sharp and Bobby Bolt.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel joins former Vancouver Giants teammate Ross in the ECHL. Drafted and signed by Pittsburgh, the 20-year-old will play for the Wheeling Nailers.

Joey Haddad joins former Shawinigan Cataractes teammates Pielmeier and Macenauer in the league. A free agent signed by Pittsburgh in 2008, he begins in Wheeling.

Michael Neal, the brother of James Neal, begins the year with the Idaho Steelheads. The defensive forward had 21 points in 66 OHL games last year.