ECHL moves record numbers to the NHL in 2003-04

By Holly Gunning

There have been 255 players who have gone on from the ECHL to play in the NHL in the league’s 16-year history. Prominent names on this list include Andrew Brunette, Olaf Kolzig, Byron Dafoe, Bob Boughner, Ruslan Fedotenko and Tomas Vokoun.

The stream of graduates has been rising over time, but the record was shattered in 2003-04 with 40 graduates during the season, far surpassing the previous record of 27 set in 1999-00 and 2000-01. Of those 40, 11 players appeared in both leagues during 2003-04, which broke the previous high of five players in 2001-02. The increase in graduates is evidence that the league’s recent push to become even more of a developmental league has in fact been successful.

The class of 2003-04 ECHL graduates was led by Michael Ryder, who was a finalist for the NHL’s Calder Trophy for outstanding rookie. He led NHL rookies with 63 points and 38 assists on the season. Ryder played 25 ECHL games for Mississippi and Tallahassee during the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons.

Below is a close-up look at the record-breaking ECHL to NHL class of 2003-04 — where they came from, where they went, and how they did when they got to the NHL.


Twenty percent of the 2003-04 graduates were goaltenders, confirming the conventional wisdom that the k” class=”HFlinkstyle”>ECHL is a good training ground for goaltenders. Surprisingly, however, the percentage of goaltenders was down compared to previous seasons, when it averaged 27 percent. Of the 11 players who played in both the ECHL and NHL in 2003-04, eight were goaltenders, including players such as Dan Ellis (Dallas), Mathieu Chouinard (Los Angeles) and Matthew Yeats (Washington).

Beyond goaltending, 48 percent of 2003-04 graduates were wingers, 23 percent were centers, and only 10 percent were defensemen. The low number of defensemen for the year is an anomaly, as the number is typically balanced with forwards.

ECHL games and seasons played

Current graduates played an average of 33 games in the ECHL. The range of regular season games played was from zero, with Steve McLaren appearing only in ECHL playoff games with South Carolina, to Benoit Dusablon playing in 98 career ECHL games over three seasons from 2000-01 to 2003-04 with Johnstown, Tallahassee and Charlotte.

Seventy percent of graduates spent parts of only one season in the ECHL. Twenty percent spent parts of two seasons, and 10 percent spent parts of three seasons. In addition to Dusablon, Dany Sabourin, Garrett Burnett, and Boyd Kane all spent parts of three seasons in the league.


Age varied widely among the 40 graduates, with goaltender Andy Chiodo only 20 years old when he played his first NHL game with Pittsburgh, and Mel Angelstad making his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals at age 33. The average player age was 24 when they made the NHL.

Draft status

Sixty-five percent of graduates had been selected in the NHL Entry Draft, several more than once. Among those drafted, the average draft position was 121st overall, ranging from Johnathan Aitken taken eighth overall by the Boston Bruins in 1996, to Darryl Bootland, taken 252nd overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2000. Neither of these players broke into the league with the team that drafted them. Aitken played for Chicago this season, while Bootland played for Detroit. About half of the graduates had NHL contracts while they played in the ECHL.

Previous leagues

Seventy percent of graduates had played Canadian major junior hockey at some point in their careers. Twenty-eight percent had played NCAA hockey. Two players had done neither, and one player had done both. The University of Maine has two alumni amongst the group, both goaltender Matthew Yeats (Washington) and center Cory Larose (New York Rangers).

In the season immediately prior to entering the ECHL, ten of the 40 players had played in the NCAA, eight in the WHL, seven in the OHL, three in the QMJHL, six in the AHL, and one in each of the BCHL, MJHL, UHL, WCHL, Czech League, and WPHL.

NHL destination

It was the bottom-dwelling teams who gave the most chances to prospects, but a full 20 of the 30 NHL teams had at least one new ECHL graduate in 2003-04. Even Stanley Cup finalist Calgary Flames had a former ECHLer make his NHL debut this season, goaltender Dany Sabourin, who played in four contests. The most popular destinations for the 2003-04 graduates were the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, with six each. The next most popular destination was the Chicago Blackhawks with four players.

NHL games played

Among skaters, new graduates averaged 14 games in the NHL this season. Among goaltenders, the average was four games played. Five players took part in only one game, while Michael Ryder only missed one game all season, playing in 81 contests.


New graduates averaged 23 career points in the ECHL, for an average of .74 points per game. These same players averaged 3 points in the NHL this season, for an average of .23 points per game. Michael Ryder, who scored at an impressive .78 points per game this season in the NHL, had scored at a 1.4 points per game clip in the ECHL.

The group of graduates averaged 2.4 penalty minutes per game in the ECHL, and 1.5 penalty minutes per game in the NHL. The penalty minutes totals are largely the work of just two graduates however, Garrett Burnett (184 with Anaheim, 712 with four teams in the ECHL) and Darcy Verot (135 with Washington, 240 with Wheeling).

Goaltending graduates averaged 17 career wins while in the ECHL, in their 36 games played. These same goaltenders averaged one win in the NHL in 2003-04 in their four games played. Dan Ellis won the only game he appeared in with the Dallas Stars.

Path to the NHL

The path to the NHL is not linear. Players often make forward, backward, and lateral moves before they reach the NHL. For three of the 40 graduates from this year, the NHL was a return trip, having played in the league before they spent time in the ECHL. Carolina prospect Damian Surma was one such player, playing one NHL game with the club last year, and one game again this year, after 18 games with affiliate Florida Everblades. He has started off strong, with two points in two games in the NHL.


Taking graduates from previous years into account as well, a total of 115 ECHL players played in the NHL in 2003-04, including 31 goaltenders. There were 53 former ECHL players on NHL opening-day rosters, and there was a former ECHL player on each of the 30 teams in the NHL in 2003-04.

Being a developmental league means that the ECHL has a focus on young, upcoming players, ensuring that the league continues as a home for players with aspirations of furthering their professional careers, rather than a place for players in the twilight their careers. As such, each team is restricted to four veteran players, defined as an individual who has played 288 regular season games of professional hockey.

With affiliations with 21 of the 30 NHL teams last year and a similar number expected this season, the number of graduates to the NHL seems likely to remain at a similar level in 2004-05, assuming that the parent league plays a full season with no work stoppage.

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