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Have Kyle Dubas and the Leafs turned the ECHL into a development league for NHL players?

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As the Growlers are about to make history in the Kelly Cup Final, I look at the reality of the ECHL as a development league.

Someday people will claim he went from the ECHL to the NHL on the strength of one rehab game.
Credit: Christian Bonin

Way back when Kyle Dubas was new on the job with the Leafs, he went down to Orlando, Florida and met the press at the introduction of Anthony Noreen as the new head coach of the ECHL Solar Bears. The press included Achariya, writing for us, and Don Money. Here’s some excepts:

Achariya: As far as prospects in the Leafs organization go, how would you present an opportunity to join the Solar Bears to someone who’s been playing with the Marlies for a while?

Dubas: “For a while” -- depends how you characterize “for a while.” A good example from last year would be Tyler Biggs, who was with the Marlies for most of a year, and then coming in and evaluating it and seeing his progression -- I thought he was really struggling, and he came down here and had new fire just breathed into him, new life as a prospect. He came back up with us and was an effective player for us. He was injured unfortunately -- and then Pittsburgh wanted him as part of the trade. But that to me is a good example.

It’s a good place to start your career and get your career rolling, and it’s a good place to get your career back on track if you’ve gotten off the rails a little bit. Now especially with Anthony here, that discussion will be far easier. We’ve said over and over that this is not a place of punishment, it’s a place of development, we’re not sending our players here solely if they’ve disappointed us, we want them to have a great season.

Garret Sparks is another excellent example. He was up and down his first year, and then came here last year and had the best save percentage of the league, and has established himself as an excellent prospect. It’s exciting.

And:

Don: Do you see more prospects being placed in Orlando to do that development?

Dubas: I think we’re going to utilize beyond our 50 contract list, I think we’ve shown we have a greater affinity to assign players to American League contracts, or American League-ECHL two-way contracts. And not older players that we’re just trying to get off the Solar Bears cap, but young players who have proven that they’ve had a chance to come play, and play well with the Marlies as well.

So I would assume that going into this year, we’re working with Anthony, and he knows a lot of players from his time in Youngstown, and our scouting staff, Sheldon, and everybody involved, trying to make sure that we’re stocking our full system of prospects. Guys who are a little bit under our radar that we think have potential, we can get on ECHL deals, ECHL-American League two-way deals, and let them run from there. We won’t limit ourselves to just our 50 NHL contracts.

This was the very beginning of Kyle Dubas telling the media his ideas about using the ECHL to develop players. The story has changed over the years, and these days it’s mostly about Mason Marchment, the former Solar Bear who is on an NHL contract now. The narrative hook used is that hockey should use its minor leagues more like major league baseball does.

It’s now becoming common to say that the ECHL is being used that way, and that Toronto is leading the way, but is there anything to that? Before we get into that, a little “where are they now” seems in order.

Anthony Noreen was the coach of the Solar Bears for one and a half seasons. He’s been the GM and head coach of the Tri-City Storm of the USHL ever since. The USHL is the league he came from, one focused on developing junior players.

A week after that interview occurred, Tyler Biggs was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played 11 games for their AHL team, 2 for their ECHL team, and missed the rest of the season due to injury. He played two excellent seasons for another ECHL team and is in the British league now, a league where he can go to university while he plays if he wants to.

Garret Sparks is, of course, the Leafs backup.

Who plays in the ECHL?

There have been a few hundred players in the modern NHL who began life in the ECHL, but the overwhelming majority of the players who play in the ECHL while on an NHL contract are goalies. The Sparks story isn’t unique. Neither is the Biggs story. He didn’t need development; he was simply not at the AHL player level, but he sure made a good ECHLer.

Development doesn’t stop when a player finishes junior hockey or college, and all pro leagues develop their talent to some extent, but the idea that the ECHL is filling up with younger players who are going to play there, learn things, move up to the AHL, repeat that and end up in the NHL has yet to be proven. Marchment might have an NHL contract. He doesn’t have an NHL job.

I looked at several years of ECHL players by age, and split out those who played at least 20 games as well, to see if the age of the ECHL is undergoing a change.

ECHL players by age

Age 2018-2019 18-19 - 20+ GP 2017-2018 17-18 - 20+ GP 2016-2017 16-17 - 20+ GP 2015-2016 15-16 - 20+ GP 2014-2015 14-15 - 20+ GP
Age 2018-2019 18-19 - 20+ GP 2017-2018 17-18 - 20+ GP 2016-2017 16-17 - 20+ GP 2015-2016 15-16 - 20+ GP 2014-2015 14-15 - 20+ GP
U19 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 0
U20 4 0 3 0 1 0 3 1 1 0
U21 42 14 47 11 38 13 36 17 42 12
U22 119 61 114 58 109 54 117 59 111 62
U23 200 105 192 103 193 108 206 114 210 119
O30 58 36 56 39 51 39 55 42 59 45
Total 1029 634 1010 634 952 620 978 650 984 650
U20 is all players under 20 in the first year of the season. U21 includes all the U20 and U19 players, and so on. All data from Elite Prospects

There is no growth.

The one and only U20 player in 2016-2017 was goalie Dan Vladar playing one game. The four this year are Timothy Liljegren playing one rehab game, Semyon Der Arguchintsev (the U19 player), who has played in three games total, and two other skaters, each with four games played.

Not only are all values close to static across all years, the number of players in their thirties has not fallen, nor has the amount of games those older players are playing.

The ECHL is made up primarily of players 24 - 30. Exactly like the NHL. There were 725 skaters in the ECHL this season under 27, and only 200 of those were under 23.

The reason for this is simple: The ECHL is where NCAA players go when they graduate. A smaller number come from Canadian Junior and are available as young as 21, but a lot of those players take their Canadian Hockey League (CHL) scholarship to university first and play U Sports or else they have an unsuccessful couple of years in the AHL before they’re judged to be not up to AHL play.

ECHL players by place of birth

Country 2018-2019 2017-2018 2016-2017 2015-2016 2014-2015
Country 2018-2019 2017-2018 2016-2017 2015-2016 2014-2015
USA 513 509 483 475 452
Canada 481 461 496 516 544
Sweden 9 10 7 15 10
Russia 16 8 7 6 8
Czechia 7 8 5 6 8
Latvia 5 2 1 3 4
All data from Elite Prospects

The only trend there is a weak rise in US-born players over Canadians. This overall number of Europeans is extremely low and unchanging.

If the largest bulk of the ECHL players are 24 and over, and aren’t really developing, rather, they’re playing at their peak, what is the ECHL really doing with that very small group of younger players?

Looking at U22 skaters for this season, there are 102, and they break out this way (some players were traded and appear on more than one team):

  • Adirondack Thunder: 3
  • Allen Americans: 6
  • Atlanta Gladiators: 7
  • Brampton Beast: 4
  • Cincinnati Cyclones: 7
  • Florida Everblades: 4
  • Fort Wayne Komets: 5
  • Idaho Steelheads: 2
  • Indy Fuel: 3
  • Jacksonville IceMen: 6
  • Kalamazoo Wings: 1
  • Kansas City Mavericks: 3
  • Maine Mariners: 6
  • Manchester Monarchs: 6
  • Newfoundland Growlers: 9
  • Norfolk Admirals: 3
  • Orlando Solar Bears: 8
  • Rapid City Rush: 4
  • South Carolina Stingrays: 2
  • Toledo Walleye: 4
  • Tulsa Oilers: 4
  • Utah Grizzlies: 8
  • Wheeling Nailers: 1
  • Wichita Thunder: 5
  • Worster Railers: 2

The Growlers on the above list are:

  • Giorgio Estephan - 6th round pick of the Sabres, signed to an AHL deal as a FA
  • Matt Bradley - 5th round pick of the Canadiens, signed to an AHL deal as a FA
  • Ryan Moore - undrafted FA signing on an AHL deal
  • Kristians Rubins - undrafted FA signing from CHL (Sweden before that) was on an ECHL deal, was upped to an AHL contract recently
  • Tate Olson - 7th round pick of the Canucks, acquired in a trade with another ECHL team, traded to the Everblades, went to U Sports
  • Maxim Mizyurin - undrafted from CHL (Russia before that), was on a try-out deal, did not play after release
  • Hudson Elynuik - 3rd round pick of the Hurricanes, signed to an AHL deal as a FA
  • Semyon Der Arguchintsev - Leafs draft pick, NHL contract (post OHL season assignment)
  • Timothy Liljegren - Leafs draft pick, NHL contract (rehab assignment)

There are five regular Growlers out of the nine listed, and Moore has been called up to the Marlies. If these players can be developed — and they can be — they look like guys who are going to top out earning a permanent one-way AHL deal. Which is valuable to be sure. The AHL needs players of quality, and the competition for players at that level is fierce. Europe often pays more. It pays dramatically more than the ECHL, and therein lies the problem with trying to imagine sending an NHL-contracted young hopeful to the E to learn the ropes — he’s not going to like it, and he’s going to need to be convinced to give up much bigger pay cheques elsewhere. This is particularly true of Europeans.

Son, you’re going to the E...

October and November is unconditional waivers season in the NHL. This is when players, usually on the last year of an ELC, get cut from their AHL teams, and decide there is greener grass somewhere else than the ECHL. They agree to have their contract terminated so they can go seek those greener pastures, either in Europe, U Sports, or out of hockey all together and back to school. There have been five this season. At least one of those players actually played a few ECHL games before saying no to the rest of his NHL money.

The Solar Bears had a goalie just leave and refuse to play there last season. Martins Dzierkals told the press in Latvia that the Leafs wouldn’t give him a one-way AHL deal with a guarantee of no ECHL time, so he took a job in the KHL. Meanwhile, fellow Latvian Kristians Rubins chose to use his ECHL deal to earn and AHL contract, but he’s the exception, not the rule.

Does Rubins dream of the NHL? Sure. A lot of his teammates do too, I’m sure, but don’t expect to see the stable of NHL-contracted players on the Marlies moved down to the Growlers. They weren’t this year, and they won’t be next season either.

The Growlers opponent in the ECHL Cup final, the Toledo Walleye, have two skaters on NHL deals with the Red Wings who are regular roster players. Dylan Sadowy and David Pope. Both were Detroit draft picks who signed ELCs and then joined the Grand Rapids Griffins. Neither of them made the cut for the AHL this year.

There has been one NHL-contracted skater of note cut to the ECHL this season:

The responses to this were not “Oh good, he can go there and develop! What a good idea.” The caustic comments revealed exactly what people think of the ECHL. One AHL journalist did see the potential, after noting that Sean Day was granted exceptional status to play in the OHL early:

The AHL is tough for a junior. Look at Adam Brooks last year compared to this year. But the response to this move shows that most people consider this an insulting demotion — the end of his hopes at the NHL.

The Growlers are different, though, right?

If the Growlers way of doing things is new and innovative — and it is in many ways related to playing style — it’s not because it’s a second tier team developing future NHLers. Frankly, that’s what junior hockey and the NCAA is for. A professional league can only take players who have finished school and round off their edges. Might there be one or two more like Jay Beagle, who went from the ECHL to a Stanley Cup? Maybe, but don’t dig too hard into that mythos or you’ll find out he only played 8 regular season games plus the playoffs in the ECHL after college was over.

What the Growlers can do, with their high number of young players, Europeans and players on AHL deals, is help change the ECHL from a bash and crash league into one where you don’t fear for the health of your developing players. Ryan Crelin, the new Commissioner of the ECHL, said he wants that image to change in an interview at a Growlers game. But just saying something is different doesn’t mean it actually is. And so far, this much talked about new development model doesn’t look very different from the old.

If Kristian Rubins or Giorgio Estephan ends up on the Marlies full time next year, that’s good, but in terms of developing prospects, getting someone ready to play a depth role in the AHL isn’t really all that important. And there is no evidence that an ECHL team is going to give you anything more than that. Despite what the Commissioner says, the ECHL had 49 players with over 100 PIM last year, and the AHL had 26. The ECHL had 16 players with between 10 and 20 fighting majors, while the AHL had one player with 10 because they have suspension rules to limit fighting. Teams routinely market their ECHL product on fights, truculence and grit. It’s no place for the youngest prospects, and the dirty hits in the Growlers-Everblades series should make you happy that Der Arguchintsev has been scratched for most of the playoffs. I have to ask if it’s a fit place for any prospect, no matter the image the league wants to promote.

If the Growlers become a good-quality team that can succeed with more young players than most ECHL teams have, that gives the Leafs a place to play their excess or borderline AHL-level talent. They may expect to have fewer NHL-contracted prospects in the years ahead, and will have an increased need for depth players on the Marlies. It may be that finding experienced veterans for the Marlies like Ben Smith or Chris Mueller will become more difficult if more European opportunities open up for that sort of player.

But no matter how many times people tell the tale of Mason Marchment (I’m a fan, by the way) it doesn’t make the ECHL into a training ground for NHL players.

Fight data is from hockeyfights.com, everything else is from Elite Prospects.