Once upon a time, there were two strong professional hockey leagues in North America. The National Hockey League is obviously the creme de la creme, but the American Hockey League has long established itself as a pretty tough league to ply your trade in. Over the years, the Calgary Flames have utilized their various AHL affiliates as their primary mode of development – either that or sending players back to junior when appropriate to give them experience.
But this season, it seems like the Flames are finally starting to rely on their ECHL farm club as a developmental tool rather than as a dumping ground for unwanted players.
Past ECHL Usage
In the recent past, the Flames seemed to use their ECHL club as a dumping ground for guys that didn’t fit with their AHL club. Now, the Flames have owned their AHL affiliates for years, which means they’ve had complete control over their farm team’s roster. If a guy doesn’t fit in the AHL team, it means either a player was injured and needed to get his rhythm back… or they just weren’t going to go far as a pro.
For an example, here are the three seasons that Jay Feaster spent as Flames general manager and the players on NHL contracts that the Flames had in the ECHL each season:
- 2011-12 (Utah Grizzlies): John Negrin, Bryan Cameron, Mitch Wahl, John Armstrong and Logan MacMillan [151 collective games played]
- 2012-13 (Utah Grizzlies): James Martin, Bryan Cameron, Mitch Wahl, Ryan Howse, David Eddy, Gaelan Patterson and Micheal Ferland [255 collective games played]
- 2013-14 (Alaska Aces): Laurent Brossoit, Joni Ortio, Olivier Roy, James Martin, John Ramage, David Eddy and Turner Elson [116 collective games played]
A few of these guys were actually prospects of note – Ferland and Brossoit are currently NHLers, while Ortio was for a little bit – but for the most part, this list reads mostly like the roll call from the Island of Misfit Toys.
Aside from those three players, the remainder of these guys are borderline AHLers. Most of them were guys in their second or third seasons on their entry-level contracts and were firmly established as guys that the Flames had no real plans for. Under the previous regime, the ECHL was code for “Out of sight, out of mind” or “Oh man, we still have him under contract?“
A New Approach?
Prior to the 2015-16 season – and the AHL’s westward shift – the Flames purchased the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder and moved the franchise to Glens Falls, New York to become the Adirondack Thunder. The Flames were also involved in the hiring of Adirondack head coach Cail MacLean, the first time they’ve really had a direct hand in ECHL hiring. But even before that, the organization seemed to be more choosy with which players they sent to the farm team’s farm team.
- 2014-15 (Colorado Eagles): Brett Kulak [39 games played]
- 2015-16 (Adirondack Thunder): Ryan Culkin [33 games played]
Kulak was a first-year pro and Culkin was coming off an injury in training camp, and in both cases the demotion to the ECHL was with the idea that they’d be able to get to play regularly. That said, the Flames tended to keep their guys in the AHL.
This season, the Flames have had a lot of different players on NHL contracts in Adirondack. First-year pro Brett Pollock has been in the ECHL all season, rather than be in Stockton fighting for ice time with a dozen more established players. Culkin was in Adirondack briefly after missing time due to an injury. First-year pro Keegan Kanzig has spent time in the ECHL to keep him active as he adjusts to the pro game. First-year pro goalie Mason McDonald has served as the de facto top goalie in Adirondack (when he’s been healthy) rather than jostle with Jon Gillies and David Rittich for starts in Stockton. Third-string AHL goalie Tom McCollum even made a brief ECHL appearance to get some work in.
In each case during Brad Treliving’s tenure as GM, the answer for “Why is he in the ECHL?” wasn’t “Because they had to put him somewhere.” There have been sound developmental reasonings for each player’s placement in Adirondack.
Measures Of Success?
Considering he’s subsequently spent time in the NHL, Kulak’s stopover in the ECHL should probably be considered a success; he was given a chance to play a lot as a first-year pro and it likely helped him progress up the ranks. Progression is probably the metric that will be used to determine success, in the sense that while it’s maybe fine that first-year players are making appearances with Adirondack to get their feet wet and find their rhythm, you probably don’t want to see the same players there year after year.
Not all the guys that go to the ECHL are going to make it to the NHL, but the hope is that the players that do spend time there improve and become useful and productive assets in the Flames organization.