One of the places I got my start covering hockey was the ECHL. While an average hockey fan might have some understanding of the American Hockey League — given that the league has a much more direct relationship to their National Hockey League team — the ECHL is a different world. It’s even a slightly different game, with teams running three forward lines instead of four, fighting is more frequent and emergency back-up goaltenders are just another Sunday game.
The role of the league is something I talked to coaches about often, because the ECHL is still an independent league. ECHL teams are compromised of plenty of veterans, but also unsigned players with Juniors or college experience who want to develop and international players who want to adjust to the North American game — and that’s all before you add players with AHL contracts who get sent down. How does a team balance all of those needs, and still function as an independent team?
It’s a tricky balance, but as the league moves toward more teams having affiliate partnerships with NHL teams, and especially long-term relationships, it becomes somewhat easier.
It should be reassuring then, that the Anaheim Ducks, San Diego Gulls and Tulsa Oilers have agreed to a three-year extension of their partnership of the last two seasons. Five total years is a significant number, as teams often only agree to one- or two-year terms.
“In all my years in the ECHL, I have never had an affiliation agreement longer than one year,” said Tulsa Oilers head coach Rob Murray. “This being a three-year affiliation really shows their commitment to the Tulsa Oilers, and I’m looking forward to it being a great partnership.”
In my experience, that type of term generally signifies that on an organizational level, the coaching styles in Tulsa matches (or at least complements) the coaching in San Diego and Anaheim. The development of the players who are sent down isn’t seen to be at risk, and can be advantageous for some players, particularly goaltenders.
That trust in the coaching staff, however, has a further reach: at times when the AHL affiliate is hurting for players, they will rely on the word of the ECHL coaching staff, who often are the people responsible for signing players to their team, about who to lend in the other direction. That front office relationship is crucial when it comes to player development and roster construction.
Much of the time, the ECHL functions as a safety net; you hope you never have to use it, but when you do need one, it better be able to carry your weight. The times when the organization’s depth gets tested — something Ducks fans are familiar with, and something I ran into one season in particular with the ECHL team I covered — there’s something advantageous about having not just an ECHL affiliation, but one with a trusted organization that shares your goals.
“We had a great working relationship with the Ducks and Gulls the last couple of years, and we’re very excited to continue our partnership for the next three years,” said Oilers General Manager and former San Diego Gull Taylor Hall. “The Ducks are truly committed to player development, and I feel this is a great fit for all three organizations.”
As mentioned above, there’s one area in particular where a strong ECHL affiliation is crucial: goaltending. NHL and AHL teams only carry two goaltenders, which causes two limitations. First, it limits the amount of ice time your developing goaltenders can get in the AHL. Sending down goaltenders will get them into games where they might otherwise sit on the bench or press box, and doing that for extended periods isn’t in anyone’s best interests. Four or five goaltenders between the NHL and the AHL isn’t a ton of roster space.
Secondly, there’s a ripple effect when it comes to call-ups. And while admittedly, having a competitive AHL team isn’t the primary goal of an NHL club, it’s unfair to not put players in the best position to succeed. Emergency call-ups within the same organizations become familiar and that ultimately makes the transitions easier when injuries inevitably occur. While this effect extends beyond goaltending, it seems to hit the position hardest, due to roster limits and the importance of the position.
It’s crucial to have covered, as the Vegas Golden Knights learned when they had to call up their ECHL goaltender during their inaugural season. Scott Wedgewood, Jordan Binnington, Martin Jones, Braden Holtby, Petr Mrazek, Darcy Kuemper, Thomas Greiss and Philipp Grubauer all have some level of ECHL experience under their belt, just to name a few off the top of my head. A healthy goaltending pipeline almost necessitates it.
For the Ducks, that goaltender is currently Olle Eriksson Ek, who played in 27 games for Tulsa in 2019-20. The younger Eriksson Ek is signed to an entry-level contract through the 2022 season, but has played nearly his entire career in Swedish hockey leagues. He posted a .902 save percentage on an Oilers team that finished fourth in the Mountain Division with a 29-29-7-1 (W-L-OTL-SOL) and .524 points percentage in 2019-20.
“The Anaheim Ducks have always valued a strong working relationship with their ECHL affiliate,” said Ducks Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations David McNab. “We are thrilled about our multi-year agreement with a quality organization such as the Tulsa Oilers. The Ducks organization is committed to player development and this relationship with Tulsa will only further that commitment.”
Other Ducks prospects who played for the Oilers this season include Deven Sideroff, Hunter Drew and Jack Kopacka.