ECHL Landscape Changing Rapidly This Summer

ECHL Landscape Changing Rapidly This Summer

Here we are, a few weeks past the Everblades winning their third consecutive Kelly Cup, and the ECHL landscape already is very different.

Jul 1, 2024 by Justin Cohn
ECHL Landscape Changing Rapidly This Summer

It seems like just yesterday that a chicken nugget landed on the Huntington Center ice and the Toledo Walleye’s Kirill Tyutyayev shot it back into the stands, earning a 10-minute misconduct and a lot of laughs on social media. 

That was Dec. 6, a few weeks after another odd happening in that building. That night, the Kalamazoo Wings wore Toledo’s practice jerseys for a period because they’d left their own uniforms at home.

Looking back, there were a lot of wild things that happened in the ECHL early this season.

Another was when “Shoresy” star Terry Ryan suited up, on his 47th birthday, for the short-handed Newfoundland Growlers and fought the Adirondack Thunder’s Zach Walker on Jan. 14.

But life moves pretty fast in the ECHL world – to sort of steal a quote from Ferris Bueller, even if his BFF Cameron clearly was the hockey fan with that Gordie Howe jersey – and if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Tyutyayev spent the second half of the season playing in Russia. Ryan returned to retirement. And the Growlers were removed from the ECHL in April for failure to fulfill financial obligations to the league.

All of that predated a remarkable Kelly Cup Playoffs that saw the Florida Everblades take down the top-seeded Kansas City Mavericks in the finals to become the first team to win three consecutive Kelly Cup championships.

It truly was an entertaining ECHL season, probably the most entertaining of my 12 covering the league, when you consider the level of play was higher than I’ve ever seen it – a byproduct of the strengthening relationship between the league and the NHL and American Hockey League, which have been stocking their ECHL affiliates with a bevy of talent, as well as just the shear talent of hockey players in 2024.

We saw resurgent teams, namely the Norfolk Admirals, who went from perennial cellar dwellers to formidable playoff team; an incredible class of rookies, such as South Carolina’s Austin Magera, Kansas City’s Cade Borchardt and Jacksonville’s Matt Vernon; to say nothing of the way Toledo’s Brandon Hawkins, Kansas City’s Patrick Curry and Kalamazoo’s Erik Bradford lit up the scoresheets.

But here we are, a few weeks past the Everblades winning their Kelly Cup, and the ECHL landscape already is very different.

Let’s Start With The Everblades

News emerged June 15 that the NHL’s Florida Panthers no longer were going to have the Everblades as their ECHL affiliate. It was a shocking announcement when you consider the Everblades’ recent success, but maybe not so much when you step back and consider just how often these affiliations move around. 

Since 2001, the Everblades have been with the Carolina Hurricanes, then the Panthers, then back to the Hurricanes, then back to the Panthers, then with the Tampa Bay Lightning, then to the Nashville Predators and then back to the Panthers for the past two seasons.

I get asked a lot why ECHL teams, with a few exceptions, such as Toledo and the Detroit Red Wings, can’t stay married with their NHL affiliates. 

There are no easy answers to that. 

In a basic sense, it’s just hard to align visions, especially when front offices change, and there often are factors off the ice that cause breakups. 

The Panthers, whose AHL affiliate is the Charlotte Checkers, now have affiliated with the ECHL’s Savannah Ghost Pirates.

We still don’t know which NHL team will hook up with the Everblades, and there are other dominos yet to fall. 

The biggest question is: Where will the Toronto Maple Leafs land? They historically loaded up Newfoundland with a plethora of NHL- and AHL-contracted players, albeit with different people running the Toronto front office, and if they continue to do so next season for a team like, oh, the Cincinnati Cyclones, who lost the New York Rangers to the expansion Bloomington Bison, then that could make the Central Division even more formidable.

Coaching Hires Galore

If the Everblades’ Brad Ralph, who has cemented his status as the ECHL’s best coach (as if there was any doubt), doesn’t get an opportunity to coach an AHL team, then I just can’t make sense of that.

But there have been plenty of coaching changes elsewhere in the ECHL, though, and some very unexpected hires.

Pat Mikesch, who had little success in juniors before taking Toledo to a Central Division championship and a trip to the Western Conference Finals this season, may have other teams thinking outside the box. At least that’s how it seems in Worcester, Greenville and Bloomington.

Worcester hired 59-year-old Bob Deraney to replace Jordan Lavallee-Smotherman, who mutually parted ways with the team after the season.

Deraney came from Worcester State University, where he was Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, after he’d coached the Providence College women’s team to three Hockey East Championships in 19 years. He also had a season as a Railers assistant in 2019-2020. 

The Railers also made their new associate head coach, Nick Tuzzolino, general manager – a unique dynamic to an already unique staff.

In Greenville, the new coach is Kyle Mountain, after ECHL Coach of the Year Andrew Lord moved to the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League. 

Mountain, 33, came from Neumann College, where he’d been the head coach since 2017, and that’s a solid program in NCAA Division III, but it’s worth noting he had a winning percentage of .328 there.

Bloomington hired Phillip Barski as its inaugural coach. 

Barski, 45, who’s never been a head coach before, was an assistant the last two seasons with the OHL’s Barrie Colts, after two seasons as a Greenville Swamp Rabbits assistant in the ECHL.

The expansion Lake Tahoe Knight Monsters had a more conventional hire than the Bison, tabbing for their job Alex Loh, 39, a former head coach of the Adirondack Thunder. 

Loh was the Savannah Ghost Pirates’ interim head coach this season, after the team fired Rick Bennett. Of all the hires this cycle, Loh seems to be the safest.

Savannah’s new coach is Jared Staal, 33, who has two seasons as a Charlotte Checkers assistant on his résumé, along with three seasons as an assistant with the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears. His familiarity with the Checkers makes him well-suited for the Ghost Pirates, now affiliated with Charlotte and the NHL’s Panthers.

After the Allen Americans somewhat surprisingly fired Chad Costello after two seasons, they hired B.J. Adams, 48, who has two seasons of experience coaching the OHL’s Erie Otters. His résumé also includes 10 years as an assistant with Erie and Canisius College.

It’s worth noting that two years after Adirondack, Allen and Worcester all hired head coaches with no coaching experience, only the Thunder’s Peter MacArthur still has his job. He just took Adirondack to the conference finals, a place they hadn’t been since 2018, when Brad Tapper was the head coach and Loh was his assistant.

Finally, the South Carolina Stingrays have hired Jared Nightengale as coach, after they shockingly fired Brenden Kotyk. 

Nightengale, 41, spent the last two seasons as an assistant with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, after he’d been an assistant with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, the US National Under-17 team and the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. It bears mentioning that three former Stingrays coaches – Jared Bednar, Spencer Carberry and Ryan Warsofsky – now are NHL head coaches.

Players Bolting Overseas

One of the biggest challenges of coaching in the ECHL is dealing with the roster turnover, both during the offseason and regular season. Multiple coaches have told me they’re exasperated by the number of quality players taking contracts overseas this summer.

More than 55 players who were in the ECHL last season already have taken overseas contracts.

The list includes big names, such as Orrin Centazzo (Toledo), Riley Sawchuk (Toledo), Erik Bradford (Kalamazoo), Owen Headrick (Wheeling), Ture Linden (Fort Wayne), Zack Andrusiak (Fort Wayne) Isaac Johnson (Newfoundland), Jonny Tychonik (Newfoundland), Collin Adams (Kalamazoo), Patrick Grasso (Adirondack), Carter Souch (Greenville), Max Martin (Greenville), Brett Stapley (Utah) and Keanu Yamamoto (Rapid City).

It's not difficult to see why players do it. Aside from getting the experience of playing overseas, it’s the money. 

As one player told me: “Unless you have a shot of making it to the NHL, it’s a no-brainer to go to Europe or Russia. Like, you make $20K here in the ECHL and pay taxes, or go to Europe and make $40K and the team pays your taxes and living expenses. It’s a no-brainer, unless you have NHL hopes.”

I’m not entirely sure what the solution to keeping more quality players in the ECHL is, when you consider most teams are small businesses unable to afford a huge hike in salaries, but I do tend to think it resides with the collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association. It needs more wiggle room for teams willing to pay more to keep them in the United States.

One coach suggested to me that they raise the rookie salary cap, which is $620 per week per player, so at least that way, the ECHL isn’t losing the top-tier rookies right away. 

Another coach told me the issue is the mid-level players, those between rookies and veterans, with salaries between $700 and $900 a week.

What we’re seeing is an abundance of players who spend one, maybe two years, in the ECHL and then bolt. It’s not good for the quality of play, and it’s really not good for the fans, who are accustomed to having a nucleus of players they adore for multiple seasons. 

Another idea would be tweaking the veteran rules to allow teams to keep longtime players a little longer.

The CBA expires next summer, and it’ll be interesting to see if the new one has anything built in to retain players.

Roster Builds Begin

What really put a bow on this ECHL season was when the teams completed all outstanding future considerations trades June 20. Usually, the deadline to complete trades is much ado about nothing. This year, some big names moved.

The biggest was when the Everblades sent top-line forward Bobo Carpenter and forward Zachary Tsekos to the Cyclones to complete the trades that brought them Zach Berzolla and Zack Andrusiak, who was quickly flipped to Fort Wayne at the March trade deadline.

Other big moves from the futures considerations deadline included: defenseman Santino Centorame going from Indy to Florida; forward Mikael Robidoux going from Allen to Wheeling, by way of Orlando; forward Serron Noel going from Allen to Tulsa, via Fort Wayne; forward Brandon Saigeon going from Wichita to Indy, by way of Idaho; forward Luke Boka going from Orlando to Savannah, via Worcester; forward Tyson Fawcett going from Reading to Greenville; forward Felix Pare going from Wheeling to Maine; and forward Ben Hawerchuk going from Cincinnati to South Carolina.

There haven’t been many player signings, though as of Thursday afternoon, Fort Wayne probably had made the biggest splash after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013. 

The Komets re-signed Ethan Keppen, Nolan Volcan, Noah Ganske, Martin Haš and Mitch Andres, and they signed two well-regarded rookies: Austen Swankler and Randy Hernandez.

Teams couldn’t begin signing players until June 23, so stay tuned. It’s going to start moving soon at a dizzying pace.

That’s the ECHL for you.

Watch ECHL, USHL And More On FloHockey

FloHockey is the streaming home to some of the best hockey leagues in North America, including the ECHL and more. Check out the broadcast schedule to watch more hockey.

Join The Hockey Conversation On FloHockey Social