2023-24 ECHL Power Rankings

ECHL Power Rankings: Mavericks Win Brabham Cup, Top Rankings

Writer Justin A. Cohn delivers his ECHL Power Rankings every other week throughout the season.

1. Kansas City Mavericks/Last Ranking: 1

Record: 52-11-6

Congratulations to the Mavericks for winning the Brabham Cup as the ECHL’s regular-season champions. It seemed we’d been heading this way for a long, long time, no?

Since beginning the season at No. 9 in the FloHockey rankings, the Mavericks have been the ECHL’s most consistently impressive team this season. They’ve been no worse than No. 3 in the rankings since Dec. 5. 

The offense ranks first in the ECHL with 4.28 goals per game – paced by Patrick Curry’s 37 goals and 84 points – and the third-ranked defense allows 2.80 goals per game. The Mavericks are fast, physical, take the second-fewest penalty minutes (9.26) per game in the league, and the roster is deep.

One of the most impressive things about the Mavericks this season has been how they’ve been closing, even with the Brabham Cup seemingly about to be in their hands. 

Over their last 20 games, dating back to Feb. 24, the Mavericks are 16-1-3. That’s insane when you think about it. Idaho, the second-place team in the Mountain Division, is 14 points back but has been out of the race for the division title for a while.

As I’ve written before, there are holes that can be poked in the Mavericks if you really want to try: The power play only ranks eighth (20.9%), the penalty kill 13th(79.4%), goaltenders Jack LaFontaine and Cale Morris are good, but not necessarily intimidating, and the schedule hasn’t been the most difficult, namely having only six games against Idaho.

But that’s being awfully nitpicky about a team that’s been so impressive start to finish this season.

2. Toledo Walleye/Last Ranking: 2

Record: 46-14-9

If there’s a team out there that can go toe-to-toe with the Mavericks and Steelheads offensively, it’s the Walleye. In fact, Toledo’s offense may be better, even if it’s ranked third in the ECHL with 4.09 goals per game this season.

It starts with the best goal scorer in the league, Brandon Hawkins, who has 40 goals and 92 points in 69 games and is the front-runner to win ECHL MVP (even though I chose Kalamazoo’s Erik Bradford). But Toledo just has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the offensive zone, from Trenton Bliss and Sam Craggs to Orrin Centazzo and Conlan Keenan. And let’s not forget 52-point defenseman Riley McCourt.

But the early knock on Toledo was its play in its own zone. That’s not a concern right now. 

Toledo has won 12 straight games and allowed more than two goals in only two of them. Jan Bednar and John Lethemon have been playing in net as we expected them to coming into the season, and there’s been more physicality to the Walleye in recent weeks.

Like Kansas City, Toledo should be commended for the way it’s been playing, even with the division well in hand. 

The Walleye are going to have a difficult final week, though, with a game at the Wheeling Nailers and a home-and-home series with the archrival Fort Wayne Komets, who may need to at least split that series to get into the playoffs. 

Interestingly, if Fort Wayne doesn’t get in, Toledo may have to face the one team it truly has struggled against – the Kalamazoo Wings, who are 9-3-1 against the Walleye.

3. Norfolk Admirals/Last Ranking: 3

Record: 41-21-7

Well, this is a little awkward. The Admirals’ regular season is done. 

They had three games remaining on the schedule, but those were against the Newfoundland Growlers, who were removed from the league March 26. 

Now, the North Division will be decided on points percentage. 

The Admirals are in second place at .645, but the Adirondack Thunder (.662) have four games left against the Maine Mariners.

Regardless of what happens there – and both the Thunder and Mariners have high stakes in those games – I feel good about where the Admirals are heading into the postseason, aside from what’s going to be a long wait between games. 

Norfolk is 6-0-1 in its last seven games and showed that it’s hungry for a lot more than just making the postseason.

Norfolk, which joined the ECHL in 2015, has never made it to the playoffs. It’s never finished better than fifth in a division, and that was in its inaugural season. It’s no small thing to break through a culture of such losing, but the Admirals have done it with a fun, physical style of play, and Jeff Carr was my pick for ECHL Coach of the Year.

Norfolk has the fourth-ranked offense (3.55 goals per game) and fifth-ranked defense (2.88 goals against per game). It’s got some exciting players, such as Stepan Timofeyev and Danny Katic, unheralded stars, including Keaton Jameson and Darick Louis-Jean, and the team has been getting good goaltending from Yaniv Perets and Oskari Salminen.

4. Idaho Steelheads/Last Ranking: 5

Record: 46-20-4

I feel a lot better about the Steelheads’ chances of success in the playoffs after the return of forward Mark Rassell from Texas of the AHL last week. All he’s done since then is score two goals and four points in 7-5 and 4-2 victories over the Rapid City Rush. 

Rassell was an early MVP candidate before he started seeing time in the AHL, and he’s got 32 goals and 48 points in 41 games with the Steelheads.

Now that the Steelheads have something closer to their full lineup – including forwards A.J. White, Ty Pelton-Byce and Wade Murphy (who’s serving a suspension through the regular season), along with defensemen Patrick Kudla and Matt Register – we could see a real heavyweight bout in the Mountain Division finals. Idaho hasn’t faced Kansas City since Jan. 13, and that’s a long time to reflect on its 2-3-1 record in the season series.

One real advantage Idaho has on its divisional opponents, and really everyone else, is its power play, which is ranked first at 28.3% efficiency. Toledo is second at 25.8%. Idaho’s penalty kill isn’t so hot – it ranks 15th at 78.7% – but the Steelheads do a decent job of staying out of the penalty box.

5. Jacksonville Icemen/Last Ranking: 7

Record: 41-21-6

My preseason pick to win the Kelly Cup vaulted its way into the South Division lead, based on points percentage, by winning 7 of 8 games between March 15 and March 30, but I don’t love what I saw after that – a 4-0 loss Wednesday to the Atlanta Gladiators, who were paced by a 24-save Gustavs Grigals shutout, and a 5-3 loss to the South Carolina Stingrays on Saturday.

Coming into the season I said a lot was going to hinge on the play of a rookie goaltender, Matt Vernon, and indeed it has – all season.  He’s appeared in the last six games, stopping 89.6% of the 164 shots he’s faced. Not all his fault, surely, but he’s got to get that percentage up a bit. The Icemen also have Joe Murdaca, assuming Michael Houser doesn’t reappear from the AHL.

The Icemen aren’t the flashiest team, but they’re effective and play a smart, physical brand of hockey. What I like most is the depth among the forwards; role players such as Garrett Van Wyhe and Luc Brown can score big goals and take the pressure off of Brendan Harris and Christopher Brown.

With a league-leading average attendance of 8,712, the Icemen could do themselves a favor and get home-ice advantage through the first three rounds, but they’ve got a lot of work to do to just win the division and not worry about that.

6. Adirondack Thunder/Last Ranking: 6

Record: 40-18-10

I guess you can argue who’s in a more enviable position, Norfolk or Adirondack. 

Norfolk’s regular season is done after 69 games, and it’s facing a roughly two-week layoff before its playoff opener. Meanwhile, the Thunder have four remaining games in which they could either stay in first place or remain in second (they have a .662 points percentage to the Admirals’ .645).

The Thunder are going to take their lumps physically in four games against the Maine Mariners, who are battling to get into the postseason, but Adirondack controls its own destiny and will stay in the rhythm of playing games, and I suppose that’s the way the Thunder would like it.

Adirondack’s play has been OK lately; it’s 1-1-2 in its last four games. But it been struggling to find offense, scoring more than two goals in only five of its last seven games. And that’s the thing about facing Adirondack – if you can shut down its top offensive players – Shane Harper, Ryan Smith, Yushiroh Hirano and Tristan Ashbrook – you might just have a chance. 

Adirondack ranks ninth in offense (3.30 goals per game) and seventh defensively (2.94 goals against per game).

7. Florida Everblades/Last Ranking: 9

Record: 37-23-9

In the muddled South Division, the Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears seem to be the teams that want it most right now. Albeit against Atlanta and Savannah, the Everblades won their last three games by a combined score of 10-3. 

Cam Johnson, the Playoff MVP as the Everblades won the last two Kelly Cups, stopped 96.2% of the 79 shots he faced in those games. That should be scary; if the Everblades and Johnson have turned it on at the right time, as they did last season, then look out.

Defenseman Zach Berzolla joined the Everblades last week – his rights were acquired from the Cincinnati Cyclones at the trade deadline, but he was in the AHL – and he had two assists and a plus-3 rating in his first three games. 

Now that the defense has been reconstructed on the fly, the Everblades look better on paper. 

The forward group, led by Joe Pendenza, Bobo Carpenter and Oliver Chau, I have no worries about. The coaching of Brad Ralph, nothing but good things there, either.

Assuming they make it in – and I think they will – the Everblades are going to be a very tough out for opponents.

8. Orlando Solar Bears/Last Ranking: 13

Record: 37-24-9

The Solar Bears still have work to do – they’re tied for fourth in the South Division with Florida in points (83) and are fifth in points percentage (.593). But the Solar Bears are coming off a three-game sweep of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, who are first in points (89) and second in percentage (.645).

And frankly, the games weren’t that close, with Orlando winning 3-1, 5-1 and 5-2.

Evan Fitzpatrick has been huge lately; he stopped 96% of the 99 shots he faced from the Swamp Rabbits in the span of three days in Orlando.

Aaron Luchuk has looked great with three goals and four points in the last four games. So has Brayden Low, with two goals and four points in the last four games.

Orlando’s power play ranks last among the ECHL’s 27 teams at 15.4% efficiency, but it makes up for it with the No. 1 penalty kill at 85.5%. Good thing, too, since Orlando averages 14.39 penalty minutes, seventh in the ECHL.

9. Fort Wayne Komets/Last Ranking: 14

Record: 35-27-6

The Komets are a lot like the Solar Bears in that they could be very dangerous if they make the playoffs, but that remains a big if. 

Thanks to back-to-back victories, 2-1 over the Indy Fuel (thanks to a Noah Ganske overtime breakaway goal, after Kyle Maksimovich tripped and coughed up the puck) and 4-2 over the Kalamazoo Wings, the Komets are in fourth place in the Central Division with 75 points.

The Komets, who are one point back of the Wheeling Nailers and one ahead of the Wings, are facing a real good news/bad news situation here. 

Fort Wayne has four games remaining, while Wheeling and Kalamazoo each have three. But Fort Wayne’s schedule is tougher and includes four games in five nights in three cities – thanks to a game last week at Wheeling getting postponed because water levels with the Ohio River threatened to flood WesBanco Arena – plus there’s a home-and-home series with the Toledo Walleye to close the regular season.

Fort Wayne’s talent level has always been high, but its consistency has not. But during its current three-game winning streak, it’s allowed a total of only five goals, with three netminders (Ryan Fanti, Tyler Parks and Brett Brochu) doing the work. 

If the goal scorers get going now, too, the Komets could avoid missing the postseason for the first time since 2013.

10. Indy Fuel/Last Ranking: 8

Record: 37-25-8

I know I’m going to hear it from the Wheeling Nailers’ fans, especially with Wheeling defeating Indy 5-2 on Sunday. And absolutely, you can make a case that Wheeling should be in the top 10, as you can for Greenville and South Carolina, but also let’s remember that before that victory Sunday, Wheeling was in a 1-4-2 drought and has played itself out of great position with an 8-12-3 record since its 12-game winning streak ended Feb. 16.

Indy, however, repeatedly has shown itself to be a dangerous team. Despite its current 1-1-2 hiccup, the Fuel are second in the Central Division with 82 points, five more than Wheeling and six more than Fort Wayne.

The Fuel’s forward group is very talented, especially when it’s pouncing on turnovers by opposing teams, and Indy has begun to play with a good physical edge that has given opponents some headaches. Mitchell Weeks is a goalie who can get hot and the coach in Indy, Duncan Dalmao, has done a great job the last two seasons.

The Rest Of The ECHL

11. Wheeling Nailers/Last Ranking: 12

Record: 36-28-5

12. Greenville Swamp Rabbits/Last Ranking: 4

Record: 42-22-5

13. South Carolina Stingrays/Last Ranking: 11

Record: 39-25-6

14. Kalamazoo Wings/Last Ranking: 10

Record: 36-30-3

15. Maine Mariners/Last Ranking: 15

Record: 31-30-7

16. Allen Americans/Last Ranking: 27

Record: 31-34-4

17. Trois-Rivières Lions/Last Ranking: 17

Record: 29-29-8

18. Worcester Railers/Last Ranking: 19

Record: 31-30-8

19. Wichita Thunder/Last Ranking: 21

Record: 27-23-9

20. Tulsa Oilers/Last Ranking: 20

Record: 29-31-9

21. Cincinnati Cyclones/Last Ranking: 25

Record: 31-32-6

22. Utah Grizzlies/Last Ranking: 18

Record: 31-35-4

23. Reading Royals/Last Ranking: 22

Record: 28-34-8

24. Savannah Ghost Pirates/Last Ranking: 24

Record: 29-33-7

25. Atlanta Gladiators/Last Ranking: 28

Record: 21-44-4

26. Iowa Heartlanders/Last Ranking: 23

Record: 26-35-8

27. Rapid City Rush/Last Ranking: 26

Record: 27-38-4

NA. Newfoundland Growlers/Last Ranking: 16