The Brampton Beast of the ECHL currently sit in last place in the North Division, outside of the playoff picture, which is a drastic fall from last season where they finished third and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Heading in the season, the Beast managed to keep the majority of their players from last year’s squad, save two or three prominent names, and the affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens was renewed for another year, so a successful season was not completely out of the question.
From their affiliation with Montreal, the Beast knew that they would be able to count on a goaltender from Montreal’s strong depth pool. Before the season started, Beast General Manager Cary Kaplan had a hopeful expectation for the partnership with the Canadiens.
“I think [Zachary] Fucale is going to battle hard to play at the AHL level. He’s earned whatever he gets there, and I think if he’s there, then [Michael] McNiven will be here, and that’s great. If Fucale is here he’ll be among the best goalies in the league. It’s a pretty good situation for us.”
Beyond the goaltender situation, Kaplan also had in mind the number of players who would be assigned to the team from Laval: “Montreal signs a good amount of guys that, if they are relatively healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had six or seven guys here.”
If they are relatively healthy. Famous last words.
The Rocket initially assigned Jordan Boucher, Thomas Ebbing, Yannick Veilleux, and Michael McNiven to the Beast; not nearly as much as initially anticipated, as season-opening injuries to Noah Juulsen and Jeremiah Addison had already produced a knock-on effect that would plague the team for the rest of the campaign. Still, a good number of AHL- and NHL-contracted players.
Once the season started, injuries immediately started to pile up in Montreal and Laval, and the players assigned to the ECHL lasted all of three weeks before getting recalled, and by early November the final player was brought back to the AHL. The Rocket have not had a skater in the ECHL since October 26.
Injuries certainly continued to affect the organization, but there were times when the Rocket would have several healthy scratches, most notably rookie defenceman Simon Bourque, who barely played any games over a six-week period, and not send them to Brampton to simply get some games in.
The only Canadiens player to return to the Beast was Fucale who has had five short stints in Brampton so far this season, but no prolonged stay.
Not only have the Rocket not sent any reinforcements to the ECHL, they are the team that has plundered their ECHL-affiliate the most in the entire AHL.
Ten times Laval came calling to Brampton to sign an ECHL player to a professional tryout contract, which is double the number of the teams tied for second place with five: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, affiliated with the Wheeling Nailers, Springfield Thunderbirds seeking help from the Manchester Monarchs, and the Belleville Senators calling upon the Brampton Beast.
... Wait, what?
It’s complicated. Essentially, to make up for the short-coming in AHL-calibre players from its primary affiliate in Laval, the Beast turned to the Senators organization to establish a secondary working agreement in order to gain access to additional players. The Senators did not have an ECHL affiliation, and therefore the partnership made sense in terms of proximity and symbiosis.
The Senators began by sending lots of players from Belleville to play games in Brampton. Eventually the Senators fell into the same pattern as the Rocket though, pulling all their players out of the ECHL, while also pilfering the Beast of their contracted players. The end result this season has been that the Beast have not only been deprived of steady AHL talent, but also have seen their own players cannibalized by the dual working agreements they had in place.
The most extreme examples are defencemen Willie Corrin and Matt Petgrave. Corrin was last season’s Rookie of the Year for the Beast, and Petgrave was an ECHL All-Star this season. Both split their time between the ECHL and AHL so far this season, signing professional tryout contracts with each team, with Petgrave once again up with Rocket at the time of this writing on his seventh PTO of the season. In Petgrave’s case, he also signed two additional PTOs with the Toronto Marlies. Corrin has only played 28 games this season for the Beast. An injury to the Beast’s top defender, veteran Jordan Henry, just pronounced the misery for the Beast.
As a result of the player drain and their own injuries, the Beast have had to look for reinforcements in the lower pro leagues like the FHL and the SPHL to fill out their roster, and even coaxing 41-year-old David Ling back into service. No team has had to sign more players to new ECHL standard player contracts than Brampton since the start of the season.
The most impressive statistic is that despite heading into the season with the expectation of a full-time Canadiens goaltending prospect to share the nets with ECHL-contracted Andrew D’Agostini, the Beast have used 12 different goaltenders in a veritable carousel this season, with Laval and Belleville each providing two goaltenders at points of this season, plus long stretches of neither one contributing to the roster at all. D’Agostini has had the lion’s share of the starts for the Beast with 20 in 59 games, followed by Marcus Hogberg (14), Fucale (11), and Chris Driedger (6).
In a season filled with fluctuation and disappointment, the Beast will have to re-think their affiliation upon the expiration of their agreement with the Canadiens at the conclusion of this season. In their four-season partnership, rarely did the Canadiens use their ECHL affiliate to develop prospects, but more as an overflow for deep depth. If that depth moved up the ladder in the organization, there was no attempt to backfill to replace them.
The ECHL still struggles to be viewed as a development league by the majority of professional teams, with only a handful of clubs (Toronto and Pittsburgh most notably) taking advantage of the opportunity to truly run a three-tier organization. Ottawa was, for all intents and purposes, a much better partner for Brampton this season than Montreal in that regard.
Perhaps the best path forward for the Beast organization will be a partnership with the Senators, who seemed more interested in forging a development partnership, meaning more players of higher calibre than what Montreal is offering, and therefore better on-ice results.
Brampton cannot afford to erode their fanbase as it is, and any hope of financial success has to begin on the ice. If things play out the way they look, Montreal is on a path of losing their affiliation in Brampton, and not partnering with the new St. John’s team, as was rumoured, will result in possibly needing to find a new home in the ECHL next season outside of Canada.