It is widely known that the Montreal Canadiens have not had the best relationship with their ECHL affiliates over time, mainly treating them as an overflow for goaltenders (Mike Condon rose through the ranks) and the occasional spare player for the AHL. Rarely do skaters find their way from the ECHL to the NHL in the Canadiens organization. In fact, the last to do so was David Desharnais.
But why is that? The ECHL offers an option to help players who are slow to adapt to the professional game. Rather than having them be overwhelmed at the AHL level, the ECHL provides a competitive environment where the team can assign players to regain their confidence and find the potential that the organization saw in the player.
One such example is Michael Ryder who was drafted in the eighth round of the 1998 NHL Draft by the Canadiens, a mere afterthought at 216th overall after the selection of Eric Chouniard and Mike Ribeiro in the first two rounds.
After his draft year, Ryder continued to be an offensive force, leading his junior team, the Hull Olympiques, in points for the following two seasons, and showing that perhaps the Canadiens were right to take a chance on the player.
Ryder started his professional career meekly with the American Hockey League’s Quebec Citadelles in 2000-01, playing 61 games and scoring six goals for 15 points. When it came time for the Citadelles to announce their 22-man protected roster for the AHL playoffs, Ryder’s name was left off of the list. Ryder was sent to the ECHL’s Tallahassee Tiger Sharks on March 22, 2001 for the remainder of the 2000-01 season, citing a lack of consistency in his play being the reason for his downgrade.
“I went down to Tallahassee, and I only got to play five games,” Ryder said in an interview with ECHL.com. ”We were supposed to play in the playoffs, and there was some kind of rule where you had to play a minimum amount of games. But the team got suspended and we got disqualified from the playoffs that year, so that was my first memory down there.”
The Tiger Sharks violated the ECHL salary cap rule and were penalized 15 points in the standings by the league, costing them their playoff position. However, Ryder did record nine points in five games in his first ECHL experience, showing flashes of the player he was in junior.
The following season, due to Tallahassee being sold to new owners, the Canadiens affiliated with the Mississippi Sea Wolves, minority owned by Michel Cadrin, a co-owner of the Citadelles. It was Cadrin who, in his previous management of the Tiger Sharks, made the crucial mistake that cost Tallahassee a chance at the playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens, despite changing ECHL affiliates, once again continued to have a strong coordinated pipeline of farm teams to organize a path from the ECHL through the AHL to the NHL.
Ryder began the season in Quebec, but with only two goals in 13 games he was sent to the Sea Wolves in November to work on his scoring. Other Canadiens draft picks also found their way to Mississippi, such as goaltender Evan Lindsey and defenceman Francois Beauchemin.
“I got sent down to Mississippi in November or something like that, and played 20 games and came back up,” Ryder said in his ECHL interview. “It was better hockey than I thought it would be, I was surprised when I got there. To me, it was just all about trying to work hard and get back up.”
In December of 2001, Ryder was named the player of the month for the Sea Wolves, and generally was regarded the best player on the team since arriving, picking up 14 goals and 27 points in 20 games with the team. When the Canadiens recalled Gino Odjick and Marcel Hossa from Quebec in January, 2002, Ryder was recalled to Quebec to much fanfare as a changed player, and never returned to the ECHL.
“[Getting sent to the ECHL] was a total shock to me,” said Ryder in an interview with Le Soleil after his recall. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. But with some hindsight it was a good thing that I was assigned [to the ECHL]. I put up points and regained my confidence. I hadn’t scored like that since my days in Hull.”
Ryder would spent one more full season in the AHL the following year, this time as the team’s leading goal-scorer, before making the Canadiens out of camp for the 2003-04 season. He would go on to have three seasons of 25, 30, and 30 goals, among the best on the team each year.
Taking a struggling forward, and giving him a step back to the ECHL allowed Ryder to find the scoring touch that helped him reach his developmental potential. It may be considered the long road, or a non-traditional road, but players cannot all be expected to develop equally, and having the option of a secondary development path should be exploited.
Why wasn’t Simon Bourque sent to the ECHL when he was unable to crack the Rocket lineup last season? And the same for Tom Parisi two seasons ago with the IceCaps? What would have happened if Martin Réway started the season in Brampton?
Who knows what time in the ECHL could have done for some of those players. With the deep roster in Laval this season, would someone like Alexandre Alain or Hayden Verbeek benefit from starting their pro careers in the lower league rather than watching games from the stands in the AHL?
The Canadiens have a long road ahead if they hope to re-create the three-tier farm system they once had. Their three-year relationship with the Brampton Beast is well-known to have been less than ideal thus far, and no player, goaltender or otherwise, who played for the Beast ever played for the Canadiens. Zachary Fucale was the closest to seeing ice-time in the NHL, but his time was limited to being an unused backup goaltender.
Brampton is currently in the midst of negotiating with several NHL teams over an affiliation, so things might get worse for Montreal before they get better if they lose their ECHL affiliation entirely. Given the rising level of competition, and a parity situation that dominates contracts and salaries, occasionally laying the foundation for an NHL roster player in the ECHL is well worth all the effort.