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The Montreal Canadiens will have players all across the ECHL in 2018-19

League rules will dictate where players can be loaned.

With 67 players invited to training camp this season, the Montreal Canadiens and Laval Rocket certainly have a healthy depth headed into this season, correcting for their shortcomings from last year. The Canadiens’ ECHL affiliate, the Brampton Beast, was stripped of all players under contract with the Canadiens organization by late October to fill the ranks higher up in the organization.

The majority of this newfound depth comes from the 10 players signed to AHL contracts, three more than the Canadiens normally would have heading into a season, in order to ensure appropriate depth. With around 35 players looking for room in the Rocket lineup, the need to send some of them to the ECHL is fairly self-evident.

This could be a problem since the Canadiens did not renew their ECHL affiliation agreement with Brampton, and instead mentioned the possibility of sending some players to the new Maine Mariners franchise. At the golf tournament, Marc Bergevin mentioned that they are working on an agreement with Daniel Brière’s new ECHL team, the challenge being that the Mariners are affiliated with the New York Rangers, and therefore the Rocket might be limited by how many players they can loan. The Rangers would probably have a say in the situation as well.

We previously explored how the Rocket could benefit from loaning at least six players to the ECHL rather than face being healthy scratches in the AHL. However, if looking into the player options for a loan, you see that not everyone could be loaned to the Mariners.

The ECHL qualifying process is a mechanism that allows teams to protect up to eight players who were contracted by the team last season. This protection is not voided even if a player signs an AHL contract. Therefore the AHL team cannot choose where to loan a previously qualified player, but rather that player must return to the team that owns his ECHL rights.

This is the case for three players under the Canadiens umbrella: Étienne Marcoux, T.J. Melancon, and Phélix Martineau. Each played in the ECHL last season, and was qualified by his respective team, meaning they can only play for that team in the ECHL this season.

Marcoux is poised to be the fifth goaltender in the Canadiens depth chart, and hopefully rather than decide to run a three-goalie rotation in Laval again, Marcoux can be loaned back to the Indy Fuel where he won tremendous praise last season. This seems to be the scenario everyone has in mind, since the Fuel have only signed one goaltender for next season, rookie Jason Pawloski, suggesting Marcoux’s starter role is essentially assured. Marcoux is known to Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard as he played for the coach with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the QMJHL. The Fuel are the ECHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Melancon had good moments at the rookie tournament, however due to numbers he finds himself possibly the odd man out of the defensive rotation in Laval. He was the fourth-leading scorer of the Norfolk Admirals last season, and appears poised to return as their top defender. Despite the success at the ECHL level, Melancon failed to record a point in nine games in the AHL in his rookie season. He is another player who played for Bouchard in the Armada. The Admirals are the ECHL affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes.

Martineau finished his season last year with the Fort Wayne Komets after finishing his Junior career as captain of the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. The Komets chose to use up one of their qualifying spots on Martineau after he recorded three points in three games in the regular season, and eight points in 10 playoff games. Although there is no Bouchard connection here, the Canadiens surely have kept their eye on the Laval native, being familiar with him from the days they came to Cape Breton to heavily scout Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Fort Wayne Komets are the ECHL affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights.

That leaves some other depth players like Morgan Adams-Moisan, Alex Belzile, Nikita Jevpalovs, and Ryan Culkin as candidates to be sent to the Maine Mariners, if we are to see the standard five to six players loaned to teams in the ECHL.

Culkin spent the last season in the ECHL with the Komets, on loan from the Tuscon Roadrunners. He was called up to the AHL during the season, but he did not actually see any game time. Despite him being the Komets’ highest-scoring defenceman, they couldn’t qualify him since he was not on an ECHL contract, but on a two-way AHL/ECHL contract, on loan from Tuscon.

Adams-Moisan, yet another Armada graduate, finds himself entering his rookie season as the lowest forward on the totem pole in Laval, and surely heading to Maine with Culkin.

The case of Alex Belzile becomes more complicated, since he qualifies as an ECHL veteran (but not an AHL veteran). Sending him to Maine would probably require a closer negotiation with the Rangers, Hartford Wolf Pack, Mariners, and the Rocket.

An ECHL team is only allowed to carry a total of four veterans on its active and reserve rosters, so adding Belzile into the Mariners mix would probably necessitate a long-term commitment, so as not to weaken the team with a sudden recall. Montreal did that last season when they recalled Yannick Veilleux from Brampton, and never returned him. But as a two-time Kelly Cup champion, Belzile would be a tremendous asset for any ECHL team, especially a new team trying to make an impact in its inaugural season.

With no official affiliate in place for this upcoming year, if injuries start piling up, the Rocket will be able to look around the ECHL to players who are placed in important roles on their respective clubs, which is potentially a benefit over having them all on a single affiliate.

This is in sharp contrast to the approach that the Toronto Maple Leafs organization took by affiliating very closely with the Newfoundland Growlers and will fill over half their roster with AHL-calibre prospects.

And therein lies the difference in mentality when it comes to the ECHL. Montreal views it as a place to store depth players when needed in the AHL, and Toronto views it as a first step in developing players for the AHL and perhaps higher.

Whether the Canadiens will ever consider the ECHL as a developmental first step remains to be seen, but for this season, at least, they will have many options in high places, as needed.