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Few ECHL options remain for the Montreal Canadiens

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The Canadiens face the possibility of not having an affiliate once again.

Last year, the Montreal Canadiens and the Brampton Beast ended their three-year affiliation. The Beast preferred to align with the Ottawa Senators, upgrading their secondary working agreement from the previous season into a full-fledged primary affiliation. This left the Canadiens as one of five NHL teams without an ECHL club, despite two third-tier teams remaining unaffiliated for the 2018-19 season.

Instead, they began a working relationship with the Maine Mariners, the New York Rangers’ ECHL affiliate, sending several players for stints with the team (Antoine Waked, Michael Pezzetta, Hayden Verbeek, and Adam Plant) as well as placing two players on near-permanent loans to Maine (Ryan Culkin and Morgan Adams-Moisan).

The Canadiens also sent players to the Beast, including goaltender Etienne Marcoux, defenceman Michal Moravcik, and forward Jeremiah Addison (the latter released from his contract to explore different options).

Beyond those two working agreements, Montreal returned Phelix Martineau to the Fort Wayne Komets and T.J. Melancon to the Norfolk Admirals because those teams held the ECHL rights of those players. Marcoux was initially with the Indy Fuel, but the Beast traded for his rights.

The Canadiens managed to absorb the loss of their affiliate by dispersing players throughout the ECHL, and they all played important roles on their respective teams.

This season, the Laval Rocket won’t have as many players with established ECHL rights. Joe Cox is linked with the Florida Everblades and Connor LaCouvee with the Maine Mariners, but there are still 30 other players on either AHL contracts or overflow NHL deals above the 23-man roster that will need to be managed. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect five to six players to begin the season in the ECHL.

If the Canadiens wanted to find a new affiliate for the upcoming season, they are running out of options. Here is the current affiliate situation between the NHL and ECHL.

NHL/ECHL Affiliates, as of July 30th

On the surface, the Habs remain one of 14 teams without a confirmed ECHL affiliation for next season, with the game of musical chairs ending when there are five teams left standing.

The league is down to 26 teams after the Manchester Monarchs folded at the end of 2018-19, leaving the Los Angeles Kings without an affiliation. They are rumoured to be looking at a working agreement with the Fort Wayne Komets, who in turn are looking to renew their primary affiliation with the Vegas Golden Knights. There are also strong indications that the New Jersey Devils will renew with the Adirondack Thunder. Although not officially announced yet, the Ottawa Senators will be renewing their affiliation with the Brampton Beast.

If we assume that the six remaining affiliations will be renewed, that would leave the Canadiens to battle with the Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, and San Jose Sharks for an affiliation agreement with the Norfolk Admirals, who did not renew their partnership with the Arizona Coyotes after last season.

With Montreal’s history of poor ECHL affiliate support, Norfolk would have to carefully balance the brand association value with the actual on-ice contribution from the Canadiens. Other NHL teams looking for an affiliate could seem more suitable in the end. On the flip side, Norfolk had some severe organizational challenges over the last few seasons, to the point that Nashville cancelled their affiliation mid-season in 2017-18.

That would leave us with the increasing likelihood that the Canadiens will not have an ECHL affiliation for the upcoming season again, although it is worth noting that they have never really embraced the three-tier developmental model in the first place. Their five-year affiliation with the Wheeling Nailers from 2010 to 2015 was a joint affiliation with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and prior to that their affiliation with the Cincinnati Cyclones was a joint effort with the Nashville Predators. In fact, prior to the first two years of their affiliation with Brampton (2015-17), the last time the Canadiens were the sole affiliate of an ECHL team was in 2004-06 with the Long Beach Ice Dogs.

Who are the players who would benefit?

Goaltender Connor LaCouvee would certainly benefit to play games in the ECHL rather than get stuck in an AHL goalie rotation that currently contains Charlie Lindgren, Michael McNiven, and Cayden Primeau. One can also argue that a three-goalie rotation doesn’t work either, so the Habs could have two goalies to loan to the ECHL when it all trickles down.

A preliminary analysis of the Rocket skaters could yield the following roster, with the assumption that bubble players like Ryan Poehling, Matthew Peca, Charles Hudon and Noah Juulsen start in Montreal:

Forwards

  • Alexandre Alain
  • Riley Barber
  • Alex Belzile
  • Jake Evans
  • Nikita Jevpalovs
  • Michael McCarron
  • William Pelletier
  • Nick Suzuki
  • Joël Teasdale
  • Phil Varone
  • Lukas Vejdemo
  • Dale Weise

Defencemen

  • Karl Alzner
  • Josh Brook
  • Cale Fleury
  • Maxim Lamarche
  • Otto Leskinen
  • Gustav Olofsson
  • Xavier Ouellet
  • David Sklenicka

Defenceman Ryan Culkin and forwards Morgan Adams-Moisan, Antoine Waked, Michael Pezzetta, Hayden Verbeek, and Joe Cox are depth players who would benefit in their development from having important roles in the ECHL rather than supporting roles in the AHL where they would struggle getting ice-time. Rotating certain players between the AHL and ECHL could also be an option.

So from this brief analysis, eight players could use some playing time in the ECHL. Without an affiliate, the Rocket will have to call around to try to find a place for them. The Mariners may take the bulk of them again, but it would be for short stints like last season. A full affiliate would be a better alternative to manage the organizational depth, but it doesn’t seem like the team will have one yet again this season.