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An EOTP guide to the ECHL

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A primer on player contracts and team rosters as the Lions de Trois-Rivières prepare for their inaugural season.

The newly minted Lions de Trois-Rivières have now entered deep into the preparations for their inaugural season as the Montreal Canadiens’ ECHL affiliate. As the league prepares to enter a brand new market in the province of Québec, many casual potential fans might be unfamiliar with how this league functions so here are some basic facts about the league, the teams, the players, and the rules that make up this unique league.

A brief history of the league

The East Coast Hockey League stopped being called that in 2003, in the 16th year of its existence, and simply became known as the ECHL, when the league absorbed seven teams from the defunct West Coast Hockey League. The new geographic reality required a less area-limiting league name but due to the lack of a better option, the orphaned initialism ECHL was retained in order to capitalize on the existing brand equity that the acronym had already developed.

For several years there were multiple AA professional hockey leagues battling for legitimacy with the NHL, but eventually consolidation was achieved. The International Hockey League folded into the Central Hockey League in 2010, whose ashes were then absorbed into the ECHL in 2014 to create a primary AA professional hockey league in North America for the NHL and AHL to work with.

The ECHL has frequently entertained the idea of renaming the league name once and for all, but there is too much brand equity in the existing name to start from new. Even if it continues to cause some confusion. The league did try to trademark the name Premiere Hockey League, but the application was rejected on the basis that the name was too generic. There is now a slow marketing transition from ECHL to Premiere AA Hockey League in effect, but it will take some time before the brand equity transfers over to the new name.


League size and composition

For the 2021-22 season, when Trois-Rivières enters the league, there will be 27 teams divided into two Conferences (Eastern and Western), and each Conference into two Divisions (Eastern has North and South, and Western has Central and Mountain). A 28th team in Savannah is scheduled to enter the league for the 2022-23 season.

The ultimate stated goal of the league is to have 32 stable teams with an affiliation to each NHL team. So more expansion teams will be coming with rumours of teams in Binghamton NY, Manchester NY, and Richmond, VA. A lot of ECHL teams are in former AHL markets.

NHL affiliations remain very volatile with ECHL teams, however, there are a few long-standing partnerships that have endured over the years. None more prevalent than the Pittsburgh Penguins affiliation with the Wheeling Nailers which has been in place since 1999. The Dallas Stars have been affiliated with the Idaho Steelheads since 2005, and the Detroit Red Wings with the Toledo Walleye since 2009. Every other affiliation in the league is 2014 or younger.

Trois-Rivières will be in the North Division, along with the Newfoundland Growlers (Toronto), Maine Mariners (rumoured to be changing their affiliation from the Rangers to Boston), Adirondack Thunder (New Jersey), Reading Royals (Philadelphia), and Worcester Railers (New York Islanders). The Brampton Beast (Ottawa) played in this division until they recently ceased operations. Multiple affiliations with NHL teams were stopped since the 2015-16 season, but you still see some secondary working agreements exist.

Each team plays 72 games, split evenly between home and away. There is little cross-divisional and cross-conference games played due to cost of travel, however Trois-Rivières are playing a set of games in Naples against the Florida Everblades this upcoming season, one of the top franchises in the league, and a highlight trip for the team. It’s worth noting that team owner, Dean MacDonald, lives in Naples so he probably facilitated this trip.


Contracts

All ECHL contracts are limited to a single season and cannot be multi-year contracts. Players can be released from their contract at any point during the season after first being offered to other teams through the waivers process.

A player on a one-way ECHL contract has to sign a professional try out (PTO) to play on an AHL team. A player on a two-way contract already has a contractually set salary in the AHL and in the ECHL.

Salary cap

Unlike the AHL, which operates without any constraints besides internal finances, the ECHL does have a certain level of parity in order to level the playing field. Most notable is the team salary cap. Salaries are not publicly released but teams must adhere to these caps under the threat of severe penalties in the standings.

The weekly salary floor for 2021-22 is $10,600. If the salary floor is not met, the difference must be split out equally and given out to the players on the active roster for that week. The salary cap is $14,400 for the first 30 days of the season, and $13,900 for the balance of the season.

  • Maximum rookie contract: $585/week (any player who has played less than 25 regular season professional hockey games)
  • Minimum salary: $545/week
  • NHL/AHL affiliate payments: $525/week

As you can see, it’s beneficial for the ECHL team to have as many NHL/AHL players assigned to them as they can get because it leaves them with the most cap space.

Active roster, veteran limit, reserve spaces

The active roster contains a maximum of 20 players, on either Standard Player Contracts (SPC) or on loan from an NHL/AHL team. For the first 30 days of the regular season, the active roster will have a maximum of 21 players.

Each team is limited to four veteran players on the active roster. A veteran is a player, other than a goaltender, who has played in at least 260 regular season professional hockey games in a recognized professional hockey league (NHL, AHL, ECHL, Czech Extraliga, Liiga, DEL, KHL, Slovak Extraliga, SHL, National League)

In addition to the 20 players on the active roster, up to two players who are contracted but not on the injured reserve or on the active roster (i.e. a healthy scratch or slightly banged up), can be put on the reserve list. The salary paid to these players does not count against the salary cap. Players can be moved from the active roster to the reserve and back at any point.

A veteran player on an NHL or AHL contract must play at least five games in the AHL in order to be eligible for the ECHL playoffs.


Gameplay

There aren’t many rule differences between leagues, but the ECHL has been known as the testing ground for proposed rule changes. There remains a few rule differences that need to be highlighted:

  • One of the big differences is that each team ices a line-up of only 18 players: 16 skaters and two goalies. The usual configuration is 10 forwards and six defencemen.
  • Tied games are decided by a seven-minute 3-on-3 overtime period, followed by a shootout. If you pull your goalie during overtime (non-delayed penalty) and get scored on, you lose the single point gained for being tied after regulation.
  • The ECHL implemented video reviews starting with the 2019-20 season but there is no coach’s challenge.

How does free agency work in the ECHL?

This is probably the most important rule to familiarize yourself with if you want to understand the mechanics of the ECHL. Unlike the AHL, the ECHL does have a system in place for retaining player rights after the end of the season. Since all ECHL contracts can only be for a single season, this mechanism allows teams to maintain some sort of stability in their roster year over year. There are three stages to the season closeout for teams: the protected list, the season-ending roster, and the qualifying offers list. Below is all of the technical information for each of these stages, and the associated date for 2020-21:

PROTECTED LIST (JULY 1, 3:00 PM)

Teams can protect as many players as they wish. Teams shall retain the rights to each player that:

  1. Signed an SPC in 2020-21 with the Member, and has not been traded or released, OR
  2. Had received a qualifying offer last summer for the current season, did not sign an SPC, and has not been traded or released, OR
  3. Signed an SPC on or after the first day of the 2020-21 regular season, then subsequently signed an NHL/AHL contract, and has not been traded or released, OR
  4. Has executed the ECHL retirement form and has not been traded or released.

Following the release of this list, ECHL teams have a few days to complete all outstanding “Future Consideration” trades. There can be no carryover of a “Future Consideration” trade to the following season.

SEASON-ENDING ROSTERS (July 8, 3:00 PM)

  • Season-ending rosters may include up to 20 players.
  • Season-ending rosters cannot include any players who did not sign an ECHL contract in 2020-21.

QUALIFYING OFFERS (July 23, 11:59 PM)

  • Players who had already signed a contract for 2021-22 do not need to receive a qualifying offer.
  • Each team is entitled to reserve the rights to a maximum of eight qualified players, of which no more than four can be veterans.
  • Players on open qualifying offers cannot be traded.
  • The qualifying offer must remain open for acceptance until August 5, at which time the qualifying offer becomes null and void and the team may sign the qualified player to any salary or may elect to take no further action.
  • Teams that extend a valid qualifying offer to a non-veteran player shall retain the rights to that qualified player for one playing season.
  • A team that extends a valid qualifying offer to a veteran player, or to a goaltender who has played more than 180 regular-season games, will retain the rights to that player until August 9. After August 9, if the veteran player or goaltender is not signed to a contract by the team, the player shall be deemed a restricted free agent and shall be entitled to seek and secure offers of employment from other ECHL teams. Restricted free agents may not be traded.
  • When a restricted free agent receives a contract offer from a team other than the team with the player’s rights and the restricted free agent wishes to accept the contract offer, the restricted free agent and the offering member must, within 24 hours, notify the ECHL, the team with the player’s rights and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association. The member with the player’s rights shall have seven days after the date it is notified to exercise its right to match the contract offer.
  • If a restricted free agent is not signed to either an offer sheet or a contract by an ECHL team by August 16, the player shall be deemed an unrestricted free agent.

Ah yes, and finally, the goal posts are blue.