The nature of the relationship between an NHL club and its farm team is such that the parent team’s needs will always come before those of the minor-league affiliate. Whether because of injury or simply with a need for new blood at the NHL level, the parent team will raid the AHL franchise regardless of the circumstances the farm team is facing.
Usually it’s the best players who are called up, which in essence is the entire point of the farm team; get players ready for the big show. But in the wake of a call-up, the farm team must still remain viable and competitive, meaning that everyone shuffling up the depth chart must continue to perform.
This is where depth becomes critical. The team must ensure that there will be sufficient back-fill to take empty spots that are created. At the same time, you want some veterans in place to support the younger prospects.
AHL contracts help organizations achieve those goals. These are contracts doled out to role players in the farm system, who, for whatever reason, can not find NHL contracts. Some players are deemed too slow, too small, or not skilled enough for the NHL, but are capable of hanging at the AHL level. One big advantage is that these contracts do not count against the 50-contract limit each NHL must respect, and there is really no rule that limits the amount of non-NHL deals a team can have.
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has always been active in that department, ensuring a steady crop of players are signed to a minor-league contract. For the upcoming season he has signed 10 players, which is a record amount for his tenure. His typical formula had been the same for his first five years in charge of personnel decisions in Montreal: one goaltender, three forwards, and three defencemen signed to minor-league contracts.
In his first year as GM in 2012-13, he had to contend with the NHL lockout, but since the AHL started as scheduled, he signed three restricted free agent players coming off NHL deals to join the Hamilton Bulldogs, just to get them some ice time in the minors. Those three were goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, defenceman Frédéric St-Denis, and forward Aaron Palushaj. Other players to receive minor-league deals that year were Stefan Chaput, Kyle Hagel, Antoine Corbin, Daultan Leveille, Olivier Fortier, and Zack Stortini. All three players on two-way deals — Chaput, Leveille, and Fortier — were sent to the Wheeling Nailers, their ECHL affiliate.
Frequently these players on minor-league deals are placed in the ECHL to bide their time until they are required in the AHL. Overall, Bergevin signed 45 minor contracts during his tenure prior to the 2018-19 season, of which only five never played an AHL game: Chaput (2013-14), Matt Grassi (2013-14), Frankie Palazzese (2014-15), Jeremie Blain (2016-17), and Mathieu Corderre-Gagnon (2016-17). Most of these players spent the season in the ECHL, with Blain and Chaput requesting a trade rather than agreeing to that move.
Overall the Canadiens have failed to build an adequate three-tier depth with ECHL involvement. The biggest ECHL contributors have been Olivier Fortier with 23 points in 29 games in 2012-13, Travis Brown with 22 points in 55 games in 2015-16, and Angelo Miceli with 20 points in 26 games in 2015-16.
Of the 45 minor-league players, 23 played at least one game in the ECHL, but that number dwindles fast if you up the criterion to 25 games or more in the ECHL: only nine.
Only a select few players on minor-league deals ever earned a second season: David Broll (2016--18), Chaput (2012--14), Josiah Didier (2015--17), Markus Eisenschmid (2015-17), Maxime Macenauer (2013--15), and Yannick Veilleux (2016-18).
Eisenschmid is probably the most successful of these players, as he signed an AHL/ECHL deal in 2015-16, a one-way AHL deal in 2016-17, and half-way through that season signed an NHL entry-level contract for two seasons, staying with the organization until the end of 2017-18. No player has graduated from a minor-league contract to the NHL.
The highest scoring players on a minor league deal were T.J. Hensick, who led the 2014-15 Hamilton Bulldogs with 60 points, and defenceman Eric Gelinas in 2017-18 with 26 points.
Four goaltenders signed minor-league deals, with only Frankie Palazzese (2014-15) not playing a game at the AHL level. Everyone else got to play at least 20 games, including Desjardins (2012-13), Eddie Pasquale (2015-16), and Yann Danis (2016-17). Palazzese started 41 games in the ECHL, while Pasquale played 12. Desjardins did not complete the season however, as he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Dustin Tokarski once the NHL season resumed.
Here is the complete list of minor-league contracts signed by Bergevin, with contract type in brackets: