As the ECHL continues to inch towards the start of the first portion of their 2020-21 season on December 11th, it was announced on Wednesday that more teams have chosen voluntary suspension for the upcoming season, including the two Canadian teams, the Brampton Beast (affiliate of the Ottawa Senators) and the Newfoundland Growlers (Toronto Maple Leafs).
Other teams also announcing the voluntary suspension for the season are the Maine Mariners (New York Rangers), Adirondack Thunder (New Jersey Devils), Worcester Railers (New York Islanders), and the Reading Royals (Philadelphia Flyers). They join the Atlanta Gladiators (Boston Bruins) and the Norfolk Admirals (independent) who had previously already announced the suspension of operations for a year due to the pandemic.
Five teams remain undeclared for the 2020-21 season, the Idaho Steelheads (Dallas Stars), Cincinnati Cyclones (Buffalo Sabres), Fort Wayne Komets (Vegas Golden Knights), Kalamazoo Wings (Vancouver Canucks), and Toledo Walleye (Detroit Red Wings). These teams must decide by the end of November whether or not they will start play on January 15th as part of a second phase for the regular season, or also declare a voluntary suspension.
For the remaining 13 teams, training camps open on November 26th and the puck drops on the 2020-21 season on December 11th.
The fact that the entire North Division ceased operations for the season will cause a big challenge for the Montreal Canadiens, since they loaned players across most of these teams over the past several years.
The biggest and most glaring issue will be with goaltending. The Canadiens have to find a team for Michael McNiven and Vasili Demchenko to play on as Cayden Primeau and Charlie Lindgren are poised to take up positions on the Laval Rocket. It should be noted, Lindgren would have to clear waivers in order to go to the AHL.
Overall, the Canadiens organization has 46 players signed to NHL contracts, and an additional 10 signed to minor-league contracts. Unless the NHL increases the 23-man roster size for teams, the Canadiens will have 33 players assigned to the Laval Rocket, which is not manageable, nor an efficient use of player development. Beyond two goaltenders, the ability to assign at least four skaters to the ECHL would help alleviate that number down to 27. Brent Gates, Pascal Aquin, Tobie Bisson, and Nathanael Halbert are all signed to two-way minor-league deals, hinting at where the organization would like for them to play.
So what are the Canadiens to do?
The first option is obviously to sign a new affiliation agreement with one of the five teams whose affiliation agreement was up for renewal. Pittsburgh/Wheeling, Winnipeg/Jacksonville, Carolina/Greenville, Nashville/Florida, and Dallas/Idaho have yet to announce an extension of their affiliation agreements. Can the Montreal Canadiens disrupt these existing relationships to sign a one-year affiliation? Would the ECHL team be interested in a one-year deal since Montreal will most likely have an affiliation with Trois-Rivières for the following season?
The other options is to scatter players across the active ECHL teams, and hope that the development of these players does not take a back seat to that of prospects of the actual NHL affiliated team. But even then, finding roster spots will be difficult because many other orphaned NHL teams will be looking to do the same. It will truly be buyers market as ECHL teams will have the luxury of choice.