WICHITA, KS – The 30th ECHL season opens Friday night and there will be many storylines to follow.
1. Will the West Continue to be the Best?
Even though the Kelly Cup champion has come from the west for four straight seasons (Alaska 2014, Allen 2015 & 16, Colorado 2017), there was always some question about which conference was the best?
Last season left no doubt; the west was an absolute gauntlet.
Five of the eight teams that qualified for the Kelly Cup playoffs had more than 90 points, compared to just two in the eastern conference. You could make the argument Allen, Colorado, and Toledo beat up on the bottom-feeders (Indy, Wichita, Rapid City) in the conference, but few nights were considered “easy wins” for the top teams.
This offseason, the conference appeared to get stronger. Allen and Toledo re-tooled and bulked up; the Kelly Cup Champs brought their core back (despite shedding a pair of vets,) while Utah made considerable strides toward becoming a conference power with the signings potent scoring forwards Peter Sivak, Kyle Thomas, Gregor Hansen and goaltender Kevin Carr to contracts. When combined with a Cincinnati Cyclones club that should be much improved, a rugged Quad City Mallards team with some offensive touch, and what should be an improved Kansas City Mavericks team…it is easy to see why the balance of power in the ECHL will remain west of the Mississippi River.
2. High Tide in Norfolk?
For the first time in their ECHL history, the Norfolk Admirals have some legitimate optimism heading into the season. Leading the resurgence of hockey in the Tidewater, Robbie Ftorek, who helped secure the affiliation with the Nashville Predators during the offseason.
Ftorek brought back team captain Brodie Dupont, as well as forwards Dominic Alberga, Ben Murphy and defensemen Jordan Abt and Marc Hetnik; while adding goalie Jamie Murray, forwards Erik Bradford and Brady Vail, and veteran defenseman Steven Delisle via free agency.
Heading to Norfolk from AHL Milwaukee are forwards Angelo Miceli and Trevor Mingoia, defenseman Rick Pinkston and the ECHL-elite goaltender Jake Paterson.
It will take some time to wash the losing stigma away, but a good start to the campaign and good luck from the “injury Gods” could mean the Admirals are contending for a playoff berth by season’s end.
3. How Will Allen Fare Without Chad Costello?
In a bit of a surprising decision this offseason, two-time ECHL MVP Chad Costello signed with the Iserlohn Roosters from the German Ice Hockey League (DEL) in May. The move left many in North Texas wondering how coach Steve Martinson would attempt to fill the void left by Costello’s departure.
Rather than sign a 100-point player from another league (those are hard to find, especially on ECHL money,) Martinson brought back Casey Pierro-Zabotel after winning his second-straight Kelly Cup, added Mathieu Aubin, Jonathan Lessard, and Olivier Archambault to make replacing Costello’s offense more of a “by-committee” approach. Though, one could certainly expect Pierro-Zabotel to carry the load himself since he has finished in the top three in league scoring each of the last two seasons.
The move also provides something Allen was thin on last season, offensive depth through the lineup. Last year, once you got past Costello and Hanson in the offensive rundown, the point production fell off somewhat. That is not likely to happen this season, especially since Aubin, Lessard, and Archambault have had success scoring in the ECHL.
4. How Will Fans in Worcester Adjust to ECHL Hockey?
It’s been over two years since professional hockey has been played in Worcester, MA, but you wouldn’t know it thanks to the hard work done by owner Cliff Rucker and Railers HC staff. Since the announcement of Worcester’s addition to the ECHL on February 8, 2016; the team has been hard at work engaging fans by having “Ugly Sweater” parties, highlighting founding season-ticket holders, upgrading DCU center, building a practice rink, with a singular goal of making the entire experience more than “just watching a hockey game.”
But will it work?
Unlike their counterparts in Glens Falls and Manchester (former AHL turned ECHL cities), which had just a six-month offseason to retrofit existing franchises from the AHL to ECHL, the Railers have time to get their name out and build excitement in the community.
On the ice, head coach Jamie Russell has worked to build a fast, young squad that will help blur the differences between the AHL & ECHL, aided by the new affiliation with the New York Islanders. Russell also hit several home runs in free agency, with the signings of Barry Almeida, Chris Langkow, TJ Syner, Patrick McNally and Joe Fallon.
I am excited to see the Railers and pulling for them to be successful. There is no doubt in my mind this will be a success story for the entire ECHL. Watching what the Railers are doing reminds me of how the Kansas City Mavericks have built their franchise, filled with fan interaction and initiatives that keeps the team in the public spotlight.
5. Will Attendance Continue to Improve Across ECHL?
The ECHL had their third straight season with over four million people attending ECHL games in 2016-17 (4.133 million) but is down just over ten percent from a high of 4.635 million in 2014-15 (the year seven Central Hockey League teams moved to the ECHL.)
Attendance should get a bump this season with the additions of Worcester and Jacksonville to the league, markets that have not had professional hockey in quite some time. Just how much of a bump is dependant on how the teams do on the ice, as well as sales and marketing success.
Still, the league faces considerable headwinds; combatting teams inflating ticket prices, how to have improved attendance while football is going on, how to get fans in old AHL cities (Manchester, Norfolk and Glens Falls) to attend ECHL games, and how to bring new fans into the game.
One thing the league has going in its favor is that there should be quite a bit of parity in the league this season, which is always a good thing.
We will do our best to answer all of these questions throughout this coming ECHL season!