PRINCETON, N.J. – The nature of minor league hockey is change. Teams come and go all the time, and if you look back at the history of the ECHL, this has held true every season since the league’s inception. So it should be no surprise to anyone that things will be shaking up again in the 2018-19 season.
The ECHL league office made two major team announcements Tuesday morning: the bid to put an ECHL team in St. John’s, Newfoundland has been approved for the 2018-19 season, and the Quad City Mallards would be ceasing operations after the 2017-18 season, after four seasons in the league.
As such, they have also released the new divisional alignment for the 2018-19, and it brings with it significant shifts in the dynamics of the league. New rivalries will be created, budding ones will officially be squashed, and some old ones will be rekindled. Whatever happens going forward, one thing is for certain: it’s going to be interesting.
So let’s break down the league, division-by-division, to see what changes, what stays the same, and what it means for the upcoming ECHL season.
2018-19 Teams: Atlanta Gladiators, Florida Everblades, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Jacksonville Icemen, Norfolk Admirals, Orlando Solar Bears, South Carolina Stingrays
Starting with the South Division, because it’s the only one that escapes the shakeups unscathed. After seeing the departure of the Cincinnati Cyclones and the addition of the Jacksonville IceMen coming into the ’17-18 season, the division will maintain status quo for the next campaign. This can only be a good thing for any division, especially the one with a fresh team in Jacksonville and two of the stronger teams in the league in Florida and South Carolina. Here’s to hoping that things stay jelled in the South for a while, but with Norfolk’s struggles to stay solvent this season (and the long distance between Norfolk and the Everblades in Estero, FL) there are no guarantees. For now, they should enjoy the stability that none of the other divisions will have.
Changes: Wheeling out, Maine and St. John’s in
2018-19 Teams: Adirondack Thunder, Brampton Beast, Maine Mariners, Manchester Monarchs, Reading Royals, St. John’s TBA, Worcester Railers
The other side of the coin, the North will see the most changes going into next season. The North has been in pretty much a constant state of flux for three years, starting with the addition of the Monarchs in 2015, then the dissolution of the Elmira Jackals and addition of the Wheeling Nailers and Worcester Railers. This offseason will see even more change, with Wheeling crossing conferences to join the Central and the addition of teams in Portland, Maine, and St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The departure of Wheeling is unfortunate; the North has been the tightest division all season, and the Nailers have been in the thick of it from day one. But with their location in far Western West Virginia, the travel times and costs just didn’t make sense for the Nailers to remain in the North.
The addition of the Mariners makes sense: the ECHL already welcomed Worcester into the fold after they lost their AHL team to the diaspora which occurred when the AHL created their West division. Portland (and St. John’s) also had their teams relocate with no immediate replacement. Portland is a natural rival for Manchester and Worcester back to the AHL days, and they’re going to do fine there. St. John’s, on the other hand, feels like a sentimental decision more than a savvy one.
The one team that having a second team in Canada would stand to really help, Brampton, are the furthest away from St. John’s of all the North teams. Brampton’s financial struggles were well documented earlier this year, and trips out to the tip of Newfoundland likely won’t help at all. Long story short: Expansion teams are wildcards, so there’s no telling if the North will be as hotly contested next year, and: expect more changes in the North sooner than later.
Changes: Quad City and Kansas City out, Wheeling in.
2018-19 Teams: Cincinnati Cyclones, Fort Wayne Komets, Indy Fuel, Kalamazoo Wings, Toledo Walleye, Wheeling Nailers
The biggest impact here will be the departure of Quad City, a team with a solid tenure in the league.
Kansas City returns to the Mountain Division after only one season in the Central. But despite being the furthest team away from the centralized Ohio/Illinois area of the Central, they have been a factor in the division and are currently neck-and-neck with Kalamazoo for a playoff spot. It’s almost too bad that Kansas City is leaving, as it would be interesting to see how the rivalry between those two teams would have developed. But at least it would make inter-division play more interesting for the fans in KC.
The last development is that the Wheeling Nailers will be leaving the North division (and the Eastern Conference) to join the Central this season. The move makes sense: Wheeling is geographically closer to the core of the Central than to the ever-expanding New England/Canada core of the North. But the Nailers have been a fixture of the Eastern Conference since the conferences changed to East/West in 2008. It will be quite an adjustment for the team, as well as the fanbase, establishing themselves fresh with a new set of opponents. But if the quality of play remains where it is in Wheeling, they’ll make the Central a tougher division in the upcoming season.
Changes: Colorado out, Kansas City in
2018-19 Teams: Allen Americans, Idaho Steelheads, Kansas City Mavericks, Rapid City Rush, Tulsa Oilers, Utah Grizzlies, Wichita Thunder
Earlier this year, the worst kept secret in the ECHL officially came out: the defending champion Colorado Eagles would be moving to the AHL for the 2018-19 season. This move promised to have an immediate impact on the Mountain Division: the Eagles have been a strong team the past two seasons, and this season have already punched their ticket to the Kelly Cup playoffs, holding a nine-point division lead over the Idaho Steelheads. The departure of the Eagles promises to weaken the Mountain Division, but also leaves the door open for a new, well, king of the Mountain.
The Eagles leaving also further isolates Utah and Idaho from the core of the Mountain, which seems to be centered around Kansas for now. It will be interesting to see how adding a team to the division that will take those teams even further East affects their ability to remain profitable. That team, of course, is the Kansas City Mavericks, who are returning to the Mountain after a year back with the Central division. The Mavericks have been slightly nomadic the past few years, swapping from the Central, to the Mountain, then back to the Central over the last three seasons. Now they return to the Mountain, where they’ll likely look to stay and rekindle their rivalry with the Allen Americans.
It will be interesting to see whether one team rises to the top, or if the Mountain Division’s race looks more like this year’s North Division come next campaign.
What do you think of the changes? Let us know by dropping a comment below!