WICHITA, Kan. – With the 2019-20 ECHL season done thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are left to wonder who would have been in the driver’s seat, and in contention for, the major season-ending awards in the ECHL.
Several races were extremely competitive, and it is a shame not to see those races play themselves out. So let’s dig into the races, give you those who were in serious contention, plus our picks for the awards, the All-ECHL first, second, and all-rookie teams.
ECHL Scoring Title
Winner: Josh Kestner (Toledo Walleye) — 73 pts (33G, 40A)
In the Rear View: David Vallorani (Brampton Beast) — 71 pts (31G, 40A) and Tyler Sheehy (Allen Americans) — 70 pts (26G, 44A)
Hard-Charging: Brady Shaw (Fort Wayne Komets) — 62 pts (27G, 35A)
Rookie of the Year
This felt like a runaway win for Americans’ forward Tyler Sheehy, who finished third in the league scoring race, and lead all rookie forwards and defensemen in points at the time play stopped.
But, three netminders made tons of noise in this category.
Despite playing in the AHL for seven weeks, Ukka-Pekko Luukkonen remained at the top of the league among rookie netminders, with a 2.24 goals against average, a 12-7-3-0 record, and three shutouts.
South Carolina Stingrays netminder Logan Thompson had a great season in his own right, with a 23-8-1-0 mark, 2.25 goals against average, a .929 save percentage and three shutouts.
But, among the dark horses, the best of the rookie netminding bunch is Toledo Walleye netminder Billy Christopoulos, who was acquired in a trade with South Carolina in mid-November when Pat Nagle was recalled to AHL Grand Rapids. The 26-year-old netminder led rookie netminders with a 24-3-3 mark and a .932 save percentage. Christopoulos’ 2.29 goals against average is third among rookie netminders and he has a shutout.
PICK: Tyler Sheehy – Allen Americans
Most Outstanding Goaltender
The goaltending prowess in the ECHL was quite impressive this year, with 10 netminders registering a goals against average less than 2.50. That is the most since 13 netminders accomplished the feat in 2015-16.
Entering the season, the odds-on favorites for the award were Tomas Sholl (Idaho) and Parker Milner (South Carolina) and over the course of the season, the two gave very little reason for why that thinking should change.
Sholl led the ECHL with 28 wins, a 2.14 goals against average, a .924 save percentage, was second in shutouts (5) and tied for fifth in saves (1,174) in 41 starts. Additionally, Sholl won ECHL Goaltender of the Week honors four different times this season and was named the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Month (October and February).
Milner, meanwhile, led the league with seven shutouts, was second in goals against average (2.28), sixth in save percentage (.923), seventh in wins (20), and 24th in total saves made with 839. Milner won the league’s Goaltender of the Week honors twice during the abbreviated season. But in breaking down the stats, what is clear is that Stingrays head coach Steve Bergin was playing the long-game with Milner and needed him rested for what was shaping up to be a long playoff run for the Stingrays.
The third goaltender to have in this conversation is one we mentioned in the Rookie of the Year category, and that’s Billy Christopoulos. The rookie netminder won the league’s weekly honor once and was named the ECHL’s Rookie of the Month for February.
PICK: Tomas Sholl – Idaho Steelheads
Most Outstanding Defenseman
For the third straight season, the top-five defensemen in points all resided in the Western Conference. This year, the top-five defensemen in points were all in one division…the Mountain.
If you’ve read these type of articles in the past, you’ll know that I’m a big all-around numbers guy; plus-minus (which is a crap statistic, but it’s the best we have at this level), total points, special teams points, and how do they impact the game when they are on the ice.
When breaking it down, there were three clear front runners for the award; Alex Breton (Allen), Ben Masella (Florida) and Miles Liberati (Tulsa).
Taylor Richart (Utah) and Patrik Parkkonen (Wichita) were eliminated, in my mind, for various reasons. For a team loaded on offense, it was surprising that Richart’s plus-minus was not the best on his team at the position (Connor Yau) and his supplemental stats (special teams points) were the lowest of the five candidates. Parkkonen’s -12 was the main reason for him being eliminated…I simply can’t give a league award to a player who was on the ice for more even-strength goals against than for.
Back to the front runners.
Breton led all defenseman in points with 55, assists with 44, finished one point behind Reading’s Eric Knodel with 20 points on special teams and tied for 11th with a +20. What separates Breton from the other front runners is when his goals came. Three of his 11 goals came on the power-play, two won games, one was shorthanded, and the next four were in different categories (first goal, insurance goal, unassisted goal, and an OT goal.) Just one was scored at even-strength.
If you like defense and playmaking ability, Ben Masella is your guy. The ECHL Plus Performer of the Month in February after posting a league-best +24 during the month, earned league-wide honors after posting a league-best +40. He was even or better in 39 of his 50 games this season and posted only one minus rating over the final 21 games of the season. Masella’s 28 assists on the season also placed him eighth among league defensemen.
Finally, Miles Liberati had a career-best season patrolling the blueline in Green Country. His 46 points were nine shy of Breton, and the third most assists for defensemen with 35. He finished in a five-way tie for the sixth-most goals among defensemen with 11; four of those coming on the power play, with two game-winning goals and two goals that salted games away. The one hindrance to Liberati’s game was the plus-minus, which was just at +5.
PICK: Alex Breton – Allen Americans
Coach of the Year
This was a tough category to handicap. The Coach of the Year award is based heavily on where your team finishes in the standings at the end of the season, which to me, seems very flawed because it doesn’t take into account the degree roster-shuffling, constant recruiting and other day-to-day stuff coaches at this level have to go through. So, with that said, honorable mentions go to Daniel Tetrault of Rapid City and Riley Armstrong of Maine.
In my mind, this year’s Coach of the Year race came down to three guys; Steve Bergin(South Carolina), Steve Martinson (Allen), and John Snowden (Newfoundland).
Stingrays rookie head coach Steve Bergin had an amazing first year behind the bench, leading the Stingrays to a 44-14-3-1 record (92 points) and at the very worst, a second-round playoff run. Bergin did a good job of weathering the storm of injuries and the constant call-ups to AHL Hershey and other outposts. Further, after a relative down year in 2017-18, the Stingrays stingy defense returned this season, with the team allowing 147 goals (2.37 goals per game) and goaltending posting 10 shutouts. Offensively, the Stingrays had two players with over 50 points and six with more than 30.
One year after finishing with a franchise-worse 56 points, the Allen Americans got off the mat and reasserted themselves as a contender in the Western Conference. Americans head coach Steve Martinson rebuilt the Americans from a team that piled up the penalty minutes with older guys, to a team that was one of the fewest penalized in the league, relied on their affiliation and recruited a team with speed and great playmaking ability. The result was a 32-point turnaround at the time of the stoppage. Had the season continued to its conclusion, the Americans would have been on pace for 102 points and a 46-point turnaround, one of the biggest turnarounds in ECHL history.
After a championship in their inaugural season, the Newfoundland Growlers entered their first full season with head coach John Snowden at the helm with a clear bullseye on their back. Not only did they answer the bell, but the Growlers were on pace for 102 points, eight better than their first year. Loaded with talent from the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Growlers had five players with more than 50 points and 11 with over 30. In net, Parker Gahagen and the oft-traveled Angus Redmond seemed to give the Growlers a great 1-2 punch, until reinforcements arrived from AHL Toronto.
PICK: Steve Martinson – Allen Americans
Most Valuable Player
More times than not, writers and other award voters ostensibly hand the Most Valuable Player to the person who piles up the most points at the end of the season. It’s not just an ECHL problem, it’s a problem all over hockey. The prism I view the league MVP award through is “what would happen if I took player ‘x’ off this team?”
For this category, I chose two forwards and a goaltender as those who are in contention for the league award; Josh Kestner (Toledo), Tomas Sholl (Idaho), and David Vallorani(Brampton).
Kestner finished the season as the league’s scoring champion with 73 points, including 42 points (20G, 22A) in the season’s 29 games. This season, the 27-year-old forward finished with nine special teams goals, three game-winning goals, and 12 goals in other situations. On a team with other high-powered offensive players, such as T.J. Hensick, Kestner’s season was most impressive.
Sholl’s work speaks for itself. As I mentioned in the Goaltender of the Year section, Sholl finished the season with a 28-8-3-0 record, five shutouts, a 2.14 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.
Vallorani finished second in the league scoring race, just two points behind Kestner with 71 points (31G, 40A). The 31-year-old veteran forward led the league with eight game-winning goals, had eight special teams goals, tied for the league lead with seven first goals (opened the scoring,) and had six goals in other situations.
Both Kestner and Vallorani play on deep offensive clubs, so in theory, if they aren’t playing at an elite level, the team will still be fine. The same cannot be said about Sholl. In the games where he didn’t start, the Steelheads went 8-10-0-2 with a 2.42 goals against average and a .916 save percentage…still good, but a step back from the numbers Sholl put up.
PICK: Tomas Sholl – Idaho Steelheads
All-Rookie & All-ECHL Teams
Here is my ballot for the All-Rookie and All-ECHL teams:
F – Tyler Sheehy (Allen)
F – Justin Brazeau (Newfoundland)
F – Samuel Asselin (Atlanta)
D – Jack Sadek (Allen)
D – Justin Baudry (Cincinnati)
G – Ukka-Pekka Lukkonen (Cincinnati)
All-ECHL First Team:
F – Josh Kestner (Toledo)
F – David Vallorani (Brampton)
F – Brady Ferguson (Newfoundland)
D – Alex Breton (Allen)
D – Ben Masella (Florida)
G – Tomas Sholl (Idaho)
All-ECHL Second Team:
F – Jesse Schultz (Cincinnati)
F – Shane Berschbach (Toledo)
F – Brady Shaw (Fort Wayne)
D – Miles Liberati (Tulsa)
D – Eric Knodel (Reading)
G – Parker Milner (South Carolina)
Let the debate begin!