Story by: Dan Foley, Special to The Sin Bin

This offseason I looked over the rosters of the ECHL teams. I was trying to find what was different between a first place team and last place team from a broad standpoint. At first, I was trying to figure out whether games of experience mattered at all; I was surprised to find that it didn’t. I’m talking about the number of games played by all the players collectively on the team. I’m sure for an individual player, you could find improvement from year to year. But when you put 20 to 23 players together for one full season, I could not see a trend. A team with more experience was not much more likely to end up with more standings points than a less-experienced team, or vice-versa.

Obviously, the thing that probably matters more than experience is talent. That’s really hard to measure though. One way we kind of gauge it is by looking at which players have been called up or played at the AHL or NHL level. It’s pretty safe to assume that the scouts and teams know which players are best and those are the ones that have gotten a shot to play at that higher level. So I looked at how many players on each ECHL team had played in the AHL or NHL before – even if it was just for one game. They could have been players assigned to an ECHL team by a higher level, or just a player signed by an ECHL team with prior AHL or NHL experience. Then, I looked at how many games that kind of player played for each ECHL team last year.

To reduce typing, I’m going to refer to players with experience at a higher level as “AHL guys” for the rest of this article. Because the vast majority of the players I’m talking about got their higher level experience in the AHL, not the NHL. It didn’t matter if the player was a rookie who had just gotten a few AHL games at the end of the previous season or a veteran with a couple hundred AHL games under their belt. They both counted as one “AHL guy” in the lineup.

Here is an example. Last year, the Komets had 25 different players with AHL or higher experience appear in a game for them. Those players combined to play 918 games for the Komets. So on average, just under 13 AHL guys were in the Komets’ lineup each game (or 918/72 games).

I found this number for all the ECHL teams last year. The Komets’ 918 was the highest. The Aces were the lowest, with only 380 games played by AHL guys. That means the Aces only averaged about 5 AHL guys per game (380/72 games).

After I had this number for all ECHL teams, I correlated that number with standings points. Look at the graph on the right side. I got an r-squared of 0.35. This means that 35% of the variation in standings points could be explained by how many AHL guys were in each team’s lineup. That is a big chunk! I was surprised it was that big.

Photo: Dan Foley/The Sin Bin
Photo: Dan Foley/The Sin Bin

To give you a broad idea of what I’m talking about, the 10 teams with the most AHL Guys in their lineup averaged 90 standings points last season. The 10 teams with the fewest AHL guys in their lineup averaged 71 standings points.

There were some extreme outliers. You’d expect that because 65% of the variation in standing points is due to lots of other factors. Here are several things that could make up the other 65%:

  • I only divided all the players into 2 buckets – ones with AHL/NHL experience or ones without. If you could somehow divide them up further that would probably make this more accurate.
  • Another “bucket” could be whether a player was drafted by an NHL team previously, or assigned by an AHL or NHL team. There may be players they were drafted or assigned by higher teams that just didn’t get called up yet. If a team has several of these guys, they probably got a boost.
  • Coaching, of course, is probably another big, big factor. Someone smarter than me will have to figure out how to measure that.
  • Scheduling is another one. ECHL teams do not play a balanced schedule. So even if two teams are pretty equal, they could play a very different schedule and get a very different result.

The biggest outliers were Missouri at the high end and Wichita at the low end. Missouri earned a lot more standings points than this model would predict, and Wichita had a lot fewer. Another interesting note is that Orlando ended up with the same number of standings points as Atlanta, despite having a lot more AHL guys.

I’m not arguing that you can predict where a team will end up based on the number of AHL guys in their lineup. This data is suggesting that teams who have more AHL guys, the better they will do, in all likelihood. Again, it doesn’t seem to matter a ton whether they are young prospects assigned by AHL teams or veterans. So whether an ECHL team gets a lot of AHL guys get assigned to them, or whether they just go and sign that kind of players themselves, both strategies would seem to increase their chances.