A long, arduous summer has come and gone, the ice is down and training camps are over. The 29th ECHL regular-season begins tonight.

Here are five storylines to watch as the 27 teams prepare for the opening face-off.

1. The impact of new division and conference alignment on playoff battles. 

The league’s Board of Governors voted during their meetings in June to shake-up the division and conference alignments headed into this season. Here is a couple of examples of how the division and conference alignment will affect teams.

A by-product of the new alignment was a Murderer’s row Mountain division; with Rapid City, Alaska, Idaho, Allen, Missouri, Utah, and Colorado. This division featured five western conference playoff teams last year, and may very well again.

Over half of the Cincinnati Cyclones games will be against teams from the Western Conference. The Cyclones were moved to the South Division and play five games against their divisional opponents.

FIVE.

Three of those games come on the final weekend of the season, which could spell the difference between who gets into the playoffs and who is left out.

Wichita will play not play “division foe” Kalamazoo during the regular-season, and will only play three teams in their new division a combined five times. But, for the sake of keeping regional rivalries, they will play Missouri and Allen a combined 28 times.

2. How will Fort Wayne fare without an NHL affiliation?

The Fort Wayne Komets, citing a greater need to be in control of their roster, have moved away from an affiliation with the Colorado Avalanche and will go it alone this season. Head Coach Gary Graham brought back some & added some studs to the roster; Shawn SzydlowskiJamie SchaafsmaBrady Vail, and Pat Nagle. This opens them up to being picked apart by every AHL team should they get off to a hot start. If somehow, the Komets manage to keep the roster unpicked through the season, they should be a great team and this maybe Graham’s best coaching job yet. I don’t expect this team to be like last year’s Colorado Eagles team (unaffiliated at the time,) that backdoored into a division title and were summarily swept in the first round.

3. How will fighting impact the ECHL game this season? Will the ECHL consider a cap on the number of fights?

To say fighting has been on a “downturn” is a bit misleading. Here are the total number of fights in the ECHL for the last three regular seasons (thanks to Joe Babik of the ECHL office & Sin Bin Statistician Joe Alsman for the numbers):

SEASON NUMBER OF FIGHTS % INCREASE/DECREASE
2013-14 1,111  —-
2014-15 1,560 28.8% (Likely due to CHL Absorption)
2015-16 1,137 27.1%

It is likely the number of fights may suffer a small downward step this season, but fans will still get to see plenty of guys “putting on the foil.”

A more intriguing storyline will be whether the ECHL follows the AHL’s lead and institutes a rule to takes “staged fighting” out of their game, something that has plagued the sport for several years. There, the AHL rule says that if two players fight at or immediately following a faceoff, both will be given a game misconduct. In my opinion, this is a rule that needed to be implemented yesterday, because staged fights offer very little to the game.

Earlier this summer, the American Hockey League followed a rule developed in the Ontario Hockey League that puts a cap on the number of fights a player can have in a season without repercussion. The AHL rule states that a player can have up to nine fights before given a 1-game suspension. Beginning with their 10th fight, each altercation is given a one-game ban up to the 13th altercation. Thereafter, each fight will result in a two-game suspension.

It is not likely that such a cap on the number of fights will happen in the ECHL for at least this season and next. The league understands that they are still in the entertainment business and fighting puts butts in seats. That said, it is something they may consider after seeing what impact it has on the volume of fights in the AHL.

4. Can Chad Costello continue his two-year-long hot streak?

Allen Americans forward Chad Costello has racked up 228 points (65G, 163A) in the last 144 regular season games and 64 points (16G, 48A)in 49 Kelly Cup playoff games in the same span. The scary thing is that he will have almost the same team around him this season. Costello has written one hell of a story. After battling concussions for most of his playing career, the native of Johnston, IA has put together back-to-back MVP campaigns (PHPA in 2015, ECHL in 2016) and is a huge part of the Americans offense. With another 100-point campaign, Costello would tie Darren Colbourne and Trevor Jobe for second most 100-point seasons in league history. It is entirely possible, if not likely, we will be adding Costello’s name to that list this season.

5. Will Shannon Szabados get her shot in the ECHL? 

By now you know that Shannon Szabados has signed with the Peoria Rivermen of the Southern Professional Hockey League, after not being re-signed by the Columbus Cottonmouths during the offseason. Earlier this summer, she was toying with the idea of trying out for a pair of ECHL clubs, but the door has not completely closed on Szabados making the jump to the double-A level this season.

Peoria is one of the stingiest teams in the SPHL and Szabados should do very well there. It is entirely conceivable that if a goaltender gets hurt close by, then she gets the call.

If she were to make the 18-player ECHL roster, she would be the fourth female to play at the double-A level, joining Erin Whitten, who played 17 games in minor pro hockey, including four at the ECHL level with the Toledo Storm in the 1993-94 season. Angela Ruggiero is the another female player to play hockey at the double-A level, having played one game on defense with the Tulsa Oilers during the 2004-05 season. Manon Rheaume played for seven different teams between 1992 and 1997, appearing in 24 games.

Of course, we will be following these stories and so much more that develops during the course of the season! Thanks for trusting us as your source for ECHL news!

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