The ECHL begins its 32nd season tonight, and like in all sports, it’s fun to have predictions. So, without further adieu, here are some expectations I have for this upcoming season.
1) The Newfoundland Growlers will repeat as Kelly Cup Champions
Just take a look at the roster that Newfoundland has assembled, and you will see what I mean. The return of Zach O’Brien, Matt Bradley, Brady Ferguson, Scott Pooley, James Melindy, and Giorgio Estephan will haunt the North Division again this season, as well as some new blood. Rookies Justin Brazeau and Mac Hollowell are expected to be bright spots in the Growlers lineup, and both could receive significant time in the AHL should injuries plague the Marlies and the Maple Leafs. The minor league to major league organizational structure that Kyle Dubas is attempting to establish for the Maple Leafs will allow Newfoundland to reap significant benefits until other teams catch up.
2) The Allen Americans will not only bounce back, but they will be a contender this year
What happened the last time coach Steve Martinson didn’t make the playoffs? He took the helm of the Allen Americans and led them to win four straight titles. While I don’t believe Allen will go all the way this year, I certainly do see them making the playoffs and even winning a round. With a fresh roster, the Americans are out seeking vengeance, and with the winningest American coach in professional hockey at the helm, it would be a bad bet to go against them. Look for newcomer Gabriel Gagne as well as returning all-star Alex Breton to make noise in 2019-20.
3) The Tulsa Oilers will be the team coming out of the Western Conference
Head coach Rob Murray has assembled a team that will be egregiously tough to play against. Leading scorers Adam Pleskach, Jared Thomas, and Ryan Tesink are returning for the 2019-20 campaign and will be back with the Kelly Cup Finals in mind after falling to Toledo in game 7 last year. Also, I suspect the Moynihan brothers will make an impact as well as rookie Robby Jackson, and Tulsa shall be competing in the Kelly Cup Finals once again.
4) New ownership, new coaching, and no affiliation will result in Norfolk being a bottom feeder team
One of the staples of a championship-caliber franchise is stability, and that’s something that the Admirals lack greatly. This upcoming season will be the first for the Admirals with new owner Patrick Cavanagh, and new coach Rod Taylor, both of whom are former players of the Hampton Roads Admirals. The Admirals will be the only ECHL team not to have an affiliate in 2019-20, not exactly a recipe for immediate success. Better days are to come for Norfolk, but they won’t be happening this season.
5) Cincinnati will experience a fall back down to earth after an outrageously good (lucky) 2018-19 campaign
I highlighted Cincinnati’s remarkable 2018-19 season in an article earlier this summer, and I will hold by that stance. Cincinnati was playing at an unbelievably lucky rate, posting a PDO of 104.05% in a competitive Central Division. While the Cyclones are bringing back ECHL MVP Jesse Schultz, their overall success from last season is unsustainable. As a team, their shooting percentage was the highest in the ECHL at 12.7%, while the next highest was Florida at 11.4%. This coming year Cincinnati will regress to being a more average, yet competitive, ECHL team.
6) Reading’s hot streak to close out last season will follow them into 2019-20
Reading closed out their rough 2018-19 season with a six-game winning streak that left them one point short of making the playoffs, despite using eight goaltenders throughout the season and going through an ownership change. Once contextualized, what Reading accomplished was impressive, and it was a smart move to re-sign head coach Kirk McDonald to a two-year extension this summer. The Royals and Flyers also renewed their affiliation agreement through 2019-20 with a 2020-21 renewal option. It’s my prediction that all of this momentum, and hopeful stable goaltending, will lead Reading towards a successful 2019-20 season.
7) The ten-fight rule will be a tough pill for some ECHL fans to swallow
This offseason, the ECHL established rule 23.7, which states that when players reach ten fighting majors, they will be suspended for one game, and receive an additional suspension for each subsequent fighting major. Many ECHL fans haven’t reacted well to this rule, as fighting has become a staple attraction for the league. The question now is whether attendance will be affected by this rule, but I doubt it.
8) The Central Division will be wide open for anyone
Throw a dart or pick a team out of a hat. That’s how close the Central division will be this upcoming year. Each team has made significant moves, and the division seems to have an unparalleled amount of parity when compared across the rest of the ECHL. For my money, it will be the most entertaining division to watch this year that will only get better as the race for the final playoff spots heat up during March and April.
9) Robby Jackson is my way too early pick for Rookie of the Year
I’m extremely high on Robby Jackson and am convinced he will do wonders for Tulsa should he spend much of the year there. In his senior season at St. Cloud State, he ranked third in even-strength points among all seniors in division 1 NCAA hockey. Despite being a bit undersized for the Mountain Division at 5’ 9”, he has shown that he can compete at an elite level and should make a strong case for being an AHL regular.
10) The ECHL will put a limit on AHL/NHL contracted players after this season
Again, look at the roster that Newfoundland has put out. The number of AHL and NHL contracted players they had at training camp is head and shoulders above any other ECHL team, 15 to be exact. Many teams voiced their frustrations over this during the ECHL Board of Governors last June. Should the Growlers dominate the 2019-20 season, then I believe the ECHL will be pushed into a corner and forced to make a tough decision. However, as a developmental league, having more AHL and NHL contracted players is better for the ECHL from a growth and validity standpoint. I have an enormous hope that hockey in North America can adopt a minor league feeder system, much like the MLB has.