No, the Eagles are not playing with an ECHL lineup

  

I have recently seen a lot of people mocking the Colorado Eagles for running an ECHL lineup. I should probably just ignore them, but these are the very people who many Colorado Avalanche fans consider to be “experts” on all things related to the Avalanche and the Eagles. So, I thought it was time to sit down and talk about how wrong the “that’s an ECHL lineup” tweets really are.

ECHL

First of all, as somebody who spent many years as a fan of the ECHL Colorado Eagles before they moved up to the AHL, let me just talk about how ignorant it is to dismiss ECHL players as talentless hacks. These guys put up with hardships that no AHL or NHL player would ever tolerate. On a normal night, they play with only 16 skaters. I can remember several games where the Eagles had only 13 on the bench. One very memorable night late in the 201718 season, they only had four defensemen until Teigan Zahn decided to start a fight at the worst possible time and got himself ejected from the game. The Eagles played the entire third period with only three defensemen and eight forwards. Show me an NHL or AHL team that has ever had to skate that hard.

It is not just the short bench that is exhausting. ECHL players in certain parts of the country spend countless hours on buses, sometimes driving overnight between back-to-back games. In a Montreal Gazette article written by Stu Cowan, former Montreal Canadiens goalie Mike Condon talked about getting on a bus at 11 p.m. in West Virginia and heading to South Carolina for the next game.

“You’d wake up at 8 a.m., 9 a.m. at a Cracker Barrel in South Carolina eating a greasy breakfast,” Condon said in the article. “But that trip wasn’t so bad. The worst was the five-hour, game-day bus rides from Wheeling to Elmira, N.Y., where players would get off the bus after sleeping in their bunks, play the game, then get back on the bus for the five-hour journey back home.”

And then, there is the money. ECHL players generally make less than $20,000 per year. These guys are not playing for fame and fortune. They are playing because they love the game, and, for some, because they still dream of working their way up to the AHL and NHL.

The dedication of ECHL players warrants a lot more respect than many hockey fans give. (Photograph courtesy of Utah Grizzlies)

The skill level may be a bit lower, but these guys are all heart. In many ways, I have more respect for ECHL players than AHL or NHL players. But, since the people making these accusations think calling these players “ECHL caliber” is an insult, let me address whether or not there is any logical reason to call them ECHL players at all.

AHL roster

AHL rosters are divided into two categories: Veteran players and development players.

AHL vets

The AHL defines veteran players as those who have played more than 260 professional games (this includes AHL and NHL games, but not ECHL games). Per AHL rules, teams can only dress six veteran players per game. This year’s veterans are forwards Jayson Megna, Liam O’Brien, Miikka Salomaki and TJ Tynan and defensemen Brett Lernout, Greg Pateryn and Dan Renouf.

Most years, six of those vets would play every game, roughly one veteran per line or defensive pairing. But, nothing is normal this year. Most of the Eagles’ vets are currently sitting on the Avalanche taxi squad. In Saturday night’s game against the Henderson Silver Knights, the Eagles only dressed two vets, Megna and O’Brien. This has not stopped people from wrongly declaring that vets are somehow stealing “all the ice time.” But trust me, those two veteran players were not the only guys on the ice.

Per AHL guidelines, the rest of the roster (all of whom will have played fewer than 260 professional games) are considered development players. And, since the taxi squad has limited the Eagles to only two or three vets per game, that means the lineup most nights is almost all developing players.

Developing players

Top prospects

I am not going to spend much time on the top prospects, because we all know who they are: Shane Bowers, Martin Kaut and Conor Timmins (who returned to the Eagles lineup just last week). And, despite what some other people might have led you to believe, these three players are all playing top-line (or top-pairing) minutes every single game. The only exception has been when they are out due to injury.

Nick Henry and Jean-Luc Foudy could possibly be considered top prospects as well, but I have included them in the next group.

Should there be more “top prospects” in the lineup? Maybe, maybe not, but the Eagles have zero control over that. They do not get to go out and grab more first-round picks just because they want them. They get the players the Avalanche choose to send them and then must fill the rest of their roster with the best and/or most promising young players they can find.

All the rest

This entire post stems from people complaining the Eagles are playing too many ECHL players. This begs the question, what makes somebody an ECHL (or “ECHL-caliber”) player rather than an AHL player? The simplest definition would be a player who has played the majority of their career in the ECHL.

Here is a list of the players the Eagles have been relying on most this season. This does not include guys like Sheldon Dries, Jacob MacDonald or Logan O’Connor, who have spent the majority of the year either on the taxi squad or in the Avalanche lineup.

As you can see, only four players have played more than a few games in the ECHL: Kevin Davis and Josh Dickinson, who have split their three pro years between the Eagles and the Utah Grizzlies, and Peter Tischke and Riley Woods, both of whom are only in their second pro year.

That is it. Four players max who might be called “ECHL caliber” in the Eagles’ lineup.

Of course, dismissing them as “only ECHL players” ignores the possibility of development and improvement completely. It also does a real disservice to guys like Tischke, who played his first full season in the ECHL and is now in only his second pro season, playing for the Eagles. But fine, call them “ECHL players” if you must. That still leaves the vast majority of the roster who have never played more than a handful of ECHL games. There is absolutely no basis for calling guys like Kyle Burroughs, Alexandre Fortin, Dennis Gilbert and Keaton Middleton “ECHL caliber.”

As for the rookies, isn’t developing young players exactly what the AHL is for? Identifying talented players and getting them into the system is what the Eagles and Avalanche development staff are supposed to do. And yet, I see nothing but criticism for this. Just last week, one of the bigger Denver sports podcasts dubbed Ian Scheid “an ECHL player, at best.” Not only does this prove they have not watched a game or done their homework, it is also a huge disservice to the young rookie. Maybe Scheid is not a household name, but he is currently ranked No. 9 among AHL defensemen in points. Of rookie defensemen, he is tied for first in the league, behind only two names, both you probably recognize.

If Scheid is “ECHL caliber, at best,” what does that say about Jamie Drysdale and Ville Heinola? I suspect these Avalanche “experts” would never say such a thing about them.

So, what is the problem? Or better yet, the solution?

I guess my big question here is, what exactly do people expect the Eagles to do? There is no salary cap in the AHL, but they still have serious budget limitations, especially this year. They are constrained by both the number of prospects the Avs give them and the demands of the taxi squad. They have to fill the rest of the spots in their roster with somebody. As a result, they have settled on four rookies who are getting a chance to prove themselves and several young, solid AHL players who are working to make themselves good enough for an NHL call-up. They are filling gaps in their fourth line with guys who are on the cusp between the ECHL and AHL. Almost all of them are 24 years old or younger.

Isn’t that exactly what you want an AHL team to be?

Ian Scheid celebrates his first professional goal. (Photograph courtesy of the Colorado Eagles)

The one legitimate complaint might be that the Eagles do not have enough professional experience on the blue line, but again, what is the solution? At the time of this writing, five of their top defensemen are either in the Avalanche lineup or on the taxi squad. Five missing defensemen is a huge hurdle to clear for any team, and the Eagles have done exactly what they are supposed to do: Called up younger talent from the Grizzlies.

Somebody will say, “Go find an experienced AHL defenseman.” That is the equivalent of “Just sign a solid veteran goalie (who is for some reason unemployed and waiting for a lowball offer).” In other words, it is a pipe dream. Anybody good enough to radically improve the lineup already has a job on another team. Maybe something will happen as the trade deadline approaches, but barring that, what else are they supposed to do?

I truly cannot fathom what people want to happen here. Please, if you are one of the people I am talking about, tell me what exactly you expect the team to do, because you cannot complain the Eagles are not giving young guys a chance and then complain when they do exactly that. You cannot complain they have too many “career AHL players,” but then also complain when they sign rookies. Pick one side or the other, or, better yet, offer a workable solution. But calling this team “ECHL caliber” only proves you have not done your research.

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