With the Worcester Railers front office gearing up for the 2017-18 season fans in the city are starting to get excited for the return of pro hockey to the DCU Center in October. Since the announcement of the New York Islanders being their NHL affiliate I’ve gotten many tweets and emails asking me what the difference really is between the ECHL and the AHL they’re used to.
So while I’m not an expert on the topic, I’ve bothered RailersHC head coach Jamie Russell enough times with questions that I think I can give a pretty good overview of the differences.
First off, the actual “on the ice” product of the ECHL is really good hockey. The league is a good mix of younger players who need to work on parts of their game before being able to jump to the AHL, “tweener” players that have enough talent to play in the AHL but don’t have a consistent open slot on a team to fill, and minor-league lifers that want to continue playing pro hockey and decide not to go to Europe.
That mix of players results in very competitive hockey throughout the ECHL.
How a team gets its players is also different in the ECHL than the AHL. In the AHL, the NHL affiliate assigns most of the players to the team and then fills in any gaps with players signed to minor league contracts. In the ECHL, the NHL and AHL affiliate assign just a handful of players to the team and it’s the responsibility of the ECHL team to flesh out the rest of the roster.
The game line-up is also different in the ECHL. The AHL matches the NHL’s 18 skater limit, while in the ECHL teams are limited to 16 skaters. As with all pro leagues, ECHL teams dress two goaltenders.
Unlike the AHL there is a salary cap and active roster limit in the ECHL. For most of the 17-18 season it’s $12,800 per week for a 20 man active roster. For the first 30 days of the season it’s $13,260 per week for a 21 player active roster.
This is where a good NHL/AHL affiliation comes in handy for an ECHL team. Players assigned to the Railers by either the Islanders or Bridgeport Sound Tigers only cost $525 per week against the salary cap regardless of how much money they actually make. The Railers are required to pay the $525 while the rest comes from the assigning club.
The minimum salary floor a team has to meet is $9,700 per week. The rookie minimum salary is $460 per week, and it’s $500 for all other players. Unlike the NHL and AHL, ECHL contracts are not guaranteed. That means a player signed by the Railers can be cut at any time and they won’t owe the player any more salary.
Another difference from the AHL is that ECHL teams are required to pay for housing their players.
With the active roster limited to 20 players the ECHL provides teams with ways to have a couple of additional players with their “reserve list”. Teams are allowed to designate two players on the list, which usually go to players suffering minor injuries that will keep them out of games for a short while. Teams may move players from the active roster to reserve list at any time.
The ECHL also has a 21-day injured reserve for players out for a significant amount of time. Up to two players can be on this list, but unlike the reserve list players must be out 21 days before they can be activated from the injured reserve list. Players also must have a bona-fide injury to be added to this list.
Fans will recognize the ECHL veterans rule. It’s pretty much the same as the AHL’s, only ECHL games also count toward the 260 game threshold and teams are limited to four vets on their roster. Like the AHL, goaltenders are exempt from the rule.
One other difference between the leagues is in the AHL only players with NHL contracts can go up to the next level. In the ECHL any AHL or NHL team can sign an ECHL player who isn’t property of another NHL or AHL organization to a contract and recall them to the next level. Meaning that if the Providence Bruins (or any other AHL team) need a forward they can sign a Railers player to a try-out contract and that player would go play for Providence.
Last, but certainly not least, is what I think the biggest difference is for fans in Worcester. The Railers have a local owner in Cliff Rucker as opposed to some group west of here calling the shots on how things should be done that the IceCats and WorSharks dealt with. So if there’s a problem he’ll see and hear about it first hand.
Unlike previous ownership in Worcester, Rucker won’t just pay lip service to issues. He want to win as much as fans do, and if you ask him he’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you that. The key difference between Rucker and the previous Worcester pro hockey owners is that Rucker means it.
So that’s an overview of the difference between the AHL teams that have been in Worcester and what fans can expect in the ECHL with the Railers. It’s not all the differences, just the major ones that come into play most often.
Hopefully the biggest difference will be a championship coming to Worcester.