Pour one out for the Carolina Hockey Alliance.
This never-ending year may have skewed your sense of time, but it was only 17 months ago that the Carolina Hurricanes signed an affiliation agreement with the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits, an arrangement that was trumpeted with a glowing Greenville press release regaling the possibilities for prospect development and marketing synergy all along the I-85 corridor from Greenville to Raleigh. Now, it seemed, the Alliance - which was capitalized despite never, as far as anyone can tell, being any sort of an official arrangement - would lead to great things for hockey in the Carolinas. Two and a half hours from the AHL affiliate in Charlotte, five to Raleigh, it seemed to be a match made in heaven.
It lasted one season.
But while the relationship between Carolina and the Charlotte Checkers disintegrated because of budgetary concerns on both sides, prompting the Hurricanes to set up a shotgun marriage with the Chicago Wolves, there are a multitude of reasons that the Swamp Rabbits-Hurricanes affiliation never got out of first gear. And, yes, before you go there, it’s more complicated than #DundonSoCheap.
To begin with, the romanticized notion of seeing Tomorrow’s Stars Today at an ECHL club, eventually to make it to the big show, simply doesn’t hold water in today’s NHL. The introduction of the 50-contract limit in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, a component of the salary cap that prevented teams from stashing a ton of minimum-salary players throughout their system, really put the squeeze on the second-tier minor league. Even before 2005, the number of ECHL players who eventually broke through to become NHL regulars was rather small. Only a handful of players from the old Raleigh Icecaps ever made it to the NHL, and even fewer - only four or five over the span of the Icecaps’ seven-season run in Raleigh - became fixtures in the NHL.
And that was at a time when players didn’t hit their peak until their late 20s. Today, the most effective players in the NHL are in their early 20s. Thirty years ago, players at that age would have still been developing, in part by participating in leagues like the ECHL. Today, they arrive out of junior hockey ready to go, maybe having a cup of coffee in the AHL but otherwise becoming NHL roster fixtures from day one. That leaves the ECHL in a spot where they get the fringe prospects and minor-league lifers.
There’s one exception to that rule: goalies, which we’ll get to in a bit. But by and large, teams simply don’t need the ECHL to develop their prospects anymore, if they ever really did on a broad scale.
The most recent skater on the Hurricanes roster who spent time in the ECHL was Clark Bishop, who played 21 games for the 2016-17 Florida Everblades. Before that, you have to go back to 2012-13, when Brody Sutter and Justin Shugg skated for the Everblades. Those three players, plus Jared Staal - whose appearance with the Hurricanes was much more a case of doing him a solid than expecting him to be a longtime contributor - are the only four skaters in the past ten years who have worked their way up from the ECHL to the Hurricanes’ roster.
Steven Lorentz, who played 84 games for Florida from 2017-19, might be the next name on that list. But he spent last season in the AHL, and only two skaters under contract to the Hurricanes, Spencer Smallman and Jacob Pritchard, suited up at all for Greenville last year.
When the batting average is that low, there’s no real reason to have an affiliation, is there? There are many more players who are signed to AHL contracts and are sent down than there are players on NHL deals who are demoted to the ECHL.
Obviously, the Hurricanes were going to have a natural affiliation with the Everblades for as long as Peter Karmanos owned both teams. But that’s gone now, and the Hurricanes simply don’t need an ECHL affiliate anymore. Nearly all of their players under contract who have any shot at the NHL roster at any point will find themselves no lower than the AHL. It’s the AHL roster filler that needs an ECHL squad nearby, and while the optics are good to have all three aligned, it simply isn’t necessary from the perspective of an NHL franchise.
And if there’s anything we know about Tom Dundon, it’s that optics mean very, very little.
The number of people who are Swamp Rabbits regulars and made their way to Raleigh to watch the Hurricanes - yes, they do exist, and some of them comment on this very site - is low enough that it’s not worth the effort to market the connection, which the Hurricanes did very little of in their one season affiliated with Greenville. You’re much more likely to get a connection between an AHL and an NHL team, or between an ECHL and an AHL team. From that perspective, it makes perfect sense that Charlotte and Greenville remain affiliated, now under the umbrella of the Florida Panthers organization. There isn’t a ton of AHL-ECHL transit, but there’s enough to make proximity worthwhile.
Especially when it comes to goalies, and this is the one spot where having the three teams aligned could make a difference. Since goalies take longer to develop, teams frequently need to use ECHL spots to help develop their players. The Hurricanes have done this for years, both in Florida and Greenville. There’s a reasonable question about what the Hurricanes will do with their goalie pipeline now that they don’t have an ECHL affiliation.
But the answer is also simple: teams can loan their players out to any team in an affiliated league. All that’s required is for Don Waddell to pick up the phone and call an ECHL squad that would be willing to take a goalie prospect, and that’s that. You don’t need a formal affiliation; you only need an open spot somewhere, and that can be handled on an as-needed basis. Even this season, when six ECHL teams are suspending play on account of the pandemic and the others are going to try to cobble together something resembling a schedule, if the Hurricanes need a spot, they’ll be able to find one.
The ECHL has always positioned itself as hockey’s AA minor league, but unlike in baseball where AA ball really does see future stars come through (who remembers watching future two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera playing for the Carolina Mudcats?), AA hockey is much more in line with a high-end independent league with a few ties to upper-level teams. There’s something laudable about trying to align all levels of hockey within a geographical area to the same NHL organization, but the practical reasons for doing so are so few and far between that an ECHL affiliation simply doesn’t move the needle at the NHL level.
Farewell, Carolina Hockey Alliance. We barely knew ye.