ECHL Proving to be Valuable for Habs Prospects

A 39-game stint in the ECHL proved pivotal for Morgan Ellis, as he has since emerged as a consistent defenceman for the St. John's IceCaps. | Photo: Wheeling Nailers

A 39-game stint in the ECHL proved pivotal for Morgan Ellis, as he has since emerged as a consistent defenceman for the St. John’s IceCaps. | Photo: Wheeling Nailers

The ECHL might be the best league that no one seems to care about. It’s a league that is often considered the place where prospects who have amounted to nothing will go.

In reality, the ECHL is a competitive, fast-paced league that could hold future NHLers, and no one knows this better than the Montreal Canadiens organization. The Canadiens have a fruitful history with the ECHL, seeing players such as Francis Bouillon, Tomas Vokoun, Michael Ryder, Jaroslav Halak, David Desharnais, and most recently, Mike Condon rise to the NHL.

The Condon story has been well publicized. After emerging as the starting goalie for Princeton University in his senior year, Condon reached out to the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs, where he performed excellently. With the Monarchs desiring a more veteran approach for the playoffs, Condon found a spot on the injury-riddled Houston Aeros of the AHL, where once against he dominated in his short time.

Montreal signed Condon to an entry-level contract, and played him in the ECHL in 2013-2014. Condon excelled with the Wheeling Nailers, and was arguably the league’s best goaltender. Just two short years later, Condon has become an NHL backup—and an excellent one at that.

While it’s unlikely that any of the current Canadiens prospects while rise from the ECHL to the NHL, all of the players mentioned earlier seemed like long-shots, too. Montreal has been using the ECHL heavily recently, with the Hamilton Bulldogs/St. John’s IceCaps having plenty of bodies.

ECHL Time Pivotal for Morgan Ellis

Two years ago, Morgan Ellis was a victim of the numbers game. After two full seasons in the AHL, Ellis was sent down to the ECHL. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, it looked like his time in the Canadiens organization was done.

Instead of letting his career fall apart, Ellis used the demotion as motivation. Ellis played with confidence and poise that he has lacked since his QMJHL days. He utilized his heavy shot consistently, and played an intelligent two-way game. Ellis racked up 13 goals and 13 assists in 39 games, earning him a call up to the Bulldogs.

The confidence and poise that made Ellis successful in the QMJHL and ECHL carried over to his return to the AHL, racking up five points in his first six games. While the production slowed down, he emerged as the team’s most consistent defender down the stretch, earning him another contract with the Canadiens.

This season, Ellis has undisputedly been the IceCaps best defender. With nine points in 16 games, Ellis is just one point behind his career-high set in 59 games. He’s averaging nearly two shots-per-game, and continues to shoot the puck more often. Just this weekend Ellis racked up four points in two games, including a spectacular end-to-end goal.

Ellis has started to show the talent level that made him one of the QMJHL’s top defenceman, and the turnaround began with a stint in the ECHL that appeared to mark the end of his days in the Canadiens organization.

Tim Bozon Headlines Group of Canadiens ECHL Prospects

This season, the Brampton Beast have seen four players with NHL contracts play for them: Tim Bozon, Dalton Thrower, Mark MacMillan, and Stefan Fournier .

Bozon wrapped up an incredible WHL career, featuring four consecutive 30-goals seasons, a courageous bout with meningitis, and a tremendous comeback. As one of the more well-known Canadiens prospects, it came as a bit of a surprise that Bozon is playing his first few games of the year with the ECHL’s Brampton Beast. However, it makes sense as the IceCaps have a deep roster and Bozon was injured. This gives him the opportunity to get back into game shape.

Through two games this year, Bozon has an assist and a staggering seven shots on goal. As expected, Bozon has made his fair share of miscues, such as firing erratic passes and struggling to receive passes; however, he has been electric with the puck on his stick. With minimal help from his linemates, Bozon created seven or eight chances on Sunday afternoon alone, all in a variety ways. Bozon looked creative off the rush, down low, and off the cycle.

Although pointless in a game that saw the Beast score six times, Bozon was one of the most noticeable players. His skill level and hockey sense were clearly above the rest of the players on the ice. Although it’s tough to see Bozon lasting much longer than another week or two in the ECHL, this could be an invaluable experience for the young sniper.

Meanwhile, Mark MacMillan, a fourth round pick in 2010, has been producing big numbers in his short time in the ECHL. After a pointless first three games and a tough AHL debut, MacMillan was sent down and subsequently racked up a goal and four assists in three games. As a reward, he got called up to the IceCaps for Saturday’s thrilling game, where he performed much better. Considering the amount of bodies in the organization, MacMillan’s time in the ECHL is probably not yet over.

Unfortunately, time with the Brampton Beast hasn’t been as rewarding for Dalton Thrower. Thrower followed up a tumultuous 2012-2013 season with a solid 2013-2014 campaign in the WHL. In that year, Thrower evolved from a high-flying offensive-minded, undisciplined defender into a solid two-play with some flair. Unfortunately, it has yet to transfer to the professional game. Thrower spend all of last year with the Beast, where he failed to impress.

In two games with the IceCaps this year, Thrower was merely okay leading to his designation to the ECHL. In the two games since, Thrower has made multiple poor reads and hasn’t made much of impact otherwise. It’s not over for Thrower, but he has to take significant steps forward.

It’s an encouraging sign that the Canadiens are utilizing their ECHL club. It’s a competitive league, with some tremendous players and an excellent on-ice product. It’s nice to see the organization showing a preference for getting their prospects ice time.

Why You Should Attend An ECHL Game

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to attend my first ever ECHL game. The Brampton Beast hosted the Kalamazoo Wings for their Military Appreciation Night, which turned out to be a fast-paced, high-scoring game. In fact, it was more entertaining than many AHL/OHL games I’ve attended.

The game was also filled with recognizable names, including Tim Bozon, Dalton Thrower, and Josiah Didier (MTL 4th round pick in 2010, team no longer holds his rights) from the Beast and former OHL 64 goalscorer Dane Fox, Canucks second round pick Alex Mallet, and Canucks fifth round pick Anton Cederholm from the Wings.

Despite this, the arena was eerily quite. Official attendance wasn’t announced, but the Beast average just 2586 fans per game, around 1500 less than the league average. Unfortunately, the Beast appear to be sharing the same fate as other non-Leafs/Marlies hockey teams in Greater Toronto Area, like the Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL), Brampton Battalion (OHL), and others before them.

If you live in the area, I highly recommend attending a game. It’s cheap (tickets starting at $16.25), the quality of hockey is great, and there’s a chance you might see a future NHLer before he was a household name.

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