AHL, ECHL Musical Chairs for Some Players
Feb 20, 2013
Every season in the American Hockey League, rosters ebb and flow to levels far greater than their National Hockey League affiliates.
Clubs like the Milwaukee Admirals see their top end talent move up to fill up holes on NHL teams, while at the other half of the spectrum, players from the ECHL step in to fill the vacated slots in the AHL. Therefore, there are always many moving parts in both directions for AHL franchises, and players have to be ready, willing and able to transfer at a moment’s notice—and that’s just during a normal regular season.
The 2012-2013 AHL campaign can hardly be characterized as routine considering it began with a lockout in the NHL. Many players turned to the AHL as a place to hone their games while they waited for a return to the show.
In order to open up the necessary roster spots, prospects who normally would have been employed in the AHL were sent down to the ECHL.
“It was kind of unfair for the guys just coming out of college or junior that would have been here that weren’t getting that opportunity (to play right away in the AHL),” Admirals forward Chris Mueller said. “The lockout had a whole trickledown effect, but guys are now getting an opportunity here that weren’t earlier in the season.”
When the lockout finally ended on the morning of January 6, the whole dynamic of the AHL season changed. NHL teams began recalling their top-end talent, opening up the floodgates on a similar rush of movement upward from the ECHL.
“Not only did AHL teams have guys coming up from Cincinnati, but it also bumped players already in our lineup up on the pecking order,” Milwaukee coach Dean Evason said.
Two current Admirals, Anthony Bitetto and Cam Reid (and until this week’s trade Taylor Aronson), spent time in the ECHL during the fall before becoming significant components of the Admirals’ roster. Meanwhile, another three skaters, Josh Shalla, Jack MacLellan and Charles Olivier-Roussel, suited up in games for Milwaukee this season, but currently reside with the Cyclones.
“Everyone has played here for the most part, some more than others,” Evason said. “We think we’ve allowed everyone the chance to play. But regardless of who we lose to future call ups from Nashville, some guys will be able to elevate their games to higher positions.”
For defensemen Bitetto and Aronson, it was a cold reality starting the year in Cincinnati.
“Getting sent down was frustrating, but there was nothing we could do,” Aronson said. “We just had to realize that it’s part of the job.”
After graduating from Northeastern University last spring, Bitetto dressed in one playoff game with Milwaukee. At the beginning of this season the Oceanside, New York native played the role of league hopper, sandwiching in five AHL games in two different stints with Milwaukee, while dressing in 23 games for the Cyclones, picking up three points and 16 minutes in penalties.
“The two leagues have a whole different style,” said Aronson comparing the ECHL and AHL. “There is just a lot more structure to the play in the AHL and everything is a lot more regimented.”
Since the lockout the Predators 2010 sixth-round pick has seen action in 18 games with the Admirals, posting three assists, 25 penalties minutes and a solid plus-3 rating.
Unlike Bitetto, Aronson failed to earn any AHL ice time prior to the end of the lockout after dressing in 14 AHL games during the 2011-2012 season. Nashville’s third-round pick in 2010 spent the fall in Cincinnati picking up six points in 21 games.
“In the ECHL, there are a lot more individualistic concerns as guys are trying to show that they belong at the next level,” Aronson said. “But you can’t spend time thinking that you should really be playing in the AHL, because those thoughts do nothing but deflect from your game.”
The Placentia, California native now has skated in 14 games with the Admirals, grabbing one assist while posting a solid plus-two rating. But when Nashville reacquired former Milwaukee captain Scott Ford this week, Aronson became the odd man out and on his way back to the Cyclones.
“I just try to play as well as I can in Cincinnati, so that I can differentiate myself from the players I was competing against,” Aronson said. “Anything can happen and no job is ever safe.”
Aronson wasn’t alone in his recent demotion. The Admirals’ seventh leading scorer Patrick Cehlin joined him on the plane and will now begin his first stint in the ECHL.
On the positive side of the ledger, Reid’s been the biggest success story of the Cincinnati promotions. The 192nd pick of the 2009 NHL entry draft began the season with the Cyclones, appearing in 11 games and scoring eight points. Reid then saw one game of action with Peoria before earning a PTO contract with Milwaukee, where he’s stayed in residence ever since.
After a slow start as a newly minted AHL forward, the Delta, British Columbia native recently enjoyed a four-game point streak, which included his first two AHL goals in consecutive home games against Chicago and Houston. Reid now has nine points in 27 games with Milwaukee.
“It was nice to get my first AHL goal, but it kind of meant nothing in a game like that (because we lost),” said Reid after the Admirals’ 5-2 loss to the Wolves.
For Shalla, MacLellan, Olivier-Roussel, Cehlin and Aronson, the goal is play well enough in the ECHL to earn a one-way ticket back to Milwaukee. So far each player has seen significant action with the Admirals and made notable contributions.
“When I come up to Milwaukee, I try to do my best and not get sent back,” Shalla said. “It was tough at first (getting sent to the Cyclones), but really I couldn’t do anything about it.”
On the morning the lockout ended, Shalla got a phone call from Evason asking him to return to the Admirals for a day game against Grand Rapids. In a fairy tale ending, the Oshawa, Ontario native scored the game-winner in a shootout.
“Dean called that morning and it was just a great feeling to get that call,” said Shalla after the game. “(But) I didn’t pack too much, so I might be wearing some t-shirts a couple of times in a row.”
All-in-all, Shalla racked up plenty of frequent flyer miles this season as the 21-year-old earned action in 11 AHL games during four different stints, picking up three assists with the Admirals (including two in a 5-4 loss to Peoria on Nov. 23). At the level below, the Predators 2011 fourth-round pick has been a dominant force, scoring 17 goals in 32 games and earning a berth in the ECHL All-Star game.
“When I went down to Cincinnati, I got my confidence up,” said Shalla, who ranks second on the Cyclones in goal scoring. “I’ve been playing really well and am just letting things happen.”
Last week MacLellan became one of the latest AHL cuts for Milwaukee, as the Admirals added forward Brian McGrattan on a short conditioning assignment from Nashville. Prior to his demotion, the Calgary, Alberta native saw action in 33 games with Milwaukee, scoring his first AHL goal in a 3-2 victory over the Rivermen on January 26.
Around the holidays Olivier-Roussel enjoyed a lengthy stint in Milwaukee, staying with the Admirals from December 14 through January 26. During that time the St. Eustache, Quebec native and Predators 2009 second-round pick saw action in 17 games, picking up his first AHL point on an assist in Milwaukee’s 2-1 win over Rockford on December 21. Olivier-Roussel has two goals and eight points in 22 games this season with Cincinnati.
“Everyone has a different personality and deals with the demotion to the ECHL a little bit differently,” Aronson said. “I went through it last year, so I think I can handle it a little better than maybe some other players.”
Throughout the remainder of the 2012-2013 AHL season, injuries, transactions and spring call ups will continue to effect Milwaukee (49 games played, 23-20-3-3—52 points, 11th place in the Western Conference). How the players from Cincinnati handle their new assignments will play a large role in determining whether the Admirals continue the franchise’s unprecedented run of success, or slip out of the AHL playoffs.
“We’ve been very pleased with how hungry the guys are that we’ve had come up and how hungry our group is here in Milwaukee,” Evason said. “We’re young and we don’t really have guys that are hanging around in the American Hockey League or are on their last legs. Every single player that plays for us has the opportunity to play in the NHL.”