Photo from the Allen Americans’ SmugMug
With the advent of the Central Division of the ECHL, there was a lot of possible changes for the teams coming over from the CHL. Not only did they have to deal with some roster changes, but the pace of the game, as well. Some teams are trying to hold onto the guys they have and hope to adapt as they go, while a team like the Missouri Mavericks have been moving guys in and out to see which setting looks good and can gel easier.
Yet, the team leading the division seems to be adapting very well to the ECHL game and yet did so with plenty of their remnants from the CHL days hung over. The Allen Americans are second in the ECHL in goals for, tied for third in goals-against, and have the best goal differential in the league at +33. However, it wasn’t as if the Americans had sweeping changes– they kept some of their core guys from their Miron Cup team last year (Jamie Schaafsma, Brian McMillin, Greger Hansen, Spencer Asuchak [currently in the AHL], Trevor, and Tyler Ludwig), but also signed up a lot of experienced guys like Jack Combs, Chad Costello, and Gary Steffes being the top contributors thus far. With Kelly Cup winning goalie Riley Gill in net doesn’t hurt for experience either.
“We had an ECHL team in the CHL for the last couple years,” Allen Americans coach and GM Steve Martinson told me in a phone interview. “We’ve loaned out our top goal scorer and top (point) scorer to the AHL and still had a very competitive team when it was all done. It’s all about what you can offer them in terms of development and in terms of living. We’ve sent plenty of guys to the AHL through the CHL years and the key to development is playing. The young guys were able to play here and it allowed agents I’ve known for a while to push players here who may have been reluctant to play in the CHL. It really gave more incentive when we did move to the ECHL.”
Martinson continued, “We’ve been able to produce a lot of guys who are doing great in the ECHL now. Alex Lavoie in Florida is their fourth leading scorer and Jonathan Lessard is doing great in Bakersfield; it shows that when you are able to find a place to play– good things can happen in development. It’s all about playing in order to develop. As a team, we’ve always looked at guys in the ECHL and went after them to offer them something. We’ve got a great area to play in with the fans, way of living, and all the other things guys may or may not be drawn to.”
When pitted against the other Central Division teams, Allen does have a lot of experience from the ECHL last season, having six forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie for a total of 10 players who had ECHL experience last year. Missouri currently have 14 players with ECHL experience last year, with Wichita and Brampton having eight. Quad City and Tulsa have five, and Quad City only having three on their roster as of this writing.
When asked about what he knew about the transition to the ECHL, Martinson said he didn’t.
“I was probably the last guy to know at that point. However, we were lucky because had already grabbed Steffes and Gill and were working on Costello when it all went down, so we didn’t get too caught off-guard by the announcement being made in terms of roster. Like I said, I’ve always believed we’ve had an ECHL roster, even in our CHL days. We loaned out a lot of guys to the AHL and never got them back, which I think is a good look on me– though that first year, it hurt with the CHL roster rules. I was returned our top scorers from the AHL, but thanks to those rules; I wasn’t able to put them on the roster.”
However, one of the big things is that they haven’t face any teams outside of their division. The Americans don’t play someone outside of their division until at the end of January as they take on Indy, Toledo, and Kalamazoo from January 23rd to 25th– which is a huge test not only to see how well they have gelled against the core ECHL teams, but it’s also three games in three days on the road in the upper midwest.
“It’s hard to say where we’ll be, it all depends on where the roster is at then,” said Martinson. “We’ve lost good players before and it all depends on how things shake out by that time. Right now, Asuchak is in the AHL and we just got Aaron Dell back, but it’s hard to say right now where you’ll be in late January. However, I feel good with the guys we have and we’ll be able to go forward with what we have. I believe we’re the most battle-tested former CHL teams out there, especially our defense. I think our defense is probably the most battle tested in the division with guys like Aaron Gens, Kevin Young, and Justin Baker. We can definitely match-up well with other teams in terms of defense.”
As the CHL teams were merging into the ECHL, the Americans were behind the ball a bit in terms of getting an affiliation with a NHL team, as the Dallas Stars had a ECHL affiliation in Idaho. Yet, some old friends came through to help out Martinson and the Americans.
“I’ve played and known (Worcester coach) Roy Sommer for 25 years and I’ve known (Worcester GM) Joe Will for a while and they’ve been really great to work with,” Martinson said. “At the end of the season, we’ve talked about players we liked and guys they’ve liked and it’s been really great. I hope we can do something with them in the future.”
This isn’t the first league change rodeo that Martinson has been in. Martinson was in San Diego with the Gulls when the ECHL absorbed the WCHL, as well as when the Elmira Jackals transitioned from the United League to the ECHL; Martinson was at the front of that.
“I like structure and I think that’s what the ECHL offers to minor league hockey,” Martinson commented. “The ECHL is able to open doors to guys for development, all while under a salary cap. The cap is a good thing because it allows us all to work under the same budget, rules, and try to build the best team. The structure of it helps and the thing about it is that for the fans, on a management level, that if you’re working hard enough at it– you’re going to have a good team year-in, year-out.”
Whether or not the roster can stay in tact is really up to the injury bug and up to how other teams may or may not catch up to the Americans. They are looking good now, but a call-up here and there could give a bit of a speed bump for the Americans in their chase for the Kelly Cup. However, Martinson’s experience and ability to bring the right group of guys together for a championship caliber team is second to none when you look at his past teams. That ability to get the needle in the haystack or get the guys that are under other teams radars and allow them the time to play and succeed could be the intangible that puts the Americans over the top in their first year in the ECHL.
Thanks to Coach Martinson and Allen Americans Vice President of Media Relations Tommy Daniels for their help with this piece.