For a professional hockey team, results matter. Goals on the scoreboard, wins and losses, and playoff performances all tell the story of a successful season. And when you’re a minor league team in a developmental league, there’s another important metric of success – do your players improve and earn a chance to advance?
The Steelheads had several players on two-way contracts with the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars or on NHL deals with Dallas, players who shuttled between the ECHL and AHL throughout the season. But the Steelheads also had eight players who joined the team last summer on ECHL contracts that were summoned to the AHL, the third-highest total in the league.
“That’s obviously something we’re very proud of,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham, who also had eight ECHL-contracted players called up during the 2016-17 season. “Often, the stereotype is that a lot of the call-ups come from teams out east. I think this proves that they happen wherever good players are.”
Tommy Thompson and Steve McParland both were called to AHL Texas during the season, but the Steelheads supplied players to five other organizations. Jefferson Dahl made his AHL debut late in the season with the Cleveland Monsters, and rookie Justin Parizek had a stint midway through the year with the San Jose Barracuda. Brady Brassart and Joe Faust both saw time with the Utica Comets, and Ryan Faragher and Henrik Samuelsson both finished the year in the AHL with Samuelsson with the Rockford IceHogs and Faragher in net with the Stockton Heat.
Calling up a player from outside a team’s organizational family tree requires a greater investment from an AHL club, both in finding the player and in bringing that player in.
“The fact that we’re talking east to west and north to south, call-ups coming from all directions, that’s a credit to our guys in the locker room,” said Graham. “Teams would have to seek them out and do their homework and fly them in, which meant they were going to get opportunities.”
Some of the call-ups were brief, with players getting an opportunity to fill in and gain experience while a team dealt with injury. Other call-ups afforded players even greater opportunity.
Faragher signed his professional tryout agreement with Stockton in mid-February and never returned, earning a 1.55 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage in six appearances. Brassart was with the Comets for nearly two months. Thompson turned an early-season call-up with Texas in an AHL two-way deal, as he played 36 games with the Stars.
Samuelsson joined the IceHogs on February 12th and with stellar play earned an AHL contract with Rockford for next season. He had nine goals and 12 points in 25 games and also appeared in four playoff games during a stacked Rockford team’s run to the Western Conference Final.
Samuelsson was playing his first ECHL season in Idaho, after playing in the NHL and AHL in his first three pro seasons. The 2012 first-round draft pick suffered and injury-plagued season in 2016-17 and came to Idaho to rejuvenate his game, a mission well-accomplished.
“He jumped in with both feet and had a tremendously good attitude from Day 1. He didn’t have any sense of entitlement, and he didn’t have expectations other than the fact that he was excited to play and contribute,” said Graham. “I thought he did a great job of controlling what he could control, with his work ethic and attitude on the ice.”
“He put up some good numbers with us obviously, but he is a very strong competitor and his will to win was one of the highest I’ve seen. We weren’t surprised one bit that he got that opportunity, and that he stayed.”
Numerous call-ups, some of which occur simultaneously, can be taxing on a team, as the Steelheads still needed to win games despite losing some of their top producers for long stretches. The Steelheads managed to maintain their pace, finishing the season with 44 wins, 96 points, and never suffering a losing streak longer than three games during the regular season.
“We had a very deep team. When one guy went up, it was a chance to elevate someone else’s opportunity,” said Graham. “We were such a close team that we were excited to see a guy get a bigger role, or a guy who’s been a good soldier and has been in and out of the lineup for a few months get a chance to play a string of games in a row.”
“We had enough depth that we were able to keep trudging through some of those dog days when we had three or four guys in the AHL at the same time. If you want to promote your players and have them get an opportunity at the next level, you have to be ready for when that call comes and have the ‘next man up’ mentality.”
A track record of successful player promotion isn’t just a nice bullet point for an organization’s resume. It’s also a good reputation to have at this time of year, when Graham and Assistant Coach Everett Sheen will soon be looking to recruit talented players to fill next year’s roster.
All ECHL players hope to climb to the AHL and beyond, and with 16 players getting that call in the last two seasons, Idaho may be a strong launching pad for them.
“Like anyone in the working world, you want to have an opportunity to advance your career. If you do the work and you’re good at what you do, you want to have an opportunity to advance. Hockey players are no different. If they have a chance to not only come to a great city and play for a good organization, but also to advance their career and be recognized for an opportunity in the AHL, I think that’s something guys take into consideration.”