ECHL Storylines, NHL Prospects To Watch In 2022-23

The 2022-23 ECHL season gets underway this weekend with 29 contests streamed live and on-demand exclusively on FloHockey from Friday to Sunday. The long wait is over and the premier “AA” league in the sport is set for its 35th season.

The Florida Everblades enter the 2022-23 campaign as the defending Kelly Cup champions with designs on a repeat. To do it, they will have to cut through a crowded field of contenders including last year’s Brabham Cup winners, the Toledo Walleye which finished as runner-up in the playoffs after claiming the ECHL’s regular-season title. The league will also welcome a new expansion franchise as the Savannah Ghost Pirates get set to kick off their inaugural season.

Additionally, the 2023 Warrior/ECHL All-Star Classic is slated to be hosted by the Norfolk Admirals Jan. 16 at Norfolk Scope Arena.

There is a lot to be excited about, so here are a number of storylines and some of the NHL prospects of note to keep track of as the ECHL season begins.

Ghost Pirates Set To Haunt South

It’s only appropriate that the Savannah Ghost Pirates will begin their inaugural campaign in the heart of Spooky Season. The ECHL’s newest team will play at the brand new Enmarket Arena in Savannah, Ga., which is a market that does not have a particularly deep history with professional hockey.

The city, however, has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence in the world of professional sports. Baseball’s Savannah Bananas have been a runaway hit, complete with their own reality series and exploding social media following. Now there’s a new team, a new building and yet another unique team name to try and capture the imaginations of Savannah.

Owned by Andy Kauffman, who also owns the Jacksonville Icemen in the ECHL, the Ghost Pirates have an opportunity to grow hockey in the city, with plans to manage the community arena during the season. They’ve also taken a page out of the Bananas’ playbook with some over-the-top promotions. For example, to unveil its first ever uniforms, they sent team mascot Davy high above the Savannah coastline on a skydiving mission for the club’s first viral moment.

The Ghost Pirates will be led on the ice by former NCAA coach Rick Bennett, who guided Union College to its first and only Division I national championship in men’s hockey in 2014. The club is affiliated with the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL and Henderson Silver Knights of the AHL. A few players on NHL contracts like defenseman Connor Corcoran and forwards Patrick Guay and Marcus Kallionkieli are set to start the season in Georgia.

It’s always fun to see how the sport takes hold in new markets and the Ghost Pirates certainly haven’t been shy about engaging with their new hometown. 

The Ghost Pirates open the season on the road this weekend and will not play their home opener until Nov. 5.

NHL Prospects Dotting ECHL Rosters

As has been the case since its inception, the ECHL plays a role as an important developmental league for the AHL and NHL. In recent years, NHL teams more frequently have sent high-level prospects, particularly goaltenders, to the league for more seasoning.

The Detroit Red Wings recently loaned Sebastian Cossa, who the club selected 15th overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, to the Toledo Walleye. Cossa played in one preseason game with the Walleye before getting called up long enough to earn a win his AHL debut with the Grand Rapids Griffins last week. As one of the key prospects of Detroit’s rebuild, they need Cossa playing as much as possible, which is why they’re getting him more reps in Toledo as well. Cossa could be up and down between Toledo and Grand Rapids throughout the season, but having first-rounders like Cossa certainly raises the profile of the games he’s playing in.

There will be 17 goaltenders across the ECHL’s opening rosters that are under NHL contract including Lukas Parik, Utah Grizzlies (Los Angeles Kings), Trent Miner, Utah Grizzlies (Colorado Avalanche), Isaiah Saville, Savannah Ghost Pirates (Vegas Golden Knights), Ryan Fanti, Fort Wayne Komets (Edmonton Oilers), Taylor Gauthier, Wheeling Nailers (Pittsburgh Penguins), Kenneth Appleby, Worcester Railers (New York Islanders), Olof Linbom, Jacksonville Icemen (New York Rangers), David Tendeck, Atlanta Gladiators (Arizona Coyotes), Brandon Bussi, Maine Mariners (Boston Bruins), David Hrenak, Greenville Swamp Rabbits (Los Angeles Kings), Remi Poirier, Idaho Steelheads (Dallas Stars), Adam Scheel, Idaho Steelheads (Dallas Stars), Hunter Jones, Iowa Heartlanders (Minnesota Wild), Tomas Vomacka, Norfolk Admirals (Nashville Predators), Garin Bjorklund, South Carolina Stingrays (Washington Capitals) and Daniil Chechelev, Rapid City Rush (Calgary Flames)

A large number of skaters under NHL contract are part of ECHL rosters to start the 2022-23 season as well. Here are just a few to be aware of.

Luke Prokop, D, Norfolk Admirals (Nashville Predators): Prokop is coming off of a successful junior career in the WHL which culminated with his winning a league title with his hometown Edmonton Oil Kings. A 6-foot-6, 220-pound defenseman, Prokop casts an imposing frame The Preds draft pick was the Canadian Hockey League’s Humanitarian of the Year in 2021-22 for his work and mentorship with LGBTQIA+ youth. 

Nathan Staios, D, Florida Everblades (Florida Panthers): The reigning OHL and CHL Defenseman of the Year will also start the year in the ECHL. Signed by the Panthers as an undrafted free agent, Staios had 66 points for the Hamilton Bulldogs last season as he helped them win the OHL title. His offensive prowess is going to give him a chance to challenge for an NHL roster spot in the not-too-distant future.

Ilya Nikolayev, C/W, Rapid City Rush (Calgary Flames): A Flames third-round pick Nikolayev, who has represented Russia internationally, spent last season with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, posting 72 points in his first season stateside. Nikolayev managed to get into one AHL playoff game at the end of last season with the Stockton Heat, but will get a chance to find his pro legs in North America with the Rush. 

Rory Kerins, C/W, Rapid City Rush (Calgary Flames): A sixth-round pick of the Flames in 2020, Kerins broke out last season with the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL, scoring 47 goals and collecting 118 points in 67 games. Kerins has also seen some AHL time and could benefit from some additional pro experience in the ECHL before he’s ready to take another step. 

Mason Millman, D, Reading Royals (Philadelphia Flyers): After appearing in 36 games with Reading last season, Millman is back to start the year in the ECHL. His game grew quite a bit last season as he bounced between the Royals and Lehigh Valley Phantoms. At just 21 years old, there’s still a lot of raw potential for Millman to dig into.

Cam Hillis, C, Trois-Rivières Lions (Montreal Canadiens): Hillis appeared in one NHL game last season with the Canadiens, on New Year’s Day, touching each of the three major North American pro hockey leagues in 2021-22. He is expected to start the season with the Lions, after producing nine points in 14 ECHL games. The undersized Hillis plays with a ton of competitiveness that should allow him to standout with a year of experience under his belt.

Dillon Hamiliuk, LW, Wichita Thunder (San Jose Sharks): The 55th overall selection by San Jose in 2019, Hamiliuk spent all of last season in the AHL. The 21-year-old has size and plays the game hard, but still needs to find more of his scoring touch to make good on some of the promise he showed over the years as a prospect. Wichita should be a good place to get that going.

Rookies Behind The Bench

It’s going to be a big year for first-year head coaches across the ECHL. Eleven teams will have a new head coach this season, many of whom will also be running a pro bench for the first time.

Many of those that will take their spots behind the bench are former ECHL players, with two stepping off the ice and trading their jerseys for suits. 

  • Adirondack Thunder: Peter MacArthur played 14 years pro before retiring after last season and will step behind the bench for the Thunder, a team he spent four seasons with as a player.
  • Allen Americans: Chad Costello was named the ECHL MVP three times, winning the Kelly Cup twice with Allen and now takes over the team where he enjoyed his greatest successes as a player.
  • Worcester Railers: Another player going from the ice to the bench is Jordan Smotherman, who put up 52 points for the Railers just last season after a few years abroad. The 36 year old racked up hundreds of pro games across multiple leagues including four NHL contests.
  • Iowa Heartlanders: The second-year club will have a familiar face behind the bench as Derek Damon, who was an assistant coach last year, takes over for veteran coach Gerry Fleming.
  • Kalamazoo Wings: After longtime coach Nick Bootland departed for an AHL coaching job, the Wings are turning to former superstar player and ECHL Hall of Famer Joel Martin, who spent the previous three seasons as an assistant in Kalamazoo.
  • Maine Mariners: Terrence Wallin spent his last two seasons as a player in Maine, started his coaching career as an assistant last season and now he’ll be the, um, main man behind the bench.
  • Reading Royals: With 441 ECHL games under his belt as a player, James Henry will take the reins for the Royals after one season as an assistant coach.
  • Orlando Solar Bears: A veteran of 237 NHL games as a player, Matt Carkner will get his first pro head coaching nod with the Solar Bears. Carkner had previously been an assistant with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (now Bridgeport Islanders) from 2016 to 2021.
  • Indy Fuel: After taking over as an interim replacement in season last year, Duncan Dalmao got the promotion to official head coach ahead of this season. It will be Dalmao’s second season with Indy, but fourth overall coaching in the ECHL as he previously was on staff for the Brampton Beast.
  • South Carolina Stingrays: After taking over the bench in March last season, Brenden Kotyk was also promoted to full-time head coach over the offseason. Kotyk has been on staff for the Stingrays since 2020-21after wrapping up his playing career.
  • Savannah Ghost Pirates: After more than 22 years coaching in the NCAA ranks, Rick Bennett will make his pro head coaching debut this weekend for expansion Savannah. However, he is an ECHL alumnus as a player and was a player-assistant coach his last four seasons in the league.

Atlanta’s Mike Pelech Chasing History

Atlanta Gladiators center Mike Pelech is entering his 14th professional season and has a chance to become the league’s all-time leader in games played. Pelech enters the 2022-23 campaign 813 ECHL games under his belt. That’s currently second all-time, but he’ll need 47 games to surpass current record-holder Sam Ftorek.

Pelech’s 14-year career has seen him represent 10 different ECHL teams over that span. In the process, he’s collected 421 assists, which ranks third in league history and is fifth on the ECHL all-time scoring list with 611 points. He will have a chance to move up the list in both categories.

The 33-year-old is a former sixth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings and is the older brother of current New York Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech. He is entering his second season with the Gladiators.

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