***Please note this piece is going to read rather mean towards the FHL and SPHL, and we don’t intend to take shots at the league or to demean its players, coaches, and staffs, but we are trying to be realistic in our assessment of where the two leagues sit in the hockey world. They are a ton of fun to watch and follow, but we also know what we’re watching when we take in a game in these leagues.***
One of the stranger things that a few FHL and SPHL fans seem to clamor for, with hopes that it would elevate the play in their respective leagues, is that a full baseball-like system could be put into place, with teams in the FHL and SPHL getting NHL affiliation.
It would be a chain with the NHL at the top, the AHL being Triple-A, the ECHL being Double-A, the SPHL being Single-A, and the FHL I guess being Rookie League or Short-Season.
But the reality is, that despite every NHL team having AHL Triple-A affiliations, and 26 NHL teams also having ECHL Double-A affiliations, the NHL system works more like the NFL systen does: Let other places develop your prospects and reap those benefits at the top.
And realistically, unless a few things drastically change, which we’ll get to in a bit, there is no way that the NHL is ever investing in SPHL or FHL teams, and here’s why.
Look how rare it is for an ECHL player to make the NHL
Before we can get to how much of a waste of time and money it would be for the NHL to invest in the SPHL or FHL, take a look at a league that bills itself as being affiliate with the NHL, and how rare it is for their players to make it to the top.
On its website, the ECHL touts that 651 players have made the NHL after playing in the ECHL. That’s all well and good and looks like a massive, impressive number that the league can tout to potential players who still have dreams of the NHL.
Well, let’s give them a dose of reality. The ECHL dates back to 1988, so 30 seasons, and 651 players, including 10 this season, over 30 seasons equates to an average of 21 players per season that played in the ECHL and played in the NHL. In case you forgot, there are 31 teams in the NHL, so not even one player per NHL team makes the NHL each year from the ECHL.
And who knows how many of that 651 played like one or two games as an emergency call-up, or an end of season tryout to see what they have, and never went back up again. I don’t have the time to research all 651 players, but I would bet it’s a fairly large chunk of them. And on top of that, most of the players who have made the NHL after playing in the ECHL and carved out nice, long careers are goalies, most notably Jonathan Quick and Devan Dubnyk. Honestly, go look at the list and tell me who the most famous skater, or at least best player who actually contributed to wins and losses, to play in the ECHL is, maybe Mark Streit?
Even if a player does stand a chance of making their mark in the NHL, it’s likely at goalie, because teams only have two goalies, versus 12 or more forwards and six or more defensemen, so lots of good goalies get pushed down to the ECHL and even SPHL or FHL.
Now look how rare it is for SPHL players to reach the AHL, let alone the NHL
Since starting in 2004, the SPHL has had exactly one player play in the NHL. One. Goaltender Scott Darling, who really didn’t have impressive numbers in the SPHL, but worked his way up from the SPHL, got his life back on track, and signed a fairly big contract with Carolina, where he has struggled. One player in 15 seasons.
And if that’s not damning enough evidence that players in the SPHL and FHL have no prayer of making it to the NHL, and therefore no reason for the NHL to invest in the leagues with affiliation, guess how many players have gone from the SPHL to the AHL in a single season. Three, and that’s if you include one this year when Quad City goalie Eric Levine was called up to Cleveland, but didn’t appear in a game.
On its website, the SPHL touts sending more than 550 players to higher leagues since starting in 2004, 14-plus seasons, that’s an average of about 38 players per year to higher leagues. But those higher leagues include the now defunct CHL, UHL, and IHL. If your higher leagues you brag about sending players too weren’t all that great, folded, and almost never sent players to the NHL themselves, there’s almost no chance your current players are making the NHL.
Granted, the league has made strides and saw 97 players advanced to the ECHL from the league last year alone, but sort of like our ECHL argument above, how many were guys who played a couple of games and were sent back down and never came back up?
And then there’s the FHL, which touts on its website that 173 former players have made it to the ECHL from the league since starting in 2010, about 20 players per season, but one that is steadily declining, seeing just five different players over the past season and a half reach the ECHL. It’s safe to say that the FHL has never had a player reach the NHL after playing in the league.
So, to make a long story short, it would be a massive waste of time and money for the NHL to invest in leagues that have almost 25 combined seasons and have a grand total of ONE player who played in the NHL.
But why couldn’t they turn the leagues into leagues for younger players to develop them?
Simple, because there are bigger, better leagues that do that job for free, without the NHL having to do anything other than send scouts to watch the game.
If the NHL drafts a player and they think he needs more time to develop, they keep him with his major junior team, or they let him keep playing college hockey, or they let them play in leagues in Europe. All three of which are MUCH better hockey than the SPHL and FHL, again, cost the NHL absolutely nothing to have their prospects in it.
Also, take a look at the roster of many ECHL teams, they only have 5-6 players on the roster who have AHL or NHL contracts, which means most of these ECHL (and their NHL affiliates), aren’t even utilizing their ECHL teams to the fullest. With only 5-6 players under NHL or AHL contract on each team, that’s 15-ish open spots that could be filled by NHL or AHL contract players, and THEN you would start sending to the SPHL or FHL. Long story short, if the NHL isn’t even fully using its ECHL team rosters, they aren’t adding 20+ more players to be able to send a few to the SPHL or FHL.
Again, it isn’t like baseball where you draft a player at 17 and send them to Single-A then hope that the next year they’re bigger and stronger and can play in a higher Single-A league, or maybe Double-A, then the next year in Triple-A, and then finally MLB. Hockey and basketball are the only two sports where 18- and 19-year-olds regularly make the league and stick, and again, if they don’t, there are TONS of better, free options that also might offer educational opportunities than playing in the FHL or SPHL.
The FHL and SPHL are leagues for players who aged out of juniors
Basically, for the SPHL or the FHL to even be thought of as possible affiliates to the NHL, it would require the collapse of the entire major junior, and junior (USHL, NAHL, and Junior A leagues in Canada) system. And even if that happened, players would likely go over to Europe and play in one of their leagues. I mean, the FHL just lost one of its leading scorers to a team in Hungary’s professional hockey league. HUNGARY. I’m Hungarian and didn’t know they had a hockey league that was good enough to poach players from the FHL.
So to make a long story short, no, the NHL is never going to invest in the SPHL and FHL and have affiliations all the way down to rookie league or even Single-A hockey. Legit NHL prospects would not need time in either league to hone their games, and the prospects who do need more time can get it free of charge to the NHL by playing major junior, college, or over in Europe.
So just take the FHL and SPHL for what it is: A bunch of guys who love the game and give their all every night for way too little money. And if a couple make it to the AHL or NHL, even better, and the league has a cool story to share. But they’re not getting to the NHL because the Maple Leafs suddenly decided they wanted a farm team in Macon, Georgia.