There perhaps may be no real comprehensive way to judge the success of the Newfoundland Growlers as an ECHL expansion entry. That’s because there have been few brand-new clubs joining the league in its recent history.
There have been about 30 teams which came aboard in this century, but most were the result of having been swallowed up from defunct circuits (West Coast Hockey League, Central Hockey League, United Hockey League) or by way of franchise shifts.
But there were the Phoenix Roadrunners (2005) Chicago Express (2011) and San Francisco Bulls (2012), a trio that who quickly came and went, and the Orlando Solar Bears (2012) and Worcester Railers (2017), who are part of the current league.
All were born anew, but except for the Railers, they all finished with sub-.500 records and/or of out the Kelly Cup playoffs during their inaugural ECHL seasons.
So that would seem to make Worcester the standard, and heading into Thursday night’s road matchup against the Atlanta Gladiators, the Growlers had a 32-14-3 record, leaving them requiring just six victories in their remaining 23 regular-season games to surpass the Railers, who went 37-27-8 in 2017-18.
So, by available comparatives, you would have to say that to date this rookie club has scored big.
As with many scoring plays, the set-up was the key.
The Growlers’ affiliation with the Toronto Maple Leafs, far more extensive and involved than other in the league, has the primary assist. The Maple Leafs have supplied a large cast of young talent, most signed to American Hockey League contracts, which has meant the Growlers haven’t been subject to the AHL poaching of ECHL rosters that goes on an almost daily basis.
An explanation: if a player is signed to an ECHL-level contract only, he can be picked up — temporarily or permanently — by any AHL team, not just the one affiliated with his ECHL club. But if there is an AHL component to his deal, it restricts the player being promoted to a single American league club. For the majority of the Growlers, that’s the Toronto Marlies.
(Newfoundland’s lone loss of an ECHL-contracted player to an AHL team other than the Marlies has been defenceman Kyle Cumiskey, now with the Providence Bruins. And let’s face it, during Cumiskey’s short stay, it was evident the former NHLer did not belong in this league.)
There have been call-ups from the Growlers to the Marlies, but never any that seemed too damaging, in large part because the Leafs have usually maintained a large roster with the AHL team.
Now, there is a secondary assist that should be awarded when it comes to Newfoundland’s success so far.
It comes with the selection of local players.
There was never any doubt of the intention to have a cadre of Newfoundlanders on the Growlers, especially given the almost nationalistic tone that came with the launch of the team. But as obvious as it might have seen, this was a tricky proposition.
Having Newfoundland hockey players simply for the sake of their birth certificates might have played into the uninformed criticism — something that hasn’t completely disappeared — that the ECHL amounted to glorified senior hockey.
There was also the residue of the St. John’s Fog Devils experience. During that team’s three years in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, it showed a willingness for local preference in late cuts, meaning Newfoundlanders were at some advantage when it came to the Fog Devils’ final roster decisions.
To be honest, there was nothing wrong with this. But it meant many of the team’s fringe players were locals, and for some, that’s become part of the narrative as to why the Fog Devils lasted only three years here.
The Growlers (in consultation with the Leafs) went the other way, choosing to bring in Newfoundland players they felt could play prominent roles, and they have hit the target in every case.
• The teams’ leading score is Zach O’Brien of St. John’s, who has 45 points in just 37 games (he missed 10 with a broken finger).
• Marcus Power (16-21-37) of St. John’s is the second-leading rookie point-getter on a Growlers team full of skilled first-year forwards, and he also tops the entire ECHL in shooting percentage (27.1).
• Defenceman James Melindy of Goulds is the team captain (O’Brien is an assistant), has proven to be a steadying influence on the blueline as well as in the dressing room, and provides a pugnaciousness not prevalent on the Growlers. In fact, Melindy’s 132 penalty minutes are 100 more than any other player on the Newfoundland roster (Hudson Elynuik checks in next at 32 PIMs.)
• Former NHLer Adam Pardy had a delayed start to the season because of a concussion, but like Melindy, classifies as a team stalwart. And like Melindy (1-10-11), Pardy has been providing a level of offence that probably falls into the bonus category. His five goals and 12 points (in just 23 games) are both the most he’s had in any pro season in more than a decade.
• As of Thursday morning, all four were in double digits in plus-minus, led by Melindy (plus-14), followed by O’Brien (plus-13), and Pardy and Power (both at plus-10).
In hockey — in most sports really — road trips are a time from pulling pranks and for the resulting vengeance. And there is a saying that is often offered to those seeking retribution after being the victim of some anonymous shenanigans.
“Make sure you get the right guy.”
There were no pranks in constructing the Growlers’ roster, but there was the possibility of pratfalls, especially when it came to bringing in local players.
But there have been no slip-ups in this regard. They got the right guys.