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Zach O’Brien back with Newfoundland Growlers, but he’s sure to be recalled to Marlies again this season

Zach O’Brien (23) got into two AHL games against the Cleveland Monsters with the Toronto Marlies last weekend, but will need to play three more regular-season contests with the Marlies in order to be eligible to appear in any ECHL playoff games with the Newfoundland Growlers in 2020. — Toronto Marlies photo
Zach O’Brien (23) got into two AHL games against the Cleveland Monsters with the Toronto Marlies last weekend, but will need to play three more regular-season contests with the Marlies in order to be eligible to appear in any ECHL playoff games with the Newfoundland Growlers in 2020. — Toronto Marlies photo

Forward needs to appear in a total of five AHL games to be eligible for the ECHL playoffs

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Zach O’Brien is back with the Newfoundland Growlers after playing a couple of American Hockey League games with the Toronto Marlies last weekend, but it’s almost a sure bet O’Brien will be returning to the Marlies at some point this season.

That’s not because the St. John’s native is one of the Growlers’ top performers and was the team’s leading scorer last season en route to an ECHL championship, where the 27-year-old was named the playoff MVP. And it’s not because he has plenty of AHL experience, having appeared in over 220 games and won a Calder Cup championship with the Manchester Monarchs in that league.

Yes, those factors certainly make it easy to make O’Brien a possible future recall from the Growlers to the Marlies, but the reason another promotion can be described as inevitable is because O’Brien needs to play three more AHL games this season to be eligible to participate in next spring’s ECHL postseason.

Zach O’Brien (No. 23) dressed in 3 games for the Toronto Marlies in the 2018-19 season. (Toronto Marlies photo) - Contributed
Zach O’Brien (No. 23) dressed in 3 games for the Toronto Marlies in the 2018-19 season. (Toronto Marlies photo) - Contributed

ECHL rules say veteran players like O’Brien — those with 260 or more professional games — who are signed to NHL or AHL contracts must appear in five or more regular-season AHL games in order to qualify for the 2020 Kelly Cup playoffs.

When that rule was instituted at the ECHL board of governors meetings over the summer, it was seen as a response to some teams’ grumblings that the Growlers were stacked with so many players with higher-league contracts. Of the 21 Growlers who appeared in the playoffs this past spring, 13 were on AHL deals, while goaltender Eamon McAdam operated with an NHL entry-level contract.

But the rule is probably best seen as sort of a saw-off compromise in response to such concerns since it actually was an amendment to an existing regulation. In fact, it can readily be contended the Growlers benefited from the change.

The former rule said all players, veterans or not (goalies not included), on an ECHL roster but signed to AHL or NHL contracts, had to play three AHL games to be ECHL playoff-eligible. Each team was allowed a couple of exemptions, but the Growlers still saw a slew of players called up to the Marlies to fulfil the requirements; O’Brien, Brady Ferguson, JJ Piccinich, Giorgio Estephan, Hudson Elynuik, Kristians Rubins and Scott Pooley all spent most of the 2018-19 campaign with Newfoundland, but suited up in three or more AHL games with Toronto.

However, with the rule now applying to veterans only, just two Growlers — O’Brien and defenceman Alex Gudbranson — fall under its umbrella.

That’s not to say other players won’t get recalled, but in those cases, it will be mostly based on the need of the Marlies, not to make sure they meet the ECHL playoff-eligibility standard.

There could also be some debate about how much an ECHL team gains by having a majority of players on AHL deals. James Melindy, Adam Pardy, Marcus Power and, for much of the season, goalie Micahel Garteig and Rubins, were on ECHL contracts in 2018-19 and they easily could be described as some of the Growlers’ most valuable players during the team’s inaugural campaign.

But there is no debate about how the Growlers profit from their large contingent of AHL players when it comes to salary-cap management.

Salary caps and roster limits are something local hockey fans didn’t have to worry about during the two decades St. John’s was home to American Hockey League franchise, since they don’t exist in the AHL. But in the ECHL, teams are limited to paying no more than $13,300 US per week, in total, to the players on their 20-man active rosters. That’s an average of $665 per player per week.

However, the cap charge for ECHL players on AHL and NHL contracts is just $525 per week (the cap charge is the amount an ECHL team plays its AHL affiliate for each assigned player).

That’s a great bargain, because the minimum AHL annual salary of around $48,000 is more than twice what is paid under an average ECHL deal.

Teams like the Growlers can then take the cap savings and use them to attract players with better-than-average ECHL contracts.

Before we offer the explanatory math, you should know ECHL active rosters can sit at 21 players for the first month of the season and the salary cap is adjusted accordingly for that period, but in the following. we will use a 20-man roster that will be in place for most of the season

Of the players on Newfoundland’s active roster, 15 of them are on AHL or NHL deals. At a $525 cap charge each, that’s $7,875, leaving as much as $5,425 to be applied to five ECHL contracts.

That’s an average of $1,085 per player per week.

Considering the entire scope of professional hockey, where the lowest-paid NHLer will make about 25 times as much, that $1,085 might not seem like much, but in the ECHL, that’s a real good payday. And accounting for guidelines that say rookies on ECHL deals can get a maximum $560 per week, some veteran players — at least in the Growlers’ model — can stand to make some decent money.

It’s the reason Newfoundland could afford to sign Pardy, a former full-time NHLer, last season, even if the Bonavista native gave them a home-province discount.

Dog Bites

As of Thursday, the Growlers were carrying 24 players — the 21 on the temporarily expanded active roster, two more — returning forward Todd Skirving and rookie winger Reid Jackman — on the inactive list, and defenceman Alex Gudbranson on injured reserve. Gudbranson was re-assigned to Newfoundland from the Toronto Marlies earlier this week. FYI, players on inactive or injured reserve lists don't factor into the salary cap … ECHL players are provided with accommodations by teams. There is health insurance and teams cover relocation expenses and transportation at the start and beginning of the season. When on the road, each player receives a meal per diem of $$4 US per day …. The Growlers (3-2-0) will begin paying out those per diems this weekend as they start their first road trip of 2019-20 with games against the Maine Mariners Friday and Saturday night in Portland, Me. …

Twitter: @telybrendan


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