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Affiliations are changing minor league hockey

Back in the day (well ten or more years ago), the NHL paid very little attention to leagues that were on any tier lower than the American Hockey League. Why? Simply put, very few players without major junior or AHL experience were of no use to the “big boys”.
Sure, a number if players have graduated from the ECHL to “The Show”. What they all had in common was good coaching in the amateur ranks, strong work ethic and a place to hone their skills while they learned how to play professionally.
The key part of that last sentence was the word place. For the longest time, double-A and single-A level hockey was where players who had skills but weren’t “on the radar” of higher level teams went to work on their games and possibly get a look. The single-A level was especially suited for this because rosters became a mix of veteran players in the twilight of their careers and younger guys just looking for a chance to be seen.
As the 2015-16 seasons begin, NHL owners are beginning to move away from buying high priced talent and moving toward player development. The idea is simple: go out and draft entry-level players or sign free agents who are young and work on their skill sets.
Much like pro baseball, hockey is moving toward a multi-level developmental system. The best current example (and the one I have the most experience with) is Toronto. The Maple Leafs, at the urging of assistant general manager Kyle Dubas, have stocked up on talented players at both the NHL and AHL levels. Since roster sizes have numerical limits, the Leafs have assigned more than a dozen prospects to their ECHL affiliate in Orlando. The plan is to bring in as many players with skills as they can and develop them over time, allowing the players to find their way up the ladder at the right time.
While seeing potential future NHL players in the making is great for the fans, it has an unintended consequences. Since the ECHL also has limits on the number of roster spots a team has, the more affiliated players sent down the fewer open spots are available for free agents and veterans. Fans won’t be able to bank on their favorite players being back from year to year so getting attached won’t be as easy to do.
For the players, it means that unless you are within an affiliation system to start you may not find a room at the inn as it were. This year, single-A teams are even being approached to take ECHL-level players pushed out to make room for AHL-level guys. That simple fact means that even without formal agreements, some teams are creating a defacto four-level system. Now even players who would be considered locks to get onto SPHL and FHL rosters aren’t guaranteed to do so.
In the end, it all comes back to the common ground: learning, working hard and finding a place to play. The more you learn and the harder you work, the better your chances to make a roster. Once you get on a roster, never forget what got you there because there will always be someone waiting for you to fail.