In fact, the ECHL is a key part of the development structure for NHL teams. Many goalies now in the NHL have spent time in the ECHL. If it isn’t quite a matter of course – the only career step that could be said to be nearly universal is time in the AHL – an ECHL stint is far from unusual.
Among active goaltenders in 2015-16, Devan Dubnyk. Thomas Greiss, Jaroslav Halak, Braden Holtby, Michael Hutchinson, Carter Hutton, Martin Jones, Anton Khudobin, Darcy Kuemper, Al Montoya, Petr Mrazek, Michal Neuvirth, Jonathan Quick, James Reimer, Ben Scrivens, Mike Smith, Cam Talbot, and Jeff Zatkoff have all spent time in the ECHL and they are not alone. Among retired goalies, Olie Kolzig, Tim Thomas, and Thomas Vokoun, along with many others, are all ECHL alumni. In 2014 Kristers Gudlevskis became the first goalie to play in the ECHL, the AHL, the NHL, and the Olympics in the same season.
The ECHL is far from a hinterland where goaltending careers go to die. About 40% of goalies who play in the ECHL will also have at least one NHL game*. Nearly 95% will play in the AHL. About one-third of all professional goaltenders across the world spend some time in the ECHL, more than any other league besides the AHL.
Jonathan Quick joined the ECHL’s Reading Royals directly out of the NCAA in 2007-08.
If a goaltender is drafted by an NHL team, he has about as much chance of playing in the ECHL (55%) as in the NHL (57%). Around 70% of the goalies who have played in the ECHL were drafted and draftees who play in the ECHL also play in the NHL at some point about 30% of the time.
In other words it isn’t shockingly unusual for a goaltender with ECHL experience to make the NHL. The ECHL is, after all, a feeder league, funneling players into the AHL, from where they can go on to the NHL. It’s a fairly standard part of the player development structure of the NHL.
But what are the differences between the ECHL and higher leagues? Mike McKenna, currently of the AHL’s Portland Pirates, explored this for InGoal in 2010:
In general, ECHL teams are comprised primarily of free-agent players. However, NHL and AHL-affiliations are common; clubs generally loan a handful of players – and almost assuredly a goaltender – to their ECHL affiliate. The goal of NHL teams is to develop players for the AHL team, and hopefully down the road, their big club. However, the goal for ECHL franchises (almost all are privately owned) is to win hockey games and make money, and as such, putting the best team possible on the ice is in their best interest….
People often assume that there is a huge difference in the speed of the game between the levels. Truthfully, there isn’t much. The ECHL is comprised primarily of players who have been overlooked by NHL teams for whatever reason. Many players thrive in this league yet – due to size, perceived skill level, or age (among other things) – have a difficult time getting a legitimate shot in the AHL (and subsequently NHL). However, this doesn’t mean they are poor hockey players. If you take a quick glance at skills competition results from the ECHL, you’ll find that some players are just as talented on an individual basis as those in the AHL and NHL. Guys can crank the puck over 100mph. They can skate a lap in under 14 seconds.
What they can’t necessarily do is think the game on the same level as those in higher leagues.
All goaltenders must persevere to get into the NHL. It is never assured, no matter how high a player is drafted or how much they impress at any lower level. But the ECHL is certainly a valid and valuable option for NHL development and it shouldn’t be shocking to see an ECHL alumnus make good in the NHL.
*Data from this and the following paragraph were drawn from a database of 492 randomly chosen professional goaltenders across North America and Europe. It was compiled in 2014 and spans more than 10 years of professional goaltender career arcs.