It All Begins Tonight

It’s a new season, and a new look Grizzlies.

Well, not altogether new. C.J. Eick, Brad Navin, Taylor Richart, Erik Higby, Michael Pelech, Travis Howe, Garrett Haar, Sam Windle, Rob Mann, Ryan Misiak (who played with the team during the 2015-16 season), and Jon Puskar have all returned for the 2017-18 campaign.

Among the most notable newcomers are Greger Hanson (Allen Americans), Peter Sivak (Alaska Aces), Kyle Thomas (Fort Wayne Komets), Mitch Jones (Alaska Aces), and Kevin Carr (also Alaska Aces) for some potent offensive flair, and strength at all positions. Zach Saar, Kyle Thomas, Angus Redmond, and Cliff Watson all come to the team via the San Diego Gulls this preseason (though only Redmond is a Ducks prospect).

The rest of the team are no slouches either, with the potential for some impressive firepower, and it should be fun getting to know this new group over the course of the season.

Garrett Haar will begin the season on the injured reserve, Sam Windle and Travis Howe are currently on reserve, while Redmond, Brendan Harms, and Charley Graaskamp were all scratches tonight.

In case you missed it, Eick was named the Grizzlies’ captain this summer, while Navin, Richart, and Higby all wore As during the preseason. Tim Branham remains at the helm as Head Coach and GM as the Grizzlies set their sights on an 11th Kelly Cup appearance, and the trophy that awaits the winner.

The Grizzlies got a good long look at the Cup in Colorado as the Eagles raised their 2016-17 championship banner before the game.

The Grizzlies got off to a decent start, getting the first two shots of the period. Puskar and Misiak got a 2-on-1 about five minutes in, drew a power play, and Melindy fought Joey Ratelle less than five minutes in.

Utah struggled to establish offensive zone time on the advantage, and Colorado scored on a breakaway just two seconds after their penalty expired.

The back half of the period saw the Grizzlies pick up a number of good looks, and their work paid off, as Drayson Bowman went to the box for slashing with 5:04 to go. The second man advantage looked far more commanding than the first, but did not capitalize. However, 22 seconds after the power play expired, Navin threw the puck on net, and the Captain put it past Lukas Hafner. Eick’s first of the year was, once again the opening goal of the Grizzlies’ season, and it sent Utah to the locker room with a 1-1 tie.

The Eagles and Grizzlies traded penalties to start the second, and Utah had a very strong penalty kill, but just four seconds after they returned to full strength, Colorado scored. All three goals of the game, up until this point, being scored 30 seconds or less after a penalty expired

Utah didn’t back off, though, getting a 17-10 edge in shots.

The two teams traded zone time though the later stages of the second, but it would be the Eagles who scored the next goal after a prolonged Utah offensive zone shift with less than two minutes to go in the frame. After 40, Utah trailed 3-1, holding the 28-20 edge in shots.

Four minutes into a somewhat lackadaisical third, Puskar came flying down the wing, cut to the middle, and put a back hand through traffic, making it 3-2, with assists from Taylor Richart, and Ryan Misiak.

Despite amassing 13 more shots over the course of the period, some of them on really good scoring chances, Utah couldn’t find the back of the net.

With four minutes left in the game, Saar and Teigan Zahn dropped the gloves, and though Zahn wound up getting the best of the scuffle, he also took an extra two for instigating, and the Grizzlies went to a big power play. They were, unfortunately, unable to tie the game up.

Coach Branham pulled Carr with less than a minute to go, but Utah took a penalty, and despite a last ditch attempt from Richart 5-on-5 with an empty net, they were unable to score the equalizer.

The loss was disappointing, but it wasn’t a bad first game. Puskar showed every bit of the offensive flair and foot speed that he displayed last season, while players like Thomas (6 shots), Olsen, Jones, Melindy (5 shots each), Saar and Misiak (both with 4) all had good chances throughout the game. Hanson and Watson also had some pretty good moments. Saar impressed in other areas as well, with a fight, and a +2 on the night.

In his post-game show comments to Tyson Whiting, Branham expressed some concern over the Grizzlies’ lack of goal scoring—a problem with which they struggled in the preseason. However, he also reiterated the fact that this is an offensively proven group of players, and that he liked how they played for the most part.

After all, it’s only the first game of the season, and many of these guys have never had the chance to play together before. It might take some tinkering, but the scoring combinations and chemistry are in there somewhere.

The Grizzlies and the Eagles are headed to the Maverik Center for Utah’s home opener tomorrow at 7PM.



Photo courtesy of Tim Broussard/Jess Fleming and other staff photographers

Interview Part II: The Anatomy of an ECHL Team

In this second of a two-part Q&A with Grizzlies’ Head Coach Tim Branham, we talk about some of the finer details of what goes into assembling an ECHL team.

Starting with a question that has perplexed many ECHL hockey fans…

Namiko Hitotsubashi: Why 10 forwards?

Tim Branham: The ECHL is a business as well as a developmental league. Dressing 10 forwards saves money, and it allows the players to get more ice time to develop.

NH: Going back to something we’d talked about earlier: future considerations. You’d said they were kind of just a gentleman’s agreement, but when you trade for future considerations, do you specify after the season you can take this kind of player? How does that work?

TB: You usually do that before the trade is made, you agree on what it is. Sometimes it’s a player to be named, like it wasBradford and Daly, say, sometimes it’s that, or sometimes it’s hey, you can protect five players from your protected list, and then I can pick from there. It’s kind of just whatever you make up. Like, sometimes it’s just like if you’re good buddies with another coach, it’ll just be an agreed upon player before the end of the year, or something. It can be anything.

NH: Something someone from the Booster Club wanted to know, when guys are weighing the options between playing here and playing in Europe, for example, what can you offer in competition with a European league? Do you have any insight into what would make a player choose the ECHL over some place else?

TB: I always ask the player what do you want out of your hockey career? So it’s different if it’s a kid coming out of college, or if it’s a guy that’s been here a long time. What do you want out of your hockey career? Do you want to make the NHL or the American league? Then you have to play in the ECHL. If you want to have an experience, maybe go make some more money, then go over to Europe. So really, it just kind of depends on what the player wants to do, what they’re looking for. Do they still have that dream? Or is it more of a place for me and my girlfriend or wife to go to have fun and to travel the world. It just all depends. But that’s basically all it is. I mean, you can’t generally offer more money than Europe at this level, cause over in Europe, everything’s usually tax free, and everything like that, they’ll give them an apartment, and a car, or whatever, I mean, we give them apartments, but it generally comes down to what they want. What do you want out of your career right now.

NH: When you’re looking to build a team for the next season, do you start with an idea of what you want? Cause last year, not last season, but the season before, the Grizzlies were a crazy skilled team. This year you had a lot more grit, you had a guy like Travis Howe, you had a Michael Pelech. Do you go into the season thinking “I’m going to build my team like this” and then find guys that fit, or do you find guys that you want and see what works around that?

TB: Sometimes both, but in those instances, I had a lot of skill returning. So my first two years came, and then I thought my second year we had a really good playoff team. We were tough, we were physical, we had guys that could score, and then that third year, just the guys that I had coming back were really skilled, and I was just like, you know what, I want to score goals next year. I want a really skilled team. And that’s what we put together. And we had an insanely skilled offensive group, forward group. Sometimes it’s hard to find. I lost out on three defensemen that were top-notch, that really could have contributed on the offensive side, so I was going for everybody to be real offensive, but you can’t always find the players. And then we had Gallant though at the beginning of the year, we had Alex Gallant. And he’s just like Travis Howe, who can change the momentum of a game, keep the other team settled down, and then he got called up to the American League, and I never replaced that kind of player, I never brought a Gallant or a Travis Howe back in.

I was like, ah, we can do it by committee. We had some pretty tough guys, but we didn’t have that yet. Looking back, we probably could have, but that’s why I made the Cody Ferriero trade. I needed a tough, physical, grinding right shot centerman, and I traded for him. And then he comes in and six, ten games in, he gets a concussion, and is out for the year. But we needed that player, cause we needed a little bit of toughness going into playoffs.

And then I was like, I want to put together a playoff team. So I feel like that’s what I did. I put together a playoff team, had to re-put it together, cause guys got called upor injured, so I had to make a bunch of trades, it was really nice getting Pelech, just being able to trade for a guy like him, your team instantly just controls the game so well, with faceoffs in important situations, he just does a really great job.

Last year was a real challenge, just trying to rebuild that one position. Forwards are everywhere. You can bring in a ton of forwards. Trying to find D that can play in the league, in January or later? I brought in like four or five of them, it’s hard to do. But that’s why I had to make those trades to bring in Verpaelst. It’s like aaaaahh I just want to make playoffs. I don’t care about next year. So that’s what goes into that. And everybody wanted him. Guys after, teams were calling me going “How did you get him??? What did you give up??” I’m like I don’t care what I gave up! I’m worried about this year, not next year.

NH: With the affiliation of the NHL teams, how does that work? Is there anything beyond developing some of their players? Is there more involved?

TB: We get so many camp spots, to send players for training camp to San Diego, we have to, and this is league wide, so they count at $525 on the cap, those players. We have to pay Anaheim that $525 a week. Other than that, there’s no ‘you have to play this guy, or you have to play that guy, but we enter into an affiliation together because they know I’m going to do everything I can to ensure their players can develop.

NH: So in terms of impacting the running of your day to day team not really?

TB: No, no. I can’t enter into an affiliation with another team, but no, as far as who I bring in, and who I can’t, they have nothing to do with that.

NH: So even if they send you a Kevin Boyle, say, you don’t have to play him a certain amount?

TB: I don’t have to…

NH: But he’s there under the understanding that he’s going to play.

TB: Yeah. Under the understanding that he’s going to play. That’s why they have the affiliation, especially for goaltenders, cause goalies have to play. And so in order to keep a good relationship, you work with them.

NH: One of the things you always stress is character on and off the ice, and with the league being what it is, is it again a word of mouth kind of thing that you find out who is going to be a good fit?

TB: Yeah, and it’s always one of the questions that you ask, whether you’re talking to the coach or one of the players, you gotta do your homework on these guys, how are they? How are they off the ice? Cause I don’t want to deal with hooligans off the ice, so yeah. You always try to find out as much as you can about them. It’s extremely important. Especially here. I mean, this organization has been around for a long time. And they’ve been around a long time for a reason. They do a good job. And if we want our fanbase to continue to grow, we have to get out in the community. The Jon Puskars get out in the community. The guys that don’t care are the guys who don’t get out in the community. So it’s like, well, I don’t want you on my team, because you not going to bat for the guy next to you. It kind of goes hand in hand. I want to make sure that those guys are coachable too, that they have fun coming to the rink, and not have any issues.

Thank you, Coach, for taking the time to sit down and answer all these questions. Best of luck to you and the Grizzlies in the upcoming season!

Interview Part I: The Basics of Contracts

Earlier this summer, I got to sit down with Head Coach Tim Branham to talk hockey.

Given that the off-season work of finalizing 2016-17 trades and rosters had just ended, and the beginnings of the 2017-18 team were underway, it seemed like an appropriate time to get into the nitty-gritty of contracts, and the thought-process that goes into building an ECHL team.

In this first of a two-part Q&A, we talk the salary cap, one-way vs. two-way contracts, the protected list, season-ending rosters, and college signings.

Namiko Hitotsubashi: Let’s start with the salary cap: How exactly does it work? Are contracts all one year long?

Tim Branham: Contracts are 24-hour contracts. A player could sign a contract today, and I could cut them tomorrow. It’s just on a daily rate. So they sign a weekly rate, but you pay them on a daily rate. Our salary cap is a weekly salary cap. The last year was 1,2600 dollars, next year it goes up to 12,800, so next year I have 12,800 dollars a week to sign 20 players. So the players on the reserve don’t count to the salary cap. Players on the injury reserve, as well, don’t count on the salary cap. So we have 20 active roster spots, two reserve spots, which we can put on and off at any time, then you get as many players as you want on the injured reserve. Any players on the injury reserve or the reserve don’t count to the salary cap. And you can have less than 20 players on the salary cap. My first two years, I would go one less player a lot of times, put 19 on the active roster.

NH: When you have guys on one-way vs two-way contracts, how does that work?

TB: That’s different. AHL or NHL contracts, those are year long contracts. Well, they’re a year contract. They get paid—say they signed for 60 thousand dollars, they get paid only during the hockey season. So they get a pretty good chunk of change through the hockey season, but they don’t get paid in the summer, so that’s how those contracts work. But not the ECHL contracts. There’s always been talk about the ECHL going to, like, maybe five guaranteed contracts. You know, you can sign like…a Jon Puskar to a guaranteed contract. You know you’re not gonna trade him, he’s not going anywhere, but it’s too difficult, and the owners haven’t decided on doing that.

NH: Does that mean that ECHL contracts don’t get paid out through the summer?

TB: Correct. ECHL players do not get paid in the summer.

NH: When, say, a Kevin Boyle comes and plays for the Grizzlies, what does that mean in terms of contracts?

TB: So that’s under Anaheim. It does count toward the salary cap. Any of those contracted players, whether it’s American League, or NHL, they count to 525 on the cap, so 525 dollars. If you get good contracted players, that’s awesome, cause they’re really cheap on the salary cap. Whereas that player, say it’s like, Charlie Sarault, he’s making X amount of money–lots of money–X amount of money, playing here, but he only counts at 525 on the salary cap, where if you want to sign Charlie to an ECHL deal, that’s like a thousand-dollar player, so you get him for 525 on the cap. So it’s beneficial to have a good affiliate that sends good players.

NH: So, there was a protected list, and then there was an end of season roster. What are they exactly, and what is the difference?

TB: I’ve always wondered what those rosters mean, and I was always rolling my eyes, because I just felt that they were really dumb, however, having said that, finally, this year, I was like, ‘Oh this is why they have the list!’ because I had future considerations out there, so that first list you put out, you can have as many players on there as you want. There are certain limitations to what players can be on it, so like, the players that you protected the year before, but didn’t sign the qualifying offer, you still have their rights. So like, those qualifying offers I just issued out, if those players don’t sign them, I still own their rights all year. So if they want to play in this league, they have to play for me. That being said, if they don’t sign that offer, I can sign them for whatever I want. I can sign them for league minimum, 450 a week, if I wanted, or we can negotiate a different amount. But I own their rights.

That first list is like, ‘Hey, this is my protected list. These are the players that I have the rights to.’ All the players that finished our season, all the players that didn’t sign their qualifying offers, all the players that have been in the American League, but that you signed to ECHL deals, then from that list– so I had future considerations out there, right, I traded [Erik] Bradford and [Tim] Daly, traded Colin Martin to Toledo, in order to get [Gabriel] Verpaelst. That’s the deal I made.

I can recruit a whole new team for next season so making the playoffs is a top priority.  Next year really doesn’t matter.

NH: Especially if it’s just signing rights…

TB: Yeah. I could go sign a whole new team. Oh, I lost two players? Ok, I’ve gotta go find that player again. It doesn’t matter. In this league, it doesn’t matter. So I never care about next year, ever. I need to do what I need to do to make playoffs, and to win this year. I know that’s hard to understand, and hard to take sometimes, like, the next year, sometimes you wish you had players, but you gotta do what you gotta do to make playoffs, and I really feel like the moves I made helped us make playoffs. Sometimes they turn out, and sometimes they don’t. I really feel like most of my trades have been good. There’ve been a couple I regret, but for the most part…

Anyway, so that protected list, that first list that goes out, the teams I have future considerations with, they can choose from that list, however you traded. Those are the players you have rights to, so those are the players that you can trade now to the other teams that you owe futures to. I owed one to Toledo for Bradford, I owed two players to Norfolk, and really, honestly, all those are is gentlemen’s agreements. Future considerations mean nothing to the league, it’s just a gentlemen’s agreement between the two coaches.

And then once I’ve made those trades, then what is it, June 15th? So then June 15th the other list goes out. Now, that’s a max of 20 players. So like, I traded those three players away, but I still had like, 24, 23 or 24 players I had to chose from. Players I know aren’t gonna play, or I don’t want next year, I’m not going to protect them. And then you have between June 16th, and July 1st to sign any of the players that you want for next year, keeping in mind that come July 1st, you can only qualify, you can only protect, eight of those players, so you want to sign as many as you can. So like, I’ve brought back a lot of players this year, players that I’ve already signed, tons of them, right? I’m really happy about that.

But, at the end of the day, if none of them wanted to come back, I can only protect eight of them. But I was fortunate. I got a bunch of them signed, then I only had to get off six qualifying offers. There’s no point in qualifying a veteran, say like, [Michael] Pelech or [Mathieu] Aubin. If they get a qualifying offer from me, since they’re veterans, they played more than 260 games, come September 1st, they’re free agents, they can go wherever they want. So it doesn’t really make sense to qualify a veteran, that’s why you hardly see veteran players get qualified. Just because if they wait it out, the can go sign anywhere they want. That’s why there are hardly ever any veterans on that list.

NH: So with someone like a Marc-André Lévesque, who signed in France, if he wants to come back and play in the ECHL, he has to come back here?

Yeah, he’s got to come back and play for me now. He signed in France, and now he has to play for me.

NH: When you’re going to sign a whole new team at the beginning of the next year, basically the pool you can then draw from is anyone who hasn’t signed an agreement with another team, and is a free agent?

TB: Correct. Yeah, so any player – if you’re on an American League deal last year, say like, who did we have, Kenton Helgesen. There’s no ECHL rights attached to him, cause he’s on an NHL deal, so anybody can sign him right now. Any of the free agents could have played in the ECHL, could have played in the American League, could have played in Europe, Division I college players, Division III college players, major junior players (OHL, WHL, Quebec Major Junior League), those are the players that you’re pooling from to sign for next year.

NH: With college signings, we had one guy that you signed last season to play for us this coming season, Brandon Harms I think? How does that work?

TB: When I claimed him on waivers, and he didn’t report, we suspended him, and were able to keep his rights for the following season. Those are ECHL rules.

NH: So when you suspend a player mid season you keep his rights?

TB: That’s right, you can keep his rights for the next year. Like Robbie Donahoe, I know there’s a couple of other D-men that I had suspended, but I didn’t end up protecting them, I didn’t have enough spaces, but yeah, like Robbie Donahoe I could have protected. If they sign an ECHL contract, and then you suspend them after the first day, then you can keep their rights and qualify them for the next year.

NH: Then you also had Robbie Nichols, the goalie who came and played one game for us?

TB: Robbie Nichols, I could have protected him, but I didn’t.

NH: In a situation like that, is there a deadline before which you can or can’t sign college players, how does signing players out of college work?

TB: During the season, you can sign them any time, it’s like an amateur try out, but they’re not going to come to you until their school, until their season is done. In the summer, you can sign them any time. Well, sorry. After June 16th. So technically, you can’t sign anyone till June 16th.


Look for part two on the anatomy of an ECHL team in the coming days!


Image courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies