The Steelheads 5-3 victory over the Colorado Eagles on Wednesday night officially put a bow on the first half of the ECHL regular season. As the team reflects on the first 36 games of their 72-game campaign, the traditional markers for success are there. Idaho is currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Mountain Division with 46 points, nine points more than they had at the midway mark of last season. But in the ECHL, a league with a focus on developing talent, there’s another area where the Steelheads have had a lot of success this season.
Steelheads goaltender Branden Komm signed a professional tryout agreement with the Bakersfield Condors this week, becoming the fifth ECHL-contracted Steelhead this season to earn a call to the AHL.
“It’s very rewarding for us,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham. “Obviously we have two main goals here. One of them is to win hockey games and put an excellent product on the ice, and the other is to develop our players and help enhance their hockey careers with call-ups to the next level. Typically those two things go hand-in-hand.”
It certainly did for Komm, who went 5-1-1 in his previous seven starts for Idaho.
Other Steelheads this season to get the call have some previous AHL experience. Joe Faust skated in four games for AHL Texas in late December, having played 34 games with the Albany Devils over the prior two seasons. Kellan Lain played two games with Bakersfield and Travis Ewanyk played a game with Texas. Both players are on their first ECHL contracts after Lain played the first 104 games of his pro career in the AHL and Ewanyk the first 204 of his career.
For players with AHL experience that come to Idaho, part of the appeal is a trust that they will have a legitimate shot to make it back to the AHL at some point. So far this season the Steelheads have proven they can deliver such opportunities.
“It’s a good model for success. Three of our ECHL-contracted call-ups have gone to our AHL affiliate in Texas, which is great when you look at the kind of relationship we have,” said Graham, also noting Bryce Van Brabant signing a PTO with the Stars right out of training camp.
“In terms of recruiting, players know we have a close network within our own affiliation. We’ve had two other players both called to Bakersfield, and it’s good to know the California teams close by aren’t afraid to reach out and take note of our players who are playing the game hard.”
Both Lain and Komm earned their AHL looks from the Bakersfield Condors, proving that while the Steelheads are in constant contact with the AHL affiliate in Austin, there are other teams in the hockey world recognizing the talent in Boise and the Steelheads’ product on the ice.
“I think it means they trust the way our organization is doing things and that we are preparing guys for the next level. It’s a reward for our guys who are playing the game the right way, who are putting in the work and being consistent,” said Graham. “It shows that teams do take note and they are watching.”
It isn’t just the ECHL guys who are earning calls. Being on an AHL deal doesn’t guarantee a player will play in the AHL. Young players still need to prove themselves and perform when they are in the ECHL to earn that call, and several players who started the year in Idaho earned that reward.
Defenseman Brandon Anselmini is currently in Boise, but spent over a month with the Stars with some impressive numbers, grabbing three assists in nine games with a plus-4 rating in his first AHL action. Landon Bow started the season in Idaho, but now the rookie is between the pipes in Austin with a 4-3-0 AHL record. Caleb Herbert remains in Texas on his second call-up of the year, scoring three goals and adding two assists in 11 AHL contests.
Players sent to Idaho from the Stars are also hoping to put their best foot forward to get a chance to head back to the AHL, and Idaho has benefited from their play. Mike McMurtry scored a short-handed breakaway goal and added an assist on Wednesday night in his Steelheads debut. Branden Troock has scored four goals in nine games since joining the Steelheads in December, and goaltender Philippe Desrosiers has won three straight games in net.
The Steelheads are proud of their player development this season, but are also focused on a Kelly Cup this spring. The best way for players to advance in the sport is by winning, and the Steelheads players know that being among the best teams in the ECHL is the key to making their mark at the next level.
“When you’re winning games and doing things the right way, other teams take notice. I think it’s important for us to keep pushing and keep playing the game hard,” said Graham. “Hopefully other guys in our locker room get a chance to play at the next level as well.”