Montreal Canadiens: Zach Fucale and the AHL Bubble

Former Montreal Canadiens prospect Zach Fucale finds with the Washington Capitals, as he looks to break from the proverbial AHL bubble.

It was a slow start to the 2020 off-season, both for the NHL, and the Montreal Canadiens.

With the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic having led to the suspension of the 2019-20 season, the NHL managed to resume for the Playoffs, awarding a Stanley Cup champion in the Tampa Bay Lightning, after a long overdue extended 24-team playoff format.

After the season’s conclusion, fan interest then turned to the off-season, which, as expected, saw some changes in much the same way as the playoffs did. Because this upcoming season’s fate was in question for much of the Summer (with the league now having set a start date of January 13th) teams were more hesitant when it came to free agency, with numerous top players still unsigned heading into late December, such as three-time 20-goal scorer Anthony Duclair and consistent 50-point performer Mike Hoffman.

Because of this lack of development, acquisitions that would normally go unnoticed were being covered more extensively. Case in point, Zach Fucale. On August 19th, 2020, the Washington Capitals signed the 25-year-old goaltender to a one-year deal at league minimum. For Canadiens fans, Fucale brings back memories of frustration and inconsistency, in a time where the Habs were trending downwards, following a Conference Finals appearance in 2013-14, and Division Title in 2014-15. After rebounding from a dismal 2011-12 season in 2012-13, the Canadiens went into the 2013 NHL entry draft with two top picks in the second round.

After selecting USHL product Michael McCarron 25th overall, the team took Swedish forward Jacob De La Rose with the 34th pick, and Fucale 36th overall. A product of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, Fucale was the first goalie selected in that year’s draft, having been ranked the top North American goaltender by NHL central. In the 2012-13 season with Halifax, Fucale posted a 45-5-3 record, leading the Mooseheads to a President’s Cup, and eventual Memorial Cup title, turning aside 40 shots in the Championship game against the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.

In Halifax, Fucale had benefited from the roster in front of him, being led by future NHL stars like Nathan MacKinnon, current Habs forward Jonathan Drouin, and current Winnipeg Jets star Nikolaj Ehlers. Following the draft, Fucale would post a 36-win season in 2013-14, and a Gold Medal performance in the 2015 World Junior Championships. While he had an off 2014-15 season, being traded to the Quebec Remparts midway through the year, he would lead them to another Memorial Cup appearance.

To Canadiens fans, Fucale looked to be a future star, having won most everything you could win in a junior career. However, once he got to the professional leagues, things didn’t turn quite as well. The St. John’s IceCaps had already been a team lacking in much talent offensively or defensively, and Fucale, in spite of his efforts, struggled. Originally starting the season as the backup to Dustin Tokarski, a trade to the Anaheim Ducks early on made Fucale the starter. However, after having issues with consistency on an IceCaps team that found themselves in a playoff push, Fucale ended up splitting time with ECHL call-up and AHL vet Eddie Pasquale, who eventually earned the starting job by season’s end.

Despite this, fans were still hopeful Fucale would turn a corner, as a rough first season was something many rookie goaltenders dealt with. Following the Habs acquisition of Charlie Lindgren however, Fucale was relegated to a third-string role, losing the backup job to long-time AHL vet Yann Danis. Spending the majority of the season with the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, Fucale managed to showcase some of his potential, leading the Beast to the Kelly Cup Playoffs with a 25-12-7 record with a 3.17 GAA and 4 shutouts. As impressive as this was though, this would unfortunately become the trend for Fucale’s career. Following a rocky start to the 2017-18 season, one which saw the Canadiens affiliates murdered by the trickle-down effect due to injuries, Fucale became a brief starter for the newly formed Laval Rocket, though did little to impress with a 3.26 GAA.

This would end up being Fucale’s last season with the Canadiens, with the team having chosen not to resign him heading into the 2018 off-season. Fucale was then quickly signed by the Vegas Golden Knights on July 1st, expecting him to compete for the starter’s role with the Chicago Wolves. Instead, Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace stole the show, leaving Fucale, once again, in the ECHL with the Fort Wayne Komets. Since then, Fucale has seen his stock fall farther and farther, being relegated to a one-year AHL deal with the Syracuse Crunch last season.

Following another season spent primarily in the ECHL with the Orlando Solar Bears, Fucale was released midway through the 2019-20 season, signing with EHC Red Bull Munchen of the DEL, before being unable to play due to injury and the season’s cancellation. Now having signed with the Capitals, Fucale is expected to spend yet another season in the ECHL, with the Caps primary reason for signing him being so they can have a goaltender to expose in the upcoming Seattle Expansion Draft. Fucale’s fall from grace has been something that has been mostly forgotten by the hockey world, with him avoiding the dubious moniker of first round bust by about five selections.

In a rare case however, Fucale has struggled to crack the AHL, let alone the NHL, something which players such as Pittsburgh Penguins starter Tristan Jarry (the second goalie selected in the draft) have fared better in, to say the least. Fucale has shown glimpses of his skillset, and he is a talented goalie in his own right, having been the starting goalie for Team Canada in the past three Spengler Cups. Despite this, he just hasn’t found an AHL team willing to give him a chance, settling into a role as an ECHL starter and AHL injury call up. While its extremely unlikely he sees NHL ice-time, don’t count him out of the AHL just yet, as he’s now just entering his prime at 25 years old.

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In the end, with the ECHL season now resumed, Fucale will get a chance to showcase his abilities once more, looking to earn that long sought after AHL starting job, calling back to the 34th overall pick Canadiens fans, envisioned him to be.