Expect some tweaks to the script, but not a complete rewrite for a Toledo Walleye team that just had a record-setting campaign season.
Toledo’s lineup — which debuts tonight when the team faces Quad City on the road — will be bigger and more rugged, yet coach Dan Watson will maintain the team’s trademark speedy and high-scoring style.
The second-year coach believes the effort to add more size and physicality should mesh nicely with the team’s traditional uptempo, attacking pace.
“The roster is built by design,” he said. “We ended up getting the guys we were targeting. I want our guys to be able to sustain a whole season and then the playoff grind. The bigger bodies tend to be able to do that. They can handle it and dish it out. They will play the same way we want our guys to play.”
A regular season of unprecedented success was followed by one of the deepest playoff runs in franchise history.
The Walleye were the first team in the 29-year history of the ECHL to lead the league in four key categories: total goals scored (302), least goals allowed (191), power-play percentage (25.1), and penalty kill success rate (86.8).
Watson was named the ECHL coach of the year after leading the team to the Brabham Cup, which is awarded to the team that finishes with the most points during the regular season. Last year’s club also won the most games (51) in team history. It was the third straight highly successful regular season campaign, so the tinkering will not be a complete overhaul, Watson said.
“It's not going to change too much. With the players we have we can still play the uptempo, the transition,” he said.
Six core players return, including captain Alden Hirschfeld and fellow forwards Shane Berschbach, A.J. Jenks, and Kyle Bonis, along with defensemen Simon Denis and Beau Schmitz.
Hirschfeld is coming off his most productive season. The Sylvania native, who has played in 190 games for his hometown team, had 49 points in 55 games.
Berschbach and Jenks have combined for 332 points during the past three years in Toledo. Berschbach, who set single-season Walleye records with 68 assists and 86 points last season, is the organization’s all-time leader in points (216). Jenks had a career high 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists) in 46 games.
Bonis, who holds the franchise’s single-season goal-scoring record (36 in 2014-15), has 56 goals and 39 assists in 106 games with Toledo.
Forward Tyler Barnes, who set a then-franchise record for points in a season and was named ECHL rookie of the year in 2014-15, also returns.
Still, Watson added a dozen players who are taller than 6 feet, 1 inch and more than 200 pounds to the roster.
Hirschfeld said the trend toward a larger team overall has been a point of discussion in the offseason and that it will make the club more balanced.
“It will be great to build some size and to round up everything,” Hirschfeld said. “We’ll have a little bit of everything. We’ll have the skill, the talent, quickness, speed, and defensive capabilities as well as the offensive side.
“We’re rounding off everything in a perfect circle. We’re building that top team that the coaches, players, and fans want. Hopefully, we’ll have success with it.”
Just as importantly, Watson also had to fill the void left by the departure of goaltenders Jeff Lerg and Jake Paterson. The team’s ultimate success might come down to the performance of two new netminders: ECHL vet Pat Nagle and Czech rookie Matej Machovsky.
Machovsky, 24, played the past four seasons in his native Czech Republic. The 6-foot-2, 187-pound goalie had a 2.25 goals-against average. Nagle suited up for rival Fort Wayne last season and has appeared in 222 ECHL games since 2011-12 with a 123-59-24 record and 2.61 GAA.
“I expect both of them to give us a good opportunity to win games every night,” Watson said.
Watson also lost four of the team’s top six scorers from last season: forwards Tylor and Tyson Spink (Europe), Evan Rankin (retirement), and defenseman Nolan Zajac (AHL contract).
Watson and his assistant coach, Andy Delmore, who are former defensemen who had good size, set out to recruit bigger players. Delmore was 6-1 and 200 pounds during his playing days in the NHL. Watson was 6-2 and 220 pounds when he played for the Toledo Storm.
Forwards Connor Crisp (6-2, 220), Austen Brassard (6-2, 207), Christian Hilbrich (6-7, 216), and Colin Martin (6-2, 196) are new to the lineup.
“Those four stand out,” Watson said.
Defensively, Davis Vandane (6-4, 210) and Kevin Tansey (6-4, 217) bring instant size along with Brock Beukeboom (6-2). Tansey had 31 points in 44 games with the Missouri (now Kansas City) Mavericks last season.
“I hear playing for the Toledo Walleye is a prestigious thing around here,” Tansey said, “so I’m excited to play for a team where the fans are really behind you.”
Vandane said he had played in Toledo before and thought it was a top-notch organization.
“I talked to a lot of guys who said this was the best place to play,” Vandane said. “We have the coaching and the commitment to winning.
“I’m definitely OK with being the guy who plays that physical role. It’s about the presence on the ice. I’m 6-4, and I have a long stick. It’s almost a scare tactic kind of thing.”
The Walleye survived physical playoff series against Kalamazoo and Fort Wayne during the first two rounds last season before wearing down in the conference finals against eventual Kelly Cup champion Colorado.
Bonis said what stuck out the most in training camp was that all the big guys could move.
“Having a big frame is obviously an advantage, but they can all play,” Bonis said. “Sometimes you can overemphasize size, but Watty and Delly made sure the big players they got could play. They are physical and use their size incredibly well, but they can still play the game at a high level. After the Colorado series … they found big guys that can fit into our system.”
At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Jenks always has been one of the club’s biggest players.
“It’s a lot different than the last few years in training camp,” he said. “I welcome that change, and it will benefit us in the long run. I think we have a rugged group. We have to find our roles and just build as a team.”
The organization received a big boost from its AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids with the assignment of forward Zach Nastasiuk and defensemen Vili Saarijarvi and Patrick McCarron late in the preseason. Nastasiuk and Saarijarvi were high picks in the NHL draft by the Detroit Red Wings.
Two players who joined the team late last year, forward Charlie O’Connor and defenseman Parker Reno, also return. One late addition, forward Darian Dziurzynski, is known for his physical brand of hockey.
Berschbach said the influx of players from other teams speaks volumes for the organization.
“Guys want to be in Toledo,” he said. “For guys to leave Fort Wayne and come here says a lot.”
Nagle said he has always respected the Walleye organization.
“You know they do it right and are successful,” he said.
Nagle said the Walleye have always had a highly skilled team with good speed.
“They’re always very dangerous,” he said. “It will be great to not have to see some of those guys on the power play every night.”
While banners celebrating last year’s Brabham Cup and Central Division titles will be hung from the rafters of the Huntington Center on opening night Oct. 21, Watson said the plan is to bring the city its first Kelly Cup since 1994.
“It’s exciting to see what we have out there,” he said. “Hopefully, everything comes to fruition and the guys play up to their potential.”
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