ORLANDO, Fla. – When the Orlando Solar Bears agreed to become the ECHL affiliate of the Minnesota Wild a little over a year ago, it was a sign that the NHL franchise had faith in the expansion team to prepare players to move up the developmental ladder. The Wild and its AHL team in Houston sent a number of players to the City Beautiful to play, learn and become the backbone of the new squad’s roster.
Monday afternoon, the Solar Bears announced that they had upped the ante on player development by signing a deal with one of the NHL’s most storied franchises – and going north of the border to do so. In addition to seeing prospects from the Wild, fans in Orlando will also get to watch players who wear the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the AHL’s Toronto Marlies when the 2013-2014 season begins in October.
“In the ECHL, it’s about having depth. It’s about having options,” Solar Bears President, C.E.O. and Managing Partner Jason Siegel said. “We had discussions with a number of organizations and it (Toronto) was a good fit.”
Toronto did not have an ECHL affiliate during the 2012-2013 season after an agreement with the Reading Royals lapsed. Prior to the agreement with Reading, the Leafs had been affiliated with Columbia (SC) and Pensacola (FL). During the time that Reading and Toronto worked together, goaltenders James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, goalie prospect Jussi Rynnas and forward David Steckel all made their way from the ECHL to the NHL.
Leafs Vice President/Assistant General Manager Claude Loiselle said that getting back into the ECHL was a necessity in the wake of the new collective bargaining agreement that the NHL negotiated with its players union.
“With the new collective bargaining agreement now, you need to develop your own players. It’s more important to bring in your young players,” Loiselle said. “Some players come out of juniors, come out of college and aren’t quite ready for the AHL. They need to play in an environment that is better suited to their abilities. I think there’s more skill (in the ECHL). We’re hoping to get our skilled players down here to play more crucial minutes.”
A team as high profile as the Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s “Original Six” and owners of 13 Stanley Cup championships, can pretty much have their choice of affiliates. Loiselle said that working with Orlando is a perfect situation.
“It’s a great setup. Geographically it’s terrific,” he said. “Having met all the major players here, it’s going to be a great situation for us.”
Loiselle said that the Leafs most likely will assign from three to five players to the Solar Bears, including a goalie who he said “would get playing time”. Based on last season, Minnesota and Houston sent a half dozen players to Orlando, meaning that there is a possibility of players having to fight for time. Loiselle said he is not worried about that because ultimately it is up to the players to earn the time.
“At the end of the day, it’s always up to the players to fight for their own ice time. We have an
agreement that our goaltender is going to play but if he needs more time or if he’s not good enough, then he doesn’t deserve to play,” Loiselle said. “It is going to be incumbent on him – the goaltender, all the players – to come in and play at the best of their abilities or else they don’t deserve to get on the ice.”
Siegel agreed with Loiselle and noted that Vince Williams, the Solar Bears new head coach, has experience working withing a two affiliate system, which makes him qualified to handle every aspect of the situation.
“We’ve got Vince Williams at the helm who in the past has worked with Philadelphia and New Jersey. He’s been in that environment, juggling the decisions and correspondence,” Siegel said. “We feel we’re prepared to go into that type of relationship and only time will tell. We’re confident going in that that’s the best for us.”
Unlike the Wild who relied on sporadic visits and multiple weekly phone calls to Orlando, Loiselle said that the Leafs will be much more hands-on with their prospects. He himself plans to visit often as well as having player development personnel and scouts making frequent appearances in Solar Bears country. The goal is to make sure that the players are focused on honing their skills.
One face that may been seen on a regular basis will be a familiar one. Toronto’s Director of Player Development is Jim Hughes, who was an assistant coach on the IHL Solar Bears team that won the final Turner Cup championship. Former longtime NHL player Steve Staios, who is a player development consultant for the Leafs, is also expected to be seen around the Amway Center.
“You always about is it too comfortable for the players but it’s going to be up to them,” Loiselle said. “I’m sure that they want to move up, they want to make more money, the want to make the NHL. For them to do so, they’ve got to be the best they can be.”
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