The Toronto Maple Leafs recently announced the addition of the Orlando Solar Bears of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) as an affiliated team this past summer, sharing the relationship with the Minnesota Wild, as an additional destination to assign prospect players that may require additional seasoning or a rehab assignment before rejoining the Toronto Marlies. Here is the official announcement video for those who are interested.
Although this new affiliation announcement appears to have been met with little fan fare here in Toronto, with most comments of the low brow variety making quips about the entity name, logo and colouring, there is plenty for Leaf fans to be positive about. The Orlando Solar Bears are a stable member of the ECHL and who will be facing a variety of professional teams on a regular basis. This relationship allows the Toronto management team piece of mind in that any prospect sent to Orlando will receive consistent ice time and coaching in line with their own expectations. A prime example of what this type of stability will bring was made apparent in goalie prospect Mark Owuya’s year last year, jetting between the Toronto Marlies, the Las Vegas Wranglers and the Reading Royals, both of the ECHL. It was almost painful to follow and one could only imagine what kind of effect this may have had on his development curve as he continued in his attempts to readjust to new defensive pairings, teammates, styles of play and ultimately new environments given that it was I believe his first pro year in North America.
One of the main draw backs of having such a large prospect pool is that you have to find a place for all your players and put them in environments that they can ultimately succeed in. Maple Leaf fans should be happy in knowing that this announcement is indicative of the organization not only having plenty of prospects in the pipeline but also that they have made a commitment to developing them in the best way possible, dependent on their development, age and skill level. It does not properly serve the likes of a Jamie Devane, Sam Carrick and even Brad Ross to sit in a press box watching Marlies games when they could be actively playing competitive ones; sending them to an affiliate assures that they will receive their fair share of ice time and continued training to help them take continued steps forward in their development as professional hockey players.
It is hoped that Maple Leaf fans will also start to change their general perspective that a player assigned to the ECHL is a backwards step in their development and that they are now somehow less likely to make a positive impact with their various parent clubs later on. You really do not have to look any further than James Reimer who played a number of games in the ECHL before being called up to the Marlies. This incorrect notion that ECHL teams play in dimly lit and partial filled buildings is a general misnomer and in the case of the Solar Bears there are arguments to be made that their games are better attended than the nearby Florida Panthers at times. They have for all intents and purposes built a solid and supportive fan base, have great looking facilities and now have another NHL affiliate to further draw advice from.
There are also those that would argue that the skill level in the ECHL is significantly lower given the semi-pro nature of the league and they would be correct on that assumption but only to a certain degree. The jump from junior hockey straight into the AHL is sometimes a little much for a prospect use to playing against, on average, 18 year olds. There are various examples of high draft picks shuttling between the affiliate AHL club and their CHL team. Having a resource such as an ECHL affiliate bridges the skill gap between junior and professional hockey and it is definitely my hope that more NHL/AHL teams sign affiliation agreements with ECHL teams given this. A possibly supportive case, albeit not the strongest, would be the scenario revolving around recently signed prospect Christopher Gibson. At 20 years of age his junior days are effectively behind him but he sits in the number 3 position with respect to the Toronto Marlie goaltender depth chart. Instead of sitting in the press box awaiting a possible injury and only practicing with the team, why not send him to Orlando where he would see plenty of rubber, face increased skill levels and game situations. Players in the ECHL are not the facepunchers one once thought and are skilled players from a variety of backgrounds. From those who went undrafted or played in college and university these are still skilled athlete’s with a dream to continue making strides in their career’s or supporting their families and should be granted the props that deserves. As always food for thought!