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Walleye face uncertain offseason

After record-setting year, Toledo expects roster to look significantly different in 2017-18

by Arthur J. Regner @arthurjregner /

It has been a little over a week since the Toledo Walleye were eliminated four games to one in the ECHL's Western Conference Final by the Colorado Eagles.

After winning Game 1, 4-2, in Toledo, the Walleye lost three consecutive one-goal games, with one contest settled in overtime and another decided in the third overtime.

"We certainly had many opportunities to be leading in the series and you look back to Games 3 and 4, one went to overtime and one went to triple overtime, it could have been two shots and we could have been up 3-1 in Game 5 instead of down 3-1," Toledo coach Dan Watson said. "I know the emotions and everything involved in playoff hockey and I really appreciate the way the guys battled until the very end.

"It's a really good Colorado team. They're a mix of everything, they've got skill, they've got size, they've got toughness and it was one of those things where it just wasn't meant to be right now."

As well as Colorado played, all signs during the regular season pointed to the Walleye as being the team to hoist the Kelly Cup as the league's champion.

"The group of guys we had, it was a very special season. We broke the Toledo record for wins with 51 in a year," said Watson. "We were the first team in the 29-year history of the ECHL to lead in goals for, goals against, power play and penalty kill. We were all No. 1 in those categories.

"I think there were 33 team records, Walleye records that were broken as well. These guys put together a great piece of work all through the season just by their hard work every day and unfortunately they just came up short in the playoffs."

By the way it's set up, the ECHL is a transient league. A majority of players on an ECHL roster are unrestricted free agents (UFA), who are always looking for a better opportunity. Rarely do they stay with one team for more than a season or two. This Toledo team was the exception.

Many players bought into the Walleye team concept, which kept the core group together for the better part of the last three years. Each player was committed to bringing the Kelly Cup to Toledo. Though unsuccessful, the Walleye's regular season dominance has given the players a bevy of choices to consider this offseason.

"With the success we've had over the last three years, especially this season, we could find guys going to Europe, signing American League deals or moving on to other ECHL teams," Watson said. "There are going to be several players that have many options to choose from this summer.

"So, it's going to be tough to retain a bunch of these guys, but at the same time, our goal is to maintain a core group that can continue to drive the culture in the locker room, continue to show all the new players in a Walleye uniform what it's like to be a Walleye."

One factor that Toledo has going for it as it seeks to replenish its roster is its affiliation with the Red Wings. If you're part of the Wings organization, they treat you as a partner. Detroit wants to be a solid organization from top to bottom. Whether it's the Red Wings, the Grand Rapids Griffins or the Walleye, the Wings will do everything within their ability to ensure that each team has a competitive team on the ice.

Watson appreciates the Red Wings' approach, since his roster is not made up of mostly Detroit prospects.

"For the most part we probably only see anywhere from three to maybe six (Wings prospects) at a time and obviously with a 22-man roster, you're looking at just under a third of the players are Wings prospects," Watson said. "When they (Detroit) send guys down, it's for development purposes, but they fit who we are.

"Guys like Zach Nastasiuk and Jake Paterson, both took huge strides this season in their development. Whether it's physically, whether it's mentally, whether it's trying to find a role when they get called up to Grand Rapids, they can excel in that role."

Roster size in the ECHL is different than the NHL and the AHL, so Detroit can send a player that may need more seasoning to Toledo where they will receive extended ice time to improve upon their game.

"You can only dress 10 forwards and six defensemen each game; you can only dress 16 position players and two goaltenders," said Watson. "There were some night we went nine (forwards) and seven (defensemen), some nights we went 11 (forwards) and five (defensemen), but most nights it's 10 and six, so it's really three lines, a 10th forward and your six defensemen.

"That is why the ECHL is good for development these guys are seeing a ton of minutes, a ton of minutes."

As Watson mentioned, Red Wings draft picks like Nastasiuk and Paterson appear to have benefited from their time with the Walleye.

Nastasiuk, 22, was Detroit's second-round pick, 48th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The right-handed forward has good size at 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, but has not developed into an NHL player yet.

Since he turned pro in 2014, he has split time between Grand Rapids and Toledo, playing more games for the Walleye (72) than the Griffins (45).

"What we worked on with Zach was keeping his feet moving, his physical play and using his using his big frame to give himself the best opportunity," Watson said. "The biggest thing from Zach is just getting that confidence again. He's been up in Grand Rapids for a number of games and lengthy stretches and he's in and out of the lineup, so it's just getting up that confidence when he has the puck he knows what to do with it.

"He's still on his way up; he's a second-year pro. He still has a ton of learning to do, a ton of growing in terms of his skill development side as well, so he's a guy if the Red Wings are patient enough, there's something there, but again it's one of those things where I know teams have high expectations for players and they want those met too."

Paterson, 23, was taken in the third round, 80th overall,,\ by the Red Wings in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-foot-1, 183-pound goalie has excelled in Toledo.

"Jake, he had the ability to start several games in a row and carry the workload. That's why he is so good and that's why he's a finalist for goaltender of the year in our league," said Watson. "He's still trying to figure out what it's like to be a pro. He did a phenomenal job with that this year.

"You could see his maturity and growth mentally this season, whether it was after a bad game, whether it was after a bad goal, just how he rebounded, he got refocused and continued to play great throughout the regular season.

"We lost Cal (Heeter) here for a number of games. Jake stepped right in and he was the guy. I can't remember how many starts he had in a row, but he had a 50-game stretch where he was incredible. He's a workhorse; he wants to get better every day."

While Watson knows he can count on the Wings to send him players such as Paterson and Nastasiuk, he'll spend this summer looking for several quality players to fill out his roster, depending on how many of the Walleye's unrestricted free agents decide to leave Toledo.

It's a bittersweet task for Watson.

"This is probably the toughest part of the season. Now we're in the recruiting phase where we're trying to identify players who can best fit our needs," he said. "I was a player in the ECHL, I understand the ECHL. Our job as a coach and as a staff is to help these guys get to the highest level possible, make the most money possible and to develop them to be the best person possible.

"If these guys get opportunities to get to the American League, I am very happy for them, I'm thrilled for them because that means we did our job. They did their job of putting in the hard work every day so it's actually satisfying to see these guys move on.

"Selfishly, I'd love to have these guys back in the lineup, but at the same time we are the Double-A level. We'd love to move these guys up to the Triple-A level.

"Now it's our job to find guys to come in and whether it's to replicate or duplicate the job of the guys we're missing or fill another role. That's the tough part of this league is losing guys, but then the beauty of it is you're bringing in guys to help develop again."

Toledo's roster may be made up of just a handful of Red Wings prospects, but that doesn't mean the Wings are not instrumental in helping the Walleye target unrestricted free agents to fulfill their needs.

Detroit is always being approached by player agents and players to see if the Red Wings have any interest in signing them to a contract. If the player doesn't fit the Red Wings' needs at that time, but they're interested, they inform the Griffins and Walleye.

"Since we've been an affiliated team with Detroit, they have been more than generous helping myself and Derek Lalonde (former Toledo coach) the past two years identify players that would help us in Toledo, but could also be potentially good depth players for Grand Rapids," Watson revealed. "When Ryan Martin (Detroit's assistant general manager and also Grand Rapids' general manager) gets phone calls from agents or emails from agents or players, if it's not maybe a fit for Grand Rapids at the moment, he'll forward all that stuff on to me.

"They really do care that we win, so they want us to get the best players available. They do help us out in terms of recruiting, especially the high-end guys we call 'bubble guys' that can bounce from the American League to the ECHL, they will get on phone calls with us and they will help out quite a bit."

Nothing ever stays the same in the ECHL and the Walleye have been fortunate their roster has been essentially the same for the better part of the past three seasons.

They now face an offseason where they'll have to retool their team. Watson is confident Toledo has cultivated a culture and identity of what Toledo Walleye hockey is, which should appeal to potential players.

"I do feel this is going to be the year where there will be turnover and I think moving forward, I'd like to get a little bit bigger especially on the back end," said Watson. "That has nothing to do with or against the guys that we already have on defense, but when we face Colorado, these teams from the West (Conference) and Ft. Wayne who is in our division, I envision being able to withstand and handle all the physical play.

"I'd like to bring that brand along with our pace and speed to continue that trend in Toledo as well. It's a big job. Those players are hard to find, but at the same time I am confident if I find those players, I can lure them to Toledo with all the resources that we have."

Based on what they've recently accomplished and having the Red Wings organization completely invested in the process, the Walleye are well on their way to establishing something very good in Toledo.

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