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Hard work with Solar Bears pays off for Nolan Valleau

Thursday, December 13th
Hard work with Solar Bears pays off for Nolan Valleau

Nolan Valleau was at a crossroads this past summer.

The defenseman’s time as a prospect for the Chicago Blackhawks had come and gone. He began his pro career in 2015 after he left Bowling Green State University and signed a two-year deal with Chicago, but in that time, he spent the entire term of his contract buried on the depth chart with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.

After his entry-level deal expired, Valleau made his way to Orlando for the 2017-18 season, where he enjoyed a breakout campaign with the Solar Bears, earning All-Star honors and setting new personal bests in every noteworthy category. Along the way, he even earned a few try-outs with several AHL clubs.

As Valleau prepared for his fourth season of pro hockey, the blueliner had a choice to make:

On the one hand, he could sign another ECHL contract with the Solar Bears, where he would have a more likely (but by no means guaranteed) opportunity to garner some looks from teams in the AHL and continue to chase the dream of one day making the NHL.

The other option would be to accept an offer with a European club – one that would be more financially lucrative, but would otherwise signal that he had shut the door on pursuing a career of playing professional hockey at its highest level.

Valleau took a chance, and put pen to paper for another season with the Solar Bears. Several months later, his gamble has paid off.

After earning a pre-season invite with the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL, Valleau returned to the Solar Bears in time for the start of the regular season. Through seven games, he showcased the two-way play that had earned him an All-Star selection the previous season, posting four points (2g-2a) along with a robust plus-minus of +6.

It was enough to catch the eye of the Syracuse Crunch, who were in need of an extra body on the back end. The AHL club offered him a 25-game Professional Try-Out Agreement in late October.

“Prove you belong”

There was no indication that this try-out would lead to an extended stay in Syracuse.

“When I originally got the call, I wasn’t sure how long it would be. I was just told to pack for a couple of weeks and fill in – it was kind of a day-to-day thing,” Valleau said. “It’s kind of a unique situation when you get brought in on a PTO because you want to show that you can play, but you also have to find the right opportunity to do so without overextending and maybe trying to do too much or too little.”

Flash-forward to December 6, and after posting four assists through 12 games with the Crunch, the team made the decision that Valleau had done enough to merit not only a full-fledged AHL contract for the remainder of this season, but a club option for next year as well.

While it’s not quite the same as reaching the NHL, the contract indicates a huge vote of confidence in the 26-year-old’s abilities, and validation that a player’s development doesn’t have to end by their mid-20s.

“Having that stability is great. It’s always nice to have a team like Syracuse support me like this and give me a real good chance to show that I can play,” Valleau said. “I’m just excited for the next chapter in my hockey career and grateful that Syracuse has given me the opportunity.”

At the AHL level, it’s not uncommon for a team to have multiple hockey operations staff available to help improve a player’s development.

“They’re a really professional organization and they treat their players really well,” Valleau explained. “They’re really good at communicating and will tell you exactly what they want from you, what they expect and what you can bring to the table every night for the team.”

Valleau has taken advantage of having Crunch assistant coach Ken Klee around to provide guidance in games and practices. Klee, a former NHL defenseman with 934 games of experience and – like Valleau – a Bowling Green alumnus, has worked extensively with Valleau since the defenseman joined the team and recognizes Valleau’s contributions since coming on board.

“He’s been solid defensively, we’re using him on the power play, he plays the first and last minutes of periods at certain points,” Klee said. “He’s been a solid contributor to our success. We as a coaching staff recognize it, and it’s been nice for him to be able to take this opportunity and go.”

The Orlando Effect

For Valleau, the journey back to the AHL has been a study in perseverance and staying humble. And he credits Solar Bears head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky for helping guide him back to the highest rung on the minor league hockey ladder.

By coming to the ECHL and playing for Berehowsky, Valleau received top-pairing minutes and honed his skills as that ideal two-way defender many coaches covet. Berehowsky isn’t surprised to see Valleau thrive at the next level – as of Dec. 13, Valleau has five assists and is a +5 through 15 games with the Crunch.

“He skates well and he moves the puck well,” Berehowsky said. “I think the biggest thing nowadays in the game is skating, and [Syracuse] really puts an emphasis on that, and he’s done a great job.”

The announcement of Valleau’s contract with the Crunch is bittersweet for Berehowsky. Valleau could still theoretically make his way back to the Solar Bears at some point during the season, but for the time being, Berehowsky plans on forging ahead without his All-Star blueliner. There’s zero doubt in Berehowsky’s mind that Valleau made the right decision.

“I think he’s too young [to go to Europe]. He still has the dream and the fire in his belly,” Berehowsky said. “He has to still consider himself a prospect, and if he looks at himself that way, then he’s going to keep improving. The sky’s the limit with his ability to skate, and he’s got a pretty good hockey IQ. It’s pretty impressive and he should be proud of himself. I’m happy and thrilled that I had a chance to coach him.”

The student echoes his teacher’s sentiments.

“[Drake] believed I could play at the next level from the minute I got there,” Valleau said. “He knows what he’s talking about and I think he’s a great asset, and he’s played a big role in advancing my career to the next level again. I’m very grateful for crossing paths with him.”

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