In the ECHL, change comes fast and frequently, and the Solar Bears were certainly no strangers to this truth on Monday, as the team made several moves after Sunday’s spirited 4-1 win over South Carolina.
As often is the case, there is a rhyme and reason to every move made in a league where the hockey operations staff has to work with roster size restrictions and balance a weekly salary cap.
Patrick McNally was dealt to Wheeling in a deal for future considerations, while Ben Thomson was activated off the ECHL Commissioner’s Exempt List and received a call-up to the AHL’s Binghamton Devils, less than 48 hours after Orlando had also released Taylor Cammarata and Scott Conway. These moves paved the way for the Solar Bears to bring back defenseman Nolan Valleau on Monday and activate Tyler Bird and Dylan Sadowy from the Commissioner’s Exempt List on Tuesday.
For fans, it can probably feel like a revolving door keeping up with all of the paper transactions that occur on a sometimes daily basis, and the hockey operations staff certainly empathizes.
“It’s always hard managing [the cap] for any team - you want to be able to keep players and pay them, but you have to keep those numbers under a certain amount,” Solar Bears head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky said. “That’s the challenge, but I think we’ve done a good job with it, and hopefully we continue to.”
The trick is finding players who are able to fill a variety of roles, and Berehowsky points to the efforts of forwards Tad Kozun and Zack Andrusiak in Sunday’s victory against the Stingrays (when the pair regularly managed to agitate South Carolina’s players with their up-tempo, in-your-face style) as an example.
“They got under the skin of the opposing team, they play with a little bit of sandpaper and grit,” Berehowsky said. “We all believe to be effective you have to have a team with many types of players, and they’re the type of players that can do that, and hopefully they can continue to perform the same way.”
Valleau’s return gives blue line a boost
The return of Nolan Valleau, who previously patrolled the blue line for Orlando during the 2017-18 campaign and the first several weeks of the 2018-19 season before joining the Syracuse Crunch, was a welcome addition to the roster, giving Orlando an offensive-minded defenseman who can quarterback the team’s power play, something the team was still seeking following the departures of Cody Donaghey and Michael Brodzinski for Europe.
For Valleau, who set the club’s single-season record for power-play points by a defenseman with 17 in 2017-18, it’s an opportunity to return to the level of play that earned him a two-year AHL contract with the Crunch early in the 2018-19 season. That year, he put up his best career numbers in the AHL, with 20 points and a +20 in 68 games with Syracuse. But his second season in Syracuse was hampered by a leg injury suffered midway through the season, and the coronavirus pandemic forced a premature cancellation to the season that derailed a chance to finish the campaign on the rebound.
The opportunity to get back into the routine of playing in familiar surroundings was an excellent motivator for Valleau to sign a contract.
“Talking with Drake over the course of everything, it just made sense to get the ball rolling and get my skates down,” Valleau said. “I think Drake just knows the game - I trust his opinion and the way he coaches this team. I think he knows what gets wins, what works and what doesn’t - so it was easy for me to come back.”
“We brought him in to solidify our ‘D’ corps; I was happy with our guys, but I think when you get a player of his caliber, you become that much better,” Berehowsky said. “He can help offensively, and defensively he’s very responsible, so hopefully we’ve become a little tougher to play against in our zone as well.”
Berehowsky acknowledged he wouldn’t be surprised to see a player of Valleau’s ability garner some attention from the AHL - and potentially receive a call-up - as has happened before on several occasions with his All-Star defenseman. It’s the nature of the ECHL, but as always, Orlando’s staff always keeps a keen watch on what else is available on the market.
“We always keep our eyes open and if we see there’s something good we’ll try and jump at it, but right now we have Valleau, and hopefully he’ll be here for a little bit, and we’ll deal with that situation when it happens.”
In the meantime, Valleau’s return to Orlando is made easier by the presence of several former teammates from his time with the Solar Bears and Crunch, including Chris LeBlanc, J.J. Piccinich, Tyler Bird, Devante Stephens and Matthew Spencer, along with fellow Detroit-area native Mark Auk that give Valleau an already-established comfortability level.
Of course, Valleau will also have some company in the form of Otis, his three-year-old Chiweenie (a Chihuahua/Dachshund mix).
“We’re going to have to get creative,” Valleau said. “We’ve been taking a lot of laps around the apartment complex.”
LeBlanc drops back
Some of Tuesday’s drills pitted the team’s forwards against the defensemen in head-to-head competition, and with the D-corps short one body, the group enlisted LeBlanc to join their ranks for the morning.
Not terribly surprising considering the captain’s play is entirely predicated on a reliable, 200-foot game.
How’d the forward do in his new (temporary) role? The verdict is still out.
“I probably wouldn’t have picked him first overall, but he played hard and tried his best, and we’ll definitely take that into consideration the next time,” Valleau joked.
“Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I played back on ‘D,’” LeBlanc said. “You’d probably have to go all the way back to my youth hockey days.”
Once the drills and instruction end, players are free to take advantage of any remaining ice time to work on individual pursuits, and oftentimes this results in some light-hearted creativity.
After all, hockey - like any sport - should be fun.
One has to look no further than Devante Stephens, Tad Kozun and Zack Andrusiak lingering after practice and improvising some of their skills.