The Orlando Solar Bears season ended sooner than most would have expected.
Despite a winning record of 36-29-6-1, the team stumbled in the last week of the regular season, allowing the suddenly-hot South Carolina Stingrays to sneak into the final available playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, leaving Orlando on the outside looking in at the ECHL postseason for only the third time in club history.
Even a few weeks after the season concluded at home on June 5 against Florida, the sting of not playing postseason hockey hasn’t worn off for head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky.
“Well, I’m still not happy even now,” Berehowsky said. “We made a big splash in the trade market [acquiring Michael Joly], and we wanted to make a run at it, and we came up short.”
Nevertheless, since the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, the team’s hockey operations corps has turned its attention to next season.
With Opening Night slated for October 23 at home against Atlanta, many Solar Bears fans are probably curious as to how next season’s squad will be constructed.
So what do we know so far?
Unlike last season, when the team was able to maintain a greater-than-average carryover of its roster from the previous year, Berehowsky anticipates there’s a good chance that the 2021-22 Solar Bears roster will have plenty of new faces that the Solar Bears will acquire via free agency.
“I don’t think we’ve been spoiled. We’ve worked hard every year to negotiate and recruit players, and we’ll continue to do so, and hopefully we’re able to receive some quality players from higher levels and we’re able to go from there.”
With Michael Joly (HPK, Finland) and Mark Auk (Odense Bulldogs, Denmark) already signing overseas, and several players crossing the threshold of 260 career professional games to achieve veteran status, including Alexander Kuqali and J.J. Piccinich, Berehowsky and assistant coach Jared Staal will potentially have a lot of flexibility and spots to fill before training camp opens in October.
There may be a bit of an initial waiting game at play when it comes to signing top-line ECHL talent, however, as players under NHL and AHL contracts heading to free agency await for offers to come their way. Additionally, with over a dozen ECHL clubs that opted out of participating in the 2020-21 season returning for the coming year, along with the addition of the expansion Iowa Heartlanders and Trois-Rivières Lions, there is going to be a highly-competitive free-agent market this summer.
“I think everyone’s holding on to see if they can get American League deals, so that’ll be their first option,” Berehowsky said. “And then we’ll be able to jump into the pool after that. I’d like to think we’ve built a reputation in this league that will allow us to attract the right players we’re looking for.”
There are several upcoming dates in the next few weeks that will help lay the foundation for next season’s roster before the team can begin signing players:
Thursday, July 1 - Protected Lists due at 3 p.m. ET
There’s several parameters that determine who is eligible for inclusion on the Protected List, but essentially any player who was on an ECHL contract for the Solar Bears last season and not released - or received a qualifying offer from the team last summer - will likely be included. Players who left for Europe after signing with Orlando last season (such as Johno May) or signed a contract in the AHL/NHL after beginning the season with Orlando (Garret Sparks and Ben Thomson) are also eligible. There is no limit to the number of players on the protected list. Players such as Anthony Repaci (whose rights transfer back to the Worcester Railers, who opted out of the 2020-21 season, or Joseph Garreffa (who was assigned to the Solar Bears on loan from the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda) are ineligible for the Protected List.
Monday, July 5 - Future Considerations Trade Deadline at 3 p.m. ET
Simply put, this closes the books on any outstanding future considerations components of earlier trades made this season. As of publication time, the following trades remain unfulfilled:
- Orlando is owed a future consideration from the Utah Grizzlies in the March 16 Michael Prapavessis trade
- Orlando is also owed a future consideration from the Indy Fuel in the April 18 Jordan Schneider trade
- The Solar Bears also flipped their future considerations owed from the Tulsa Oilers in the March 15 Alan Lyszczarczyk deal to the Wheeling Nailers as part of the Michael Joly trade, but will serve as the intermediary to complete the deal
Thursday, July 8 - Season Ending Rosters due at 3 p.m. ET
The Season Ending Roster is similar to the Protected List, but is capped at 20 players, and the player must have been on an ECHL contract during the 2020-21 season.
From the Season-Ending Roster, the Solar Bears can select up to eight players who they wish to extend a Qualifying Offer in order to essentially retain the ECHL rights to that player for the upcoming season. In the case of veteran players, there are some limitations: up to four veterans can receive a Qualifying Offer and Orlando’s exclusive rights to those veterans will expire by August 16.
Friday, July 9 - First day for Players to sign contracts for 2021-22 season
Here’s where the real fun begins, and the Solar Bears can begin to put pen to paper and begin building the roster for training camp.