There are two principle on-ice objectives for the Orlando Solar Bears, or any ECHL club.
The first is to win the Kelly Cup.
The other goal is to develop players to one day reach the NHL.
Through nine seasons of play, the Orlando Solar Bears have graduated a select few to “The Show.” It typically takes a few seasons for a player assigned to the ECHL to develop to the point where they’re considered NHL-ready, but Orlando has groomed seven players for the opportunity as the franchise prepares to enter its 10th season of operation.
Due to the unusual nature of the 2020-21 season, with many NHL clubs keeping their prospects in the AHL or on taxi squads while navigating the complexities of getting through a shortened season and adhering to COVID-19 protocols, the Solar Bears did not see any former players make their NHL debuts. That having been said, a few former Solar Bears-developed alumni made contributions at the NHL level:
- Mason Marchment - Marchment made his NHL debut with a four-game cup of coffee for the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2019-20 season, becoming the most recent Solar Bears alumnus to reach the NHL. The forward was subsequently traded to the Florida Panthers late last season and enjoyed a solid rookie campaign in Sunrise, posting 10 points (2g-8a) in 33 games and notably scored the game-winning goal in Game 5 of Florida’s first-round playoff match with the eventual Stanley Cup champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Marchment also inked a one-year extension in April, keeping him with the Cats through 2021-22
- Darcy Kuemper - Kuemper was the No. 1 goalie for the Arizona Coyotes this season, and had the team fighting for a playoff spot before a lower-body injury in early March sidelined him for a significant number of games and the Coyotes ultimately fell out of the postseason picture.
- Kasimir Kaskisuo - The goaltender was the principal taxi squad goaltender for the Predators this past season, making all three saves required of him in a relief appearance on March 11. It looks like Kaskisuo’s NHL plans are on hold, however, as the Finnish netminder has signed a two-year deal with Swedish Hockey League club Leksands IF.
- Christopher Gibson - Gibson saw time with the Tampa Bay Lightning, its taxi squad, and its AHL affiliate in Syracuse. The goalie earned his first NHL win since the 2017-18 season with the New York Islanders when he backstopped the Bolts to a 22-save performance in a 2-1 victory at Detroit on May 2. His contract ran through this season, with free agency opening across the NHL on July 28.
With that being said, the question now turns to which former Solar Bears player could become the next to reach the NHL?
The most likely candidate could be Connor Ingram.
The former Lightning third-round pick was traded to Nashville in the summer of 2019, and turned in an all-star performance with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals in 2019-20 and earning a contract extension that takes him through the 2022-23 season. He began this past season as the No. 3 goalie for the Predators behind the tandem of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. Ingram voluntarily entered the NHL’s Player Assistance Program in late January, before making his return to game action with the Chicago Wolves in April.
However, with this morning’s announcement of Rinne’s retirement after a 15-year NHL career, the door appears to have opened for Ingram to platoon with Saros next season in the crease for Nashville. Saros is currently a restricted free agent, but it is assumed that the Predators will get him under contract for the coming season.
Should Ingram in fact make his NHL debut during the 2021-22 campaign with the Predators, he would become the eighth former Solar Bears player to reach the NHL.
Another potential candidate could be forward Otto Somppi, who suited up for the Solar Bears during the 2018-19 campaign. Somppi, spent the entirety of this past season in Syracuse playing out the third and final year of his entry-level NHL contract with the Lightning that he signed in 2018. In the 2020-21 season he finished third in scoring on the Crunch with 26 points in 32 games, and tied for the team lead in goals with 12.
With some roster turnover expected for the defending Stanley Cup champions, who are expected to move some players in order to fit under the salary cap for 2021-22, Somppi could be an affordable option to at least earn the opportunity for a roster spot in the coming season. That of course, is contingent on Tampa Bay re-signing Somppi, who is a pending restricted free agent.
Keep in mind as well, that with the NHL expanding to 32 teams next season with the Seattle Kraken coming into the fold, that means the creation of a whole new roster, and with that comes available spots for players to achieve their dreams.
Come what may, the stage is set for the next wave of Solar Bears talent to one day reach the NHL.