Maple Leafs fans in the cold north have long puzzled over why MLSE decided to affiliate with the Orlando Solar Bears. Aside from the amazing jerseys (clearly a reason in themselves), why should the Leafs send down their AHL players to a place far, far below the border, to the second-most-southern franchise in the ECHL (narrowly beaten by the Florida Everblades)?
People have pointed out that it would be convenient to move the affiliation to a closer team -- for the sake of players being more easily monitored by the training staff and front office, and for a shorter distance to travel when players are sent back up.
People have also suggested that Toronto could easily affiliate with the Brampton Beasts (currently part of the Montreal Canadiens system) or Toledo Walleye (part of the Detroit Red Wings system), or literally any other, closer ECHL team. So what is it about Orlando that drew MLSE in the first place?
Recently, Kyle Dubas gave an emphatic answer to these questions. According to Dubas, Orlando is, in short, the best franchise in the ECHL. Asked about the affiliation after a Solar Bears game, Dubas gave unreserved compliments to the Solar Bears' facilities, owner involvement, and community support.
It's the best franchise in the ECHL by far. I've traveled to some, and seen some other ones, and it's not even close. So there's no other place we'd rather be. You could have the second best team in our back yard, and it wouldn't matter.
Between the Amway Center and how great everything is here from when you walk into the dressing room, the arena in general...and I think more importantly, where the team is day-to-day, and the coaching that they get, and the support they get from ownership and the community -- it's outstanding here.
I think we're very fortunate as an organization to have the relationship with Orlando, and our players are extremely fortunate to be the benefactors of that relationship to be here versus some of the other places that I've seen.
MLSE will continue to send their players to Orlando because it's simply the best.
Dubas answered two other questions for Pension Plan Puppets during the post-game interview. When asked about whether Toronto's focus on development has changed at all since Lou Lamoriello has joined the organization, Dubas said that it has not. The same philosophy of slow development is in effect, and Dubas wants prospects from the minors to push the Leafs starters. He cited Byron Froese as an example of a player who was in the ECHL last year, and who rose to play in the NHL.
Asked next about whether Dubas was already seeing every level of the Leafs organization playing the same system, he replied that results were mixed. The Solar Bears' second game did not play to the system as well as the first game did, despite the 6-3 victory. However, this was not due to a lack of coach Anthony Noreen's understanding of the system, but more because players seemed to "take their foot off the gas." Dubas said that the first game of the season was a much better example of the Leafs' system at work.