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Sparks speaks: ECHL is for "taking ownership" of professional career

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After a shootout loss to the Stingrays, Solar Bears goaltender Garret Sparks spoke about the impact of the ECHL on Maple Leafs prospects and his own career.

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The Orlando Solar Bears pushed the third-in-division South Carolina Stingrays to a fifteen-round shootout, losing the game 2-1 and reducing their magic number from seven to four, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Interesting news made its way around the Solar Bears press box tonight. Earlier today, Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas told blogger Kyle Cicerella (Kylethereporter) that the Leafs are going to become more serious about treating the ECHL as a developmental league, much in the same way minor leagues are treated in baseball. "We would like to have it where first-year players start in Orlando and graduate to the Marlies and then to the Leafs," Dubas said.

The Solar Bears are at the halfway point of a two-year agreement with the Maple Leafs system, and currently have four Marlies prospects in their ranks: Peter Sivak, Stefan Della Rovere, Brady Vail, and Patrick Watling. Two more, D Eric Knodel and Garret Sparks, are on two-way contracts with the Maple Leafs. According to Dubas, this number is likely to increase by quite a bit next year.

I spoke with Solar Bears goaltender Garret Sparks after the game, asking him about how he found his experience with the Bears in terms of development. His response was interesting, so I’ll post it unedited. Long story short, the ECHL gives players opportunity and playing time, but it still takes a lot of personal initiative for prospects, goaltender prospects in particular, to "take ownership of their careers":

They're trying to get three teams from NHL, AHL, and the ECHL, all aligned so that they can take time with prospects who are maybe more long-term, namely goalie prospects, I know that that’s what this league is primarily used for. Obviously I’ve been here all year, I’ve had my ups and downs, but at the same time I’ve learned a lot about myself, my game, on and off the ice, what it takes on a daily basis to be a professional hockey player, and… It’s amplified when you’re down here and you don’t have maybe the coaching, the specific goalie coaching that you’re used to up there, you have to do a lot on your own and figure out a lot on your own.

From being here all year, I could see a lot of players down here next year who are given the opportunity to take ownership of their careers and do with them what they want. So … It’s a fun place to play down here, it’s a challenging place to play in the sense that you’re kind of on your own, in that you don’t have anybody looking at you 24/7, you have to do it on your own, so it should benefit prospects long-term to have more people down here.

You get to be a big part of a team down here from an early age. You have 21, 20 year old guys who are taking big roles on this team, and it’s a challenge. Maybe they’re good enough to play in the AHL, but at the same time, you’re more important to the team when you’re playing here. Maybe you need to take on that role as part of your development as a prospect, and having two leagues to develop players allows [managers] the flexibility to do with those players what they want.

Solar Bears Coach Vince Williams agreed that the ECHL provides an important part of the growth process for young players:

When [Kyle Dubas and I] talked last summer, he shared a lot of insight on it. I think it’s something that a lot of teams are starting to do. I think it’s really important — this league is a very good league for young players, no matter what their status is, drafted or not. I think getting above and beyond the stigma of what it entails to be here, with twenty year old kids, you have to learn how to be a pro.

They need to learn to take care of themselves, they’ve come from juniors where they’ve lived with a billet families, so it’s all part of the growth and development. It’s an opportunity to play, and play a lot, with a tough schedule, and learn — learn how to be a pro.

I think everyone is interested in seeing what happens next. So, on to the game review.

With the Maple Leafs eliminated and the Marlies five points out of a playoff spot, the Solar Bears likely have the best chance in the Maple Leafs system to hold onto their playoff berth. All of the remaining games are important to the Solar Bears, who had a magic number of seven coming into the night to maintain fourth place in the division.

Marlies/Leafs prospects on the ice tonight were Garret Sparks in net, D Eric Knodel, and F Stefan Dela Rovere, F Peter Sivak, and F Brady Vail. F Patrick Watling wasn’t on tonight’s roster: he returned to the Solar Bears on March 25th, but went immediately back up to the Marlies on the 27th.

In the first, Knodel showed sharpness and energy, playing deep to cover Stingray rushes and disrupting almost all of them. He wasn’t on the ice for the one goal scored during this period, and in dangerous situations helped diffuse any good looks that the Stingrays had in front of Sparks. Shots on goal, which were 6-3 for much of the period, evened out toward the end due to a high-sticking double minor on Bears’ Brock Montgomery.

The second period’s energy was pretty even between the teams with a lot of time spent deep in each defensive zone, but not much happening in the way of scoring. The line that included prospects Vail and Della Rovere passed sharply on a rush to get the best look halfway through the period. Stingrays' goaltender Jeff Jakaitis covered Della Rovere’s right-circle wrister to place the face-off firmly in the Bear’s offensive zone. Sadly the line after that couldn’t convert, running into determined traffic around the net. This was the way it went in the scoreless second, even though the Bears ended up 22-19 in shots on goal. Bears defense, especially from Knodel, remained strong.

The strong defense continued into the third with Knodel deflecting and driving possession into the offensive end during the ending of a PK. The Bears capitalized on this immediately with a goal at the 1:37 mark, an unassisted wrister from Vail to tie up the game. After that, twelve minutes passed without a shot on net for the Bears while the Stingrays surged by 20 shots on goal. Sparks was strong during the two PKs in this period, and held on through the spike in shots in the third, with the Bears seeing only two more looks at the net.

In a scoreless overtime both teams had even chances, but the magic number MAGICALLY reduced itself from seven to six with the overtime point, and from six to four with fifth-in-division Greenville’s loss to Gwinnett.

The game went to a fifteen-round shootout. I refuse to recap it all, but Sparks looked strong after saving 42 of 43 shots in regulation and overtime, and continued to look strong in an effort that saved 7 of 15 shots to give the Stingrays the second point. Sparks earned a well-deserved third star of the game.

The Stingrays are on the fifth game of a seven game road trip that includes two stops with the Solar Bears before ending at the Everblades. The Solar Bears are on the first game of a four game homestand, with two against the Stingrays, and one each against second-in-division Reading and first-in-division Florida.

I will see you next week at the home closer!