The ECHL regular season ends on April 8, and it’s past time for an update on how the Solar Bears are doing this year.

They started the season with a lot of challenges. They were mired in the bottom three in the entire league, had nothing remotely like stability in net, and were struggling to score goals. Eventually the goalie situation resolved itself to a good tandem of Cal Heeter and Mackenzie Skapski, both on Marlies contracts, and on loan for most of the season to the ECHL.  The goal scoring appeared more slowly.

With a few games left to play, the Solar Bears have risen to third in their division and have clinched that playoff spot. They can’t take second place, but they locked up third place on Saturday night.

Heeter made 36 saves to pitch his first shutout of the year and his teammates supported him with five goals as the Solar Bears (33-28-6-3, 75 points) dominated the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (23-38-7-1, 54 points) 5-0 in front of a large and very loud announced sellout of 9,555 at the Amway Center Saturday night. The victory allowed the Solar Bears to lock up the third seed in the South division and a likely first round matchup with the South Carolina Stingrays.

From Don Money’s gamer.

(statistics are from before Saturday’s game)

Their win percentage is not great at .529, and league wide they are in 17th place out of 27 teams. Some unbalanced divisions are helping them, as they would not be in a playoff position in any other division.

The road to this limited success was paved first with that goaltending duo, and then with a good group of AHL-contracted players on loan from the Marlies. The late season addition of Hunter Fejes on an ECHL contract has also proved crucial to the team’s turnaround. Fejes was on a brief PTO with the Marlies so the team could get a closer look at him.

Fejes is the top-ranked Solar Bears player by points, counting both his numbers there and from the Wheeling Nailers.  He is 20th in the league as of March 31, and he had 0.84 points per game in Wheeling and 0.91 in Orlando in approximately half the season on each team.

The next two Solar Bears by points are not the names you might be expecting. Instead, Max Novak and Joshua Winquist, two summer AHL signings, are next.

By points per game for regular players, the ranking is:

  • Winquist - .94
  • Fejes - .88 (total)
  • Novak - .86
  • Nolan Valleau - .80 He’s a defender who has had some loans out to AHL teams.
  • Jean Dupuy - .73 He’s had 16 games on the Marlies as a fourth line centre.
  • Chris Crane - .73 He’s an ECHL veteran with a good track record of scoring.
  • Martins Dzierkals - .69
  • J.J. Piccinich - .62
  • Kristian Pospisil - .54/

You might not remember Pospisil unless you watched the development camps and training camp this summer. He’s a free agent AHL-contracted player who is a big forward.  Judging by his PIM, he plays an aggressive game. He’s nipping at the heels of two Leafs draft picks who are on the team via AHL contracts.

All of them are being seriously eclipsed by Winquist and Fejes. While Winquist is 24 and Fejes is 23, Dzierkals is the youngest player on the team at 20, about to turn 21 in a few days. Pospisil and Piccinich turn 22 this year. Jeff King, the defender, is also 22.  Most of the players in the ECHL are US college players who have turned pro, and most of them do it at 22 or 23. The rookies aren’t kids in this league.

I found 16 total ECHL players with over 30 games played who are former draft picks with ‘96 or ‘97 birthdays. Former Leafs pick Jack Walker is one; he’s now on an Iowa Wild contract. There’s one undrafted player as young as Dzierkels in the mix, and there may be a few more free agents of Pospisil’s age.

For the teams playing the very small number of European free agents and junior hockey graduates at age 20 or 21, they are taking the ECHL, slowly, in the direction the AHL has been going for years. But the skew in this league is still heavily to players 24 and over. The AHL had to change to get on board the youth movement. Teams can’t shove a 20 year old just emerging from a junior hockey life lived with a billet family or his own parents into a motel and then ignore him.

The younger the players are, the more you have to pay attention to their entire lives, and that costs money. You need facilities; you have to feed them, manage their nutrition and fitness, and just fill their days with work and not count on them having the good habits that four-year college players have had time to develop if they were so inclined. Colleges realize they have a duty of care over their students. Hockey teams need to figure that out too if they’re going to fill up their ranks with men of the same age.

I’m not convinced that there are many teams in the ECHL who have the money to spend on things they might see as frills considering how tight their budgets are. I think this is a considerable barrier to using the ECHL effectively as a training ground for younger players, one wealthy teams can kick down. Poorer teams may be left barely having a use for their ECHL franchise if they can’t afford to keep a large number of prospects in the AHL, never mind the next level down.

As we have seen in many other areas, including the AHL, the salary cap makes teams with money smarter about what they spend it on. It leaves teams without money struggling to keep up, just by being smarter all the time.

We should rate Dzierkals, King, Pospisil and Piccinich in light of their age, and they have all been good in a league that wasn’t really designed for them. That’s all you can expect, and it will be very interesting as the coming offseason unfolds to see who is playing where next year.

Before that, though, the Solar Bears get a playoff chance, and with the right kind of luck it will go better than last year’s goalie-disaster that we’d all like to forget. Go Bears!