There is news about the Solar Bears affiliation -- kind of. Yesterday, when PPP interviewed Solar Bears head coach Anthony Noreen, the feedback he gave about this past season’s relationship with the Toronto Marlies, especially GM Kyle Dubas, was extremely positive.
The feedback was so positive that when PPP asked Noreen about how he was going to spend his summer, he said, "I look forward to working with Kyle, getting the right type of guys in [the Solar Bears roster] that we know are going to get [the club] where it should be."
Wait -- Kyle? As in the Marlies GM? The two-year affiliation of the two clubs ends this summer. "So does that mean you're re-upping the affiliation?" PPP asked, and Solar Bears president Jason Siegel stepped into the conversation immediately.
"It does not," Siegel said. "Until we have a deal, we won't have a deal. That's today -- that's April 14. I don't want to over- or under-dramatize the response to your question."
But when PPP asked Noreen whether he’ll be heading up to the Toronto Marlies during the Solar Bears off-season, to observe their Calder Cup run, he was also positive.
"We've talked about it," Noreen said. "We're unsure yet. They've got to get through the regular season. They've got a lot of guys up there. They've got a lot of sorting to do of their own."
You can work this out as well as we can. From what it felt like during our conversation, Siegel was hesitant to commit because the organizations have not yet met to discuss the affiliation. But Noreen might already have summer plans that include making the best of an obviously close association with the Toronto Marlies front office.
How did the affiliated Marlies players do last season?
In the 2015-2016 season, Noreen's first as a professional coach, the Solar Bears ranked third in the South Division with 75 points in 72 games played, for a winning percentage of 0.521. Their home record last season, compared to the season before, was 15-18-1-2, decreasing from 18-13-3-2. Their road record remained relatively stable, with one more shootout loss and one fewer win. This wasn't quite good enough to get them into the playoffs, and they finished seven points beneath the cutoff of 82.
Were the Solar Bears a good place for the Marlies to land? The Bears ended up hosting 17 affiliated players last season, including Garret Sparks for one game, and Spencer McAvoy. The Marlies-affiliated players on the roster excelled on the team. Marlie-Bears constituted the team's top four scorers, and nine of the top 13 scorers. Along with the affiliated players were three that signed ATOs as the season went on -- Solar Bears captain Eric Baier, F Rylan Schwartz, and goaltender Ryan Massa.
Some of the most outstanding players of the year included TJ Foster, with 25 goals in 63 games played, good for 17th in the league, and Eric Faille, with 60 points in 56 games played. Patrick Watling was injured for a number of games this season, but when he played, it was at a more than point-per-game pace (28 points in 24 games played).
Were the Marlies players good for the Solar Bears? Only two affiliated players were traded before the season's end, Zach Bell and Max Nicastro.
Did the constantly shifting roster, exemplified by the 157 in-season transactions, including the many plane tickets purchased for Faille, destabilize the Bears lineup to the point where Noreen found it tough to ice a whole roster? In short, was the affiliation one of the reasons why the Solar Bears might not have succeeded this season?
Noreen indicated that it wasn't the short bench or the affiliation that was at fault.
"Jason told me, 'You're never going to have a full roster,'" Noreen said. "And yup, there were some nights when I dressed three defensemen, or seven forwards. You need to have a solid team with depth guys. You need to be solid top to bottom, you need to be able to beat the best teams with your depth guys because there are going to be nights when you're going to have to do that."
Instead, the affiliation helped open Noreen's eyes to different ways to judge players through analytical feedback, helping to shape training as well as roster decisions. "We had, right from the top, and I will say the absolute top of our organization," Noreen said. "People helping out, tracking stats, doing things that we needed to make sure that we had those things, to make sure that we could analyze our guys."
"It's very easy to just look at the game ... when you look at it from an analytical point of view, sometimes it opens your eyes to the true value of players that sometimes may be undervalued players, overvalued players... We definitely tracked a lot of things and kept some analytics that we used from each of our guys, that we used to change things, to adjust things within our system, and to figure out what the value of guys moving forward was."
The emphasis for the off-season is going to be roster development, and finding the types of players that work well in Noreen's system and in the Solar Bears organization. Interestingly, his criteria not only include analytical soundness, but also the kind of "good person" that Babcock has often described as suiting the Leafs organization.
Who is Noreen looking for to form a core group for the Solar Bears that can help guide and foster next season's potential crop of affiliated players, Marlies or not?
"Number one, it's someone of elite character," Noreen said. "Number two, it's someone with an elite work ethic. And number three, it's someone who makes the people around him better. If you don't have those three things, you're going to have a hard time fitting in to my system. I don't know any other way to say it. You have to have those three things. Those are without question, and the skill set comes next."
"Guys who can skate, guys who play hard, guys who are physical, tough to play against, those are the type of players that I covet, the type of players I'm used to having, the type of players we will fill our roster with, and I think those are the type of players we'll have success with."
What will bring success next season?
The Solar Bears had perhaps their best stretch of the season when they swept the Brampton Beast for three games. They have not found the same kind of success within their division, arguably one of the toughest in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades and South Carolina Stingrays. In the 2014-2015 season, the Bears' record against the Everblades was 5-8-1-1, dropping to 4-10-0-0 in 2015-2016.
That's right, the Solar Bears play the Everblades upward of 14 times a season, which is deadly if your young team is facing one of the best teams in the ECHL.
Moving forward, Noreen thinks that not only is it imperative to bring in the right kind of players to flesh out the Solar Bears roster, but also find ways to defeat the Stingrays and Everblades for the 20 to 30 games played against these divisional foes.
"It's good for us that the last two teams we saw were South Carolina and Florida," Noreen said. "The two teams we saw the most this year, and two teams that are at the top of the Southern division. That's our lasting memory going into the summer. These are the games that matter, these are the teams we have to beat."
"They play heavy, they play hard, they're older, they're mature, they've got experience, so I think we need to address a lot of those areas. Not that we're ever going to be older than those teams, (...) but we definitely need guys that can play heavy and play hard. (...) We fill our group out with those guys and get the right high-end younger guys with skill and skating ability that can make plays, I like our chances."
Did Noreen enjoy his first season in Orlando?
At the beginning of the season, Dubas sang the praises of the Orlando franchise, calling it the "best franchise in the ECHL."
A year later, Noreen echoed that sentiment.
"For young guys, they might think it's the norm," Noreen said. "Hey, we live in this great city, we play in this great arena, we're treated first-class. I think you have a guy like Nick Lindberg or Rory Rawlyk come in, they say, 'Hey guys, listen, this is better than any place we've ever been before. Realize how lucky you are.' And I think that goes a long way when older guys have seen other places and know what it's like to come here and say, hey, this is as good as it gets."
Now comes a long summer of waiting to see what next season will bring -- and whether the Solar Bears section will still be hosted by Pension Plan Puppets!
With many thanks to Don Money for the assistance and research.