Pension Plan Puppets was lucky enough to interview Pro Hockey News beat reporter Don Money about the Solar Bears and how they’re doing at the midpoint of their season. The Bears have played 41 games and sit in third place in the South division, with a reasonably firm grasp on playoff hopes if they continue to play the way they did during their new coach honeymoon period.
We discussed this, as well as the eternal issue of the “Marlie-Bears” that head up and down the coast, in this interview with Don.
Don has been writing about the Orlando Solar Bears since they were revived as an ECHL team in the 2012-2013 season, which was incidentally the first time that new coach (and former Maple Leaf) Drake Berehowsky coached the Bears.
Anthony Noreen to Drake Berehowsky
PPP: On November 14, after a record of 5-5-1-0, Coach Anthony Noreen was let go, and Coach Drake Berehowsky returned to Orlando. Berehowsky's record since taking over is 15-10-3-2, for a better than .500 win percentage. What differences have you seen in the team before and after Berehowsky's return?
Don Money: In the days immediately following the change, there seemed to be a lifting of a heavy cloud for lack of a better way to put it. Without getting an actual look into the locker room either before or after, the players seemed like there was a weight lifted from their shoulders. They seemed to be much freer in spirit and the play on the ice - especially at the Amway Center in front of the home fans - reflected the new attitude. The Solar Bears won six of the first seven (the loss came in overtime) under Berehowsky which made the fans and management happy.
Berehowsky talked a lot about simplifying things when he arrived. Between that and the cache of being a former NHLer, Drake seems to have struck a chord that has resonated with the players.
An Alaska trip with five D
PPP: The Bears' last ten games have been weighted toward losses (3-5-0-2) — it's also the farthest road trip the team has taken, heading to Alaska and Colorado. How did the road trip impact the team's play? Was health a factor in these losses?
Don Money: I have yet to meet a coach that didn't think that a long road trip was good for bonding a team and Berehowsky is no exception.
Orlando left for Colorado with just five available defensemen - a situation that began with the last home game against Manchester on January 3rd — which meant that the remaining blueliners had to step up. When Ryan Massa became unavailable due to an undisclosed ailment before Sunday's final game in Loveland, it put rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo in the position of playing five straight games with essentially no backup (the team had an emergency backup on hand but Kaskisuo had to go the distance unless he was seriously injured).
Starting off with a win in Colorado to break a 0-1-1-2 run at home around New Year's prior to heading out was a positive start. The Sunday loss was as close to a meltdown as one could get. Berehowsky was tossed out in the third period and missed the first game in Alaska due to a suspension.
Winning two out of three in Anchorage was quite an achievement. Kaskisuo stepped up in a huge way and his teammates rallied around him, lending credence to the bonding concept. The Solar Bears played with an "us against them" attitude and it worked.
Kasimir Kaskisuo’s first professional season
PPP: Leafs prospect Kasimir Kaskisuo has a not-so-stellar Save Percentage of .898 in 23 games played. What have you noticed about his play as a first-year professional?
Don Money: Being that the ECHL is a developmental league, goalies can be the toughest players to evaluate because they can be victims of the learning curve of the players in front of them. Even seasoned pros can't stop everything, especially when the defense leaves the netminder "out to dry" with mistakes.
That being said, it is easy to see the potential In Kaskisuo. His goals against average (3.42) and save percentage (.898) may not be where he or the team want them to be but when you can face 51 shots from an offensively skilled team like Alaska on the road and turn away 49 of them, you are doing a lot of things right.
41 different players on the Solar Bears bench
PPP: Forty-one different players have cycled through the Solar Bears' bench this season due to front office moves, players moving up to the Toronto Marlies, and players leaving for Europe, among other reasons. What moves particularly surprised you? Do you think the team has settled on its roster going into the second half of the season, or do you think more moves are likely nearing trade deadline?
Don Money: In terms of players leaving, I would have to say that the departures of forwards Johnny McInnis and Brock Montgomery were the most surprising. Both were very popular and seemed to be key pieces to the bigger puzzle. From a statistical standpoint, McInnis (3 goals, 3 assists in 13 games) and Montgomery (2 goals, 4 assists in 12 games) just were not producing enough (McInnis was dealt to Utah for other reasons that have never been disclosed).
Adam Brace being dealt after just seven games and four points was also a surprise but again when a coach is looking for the right chemistry, nothing is out of bounds.
On the positive side, the acquisition of Alex Gacek from South Carolina to complete the Max Nicastro trade has been a very good thing. In 10 games with the Solar Bears, Gacek has six goals and six assists. Another recent pickup, Darik Angeli, has added four goals and an assist in nine games.
Toronto has also played into the roster changes. Both T.J. Foster (five points in 12 games) and Willie Corrin were recalled and eventually farmed out to Norfolk and Brampton respectively. Foster has done well, netting seven goals and 17 points in 18 games with the Admirals while Corrin started contributing offensively for the Beast, even picking up an overtime game-winning goal. Then there is Cason Hohmann. Hohmann had nine points in 12 games in Orlando before being recalled for the purpose of being released from his Toronto contract. After a stint with Charlotte in the AHL, Hohmann landed with the Atlanta Gladiators and is doing quite well.
Will there be any more trades coming? It is always possible but that will depend on injury recoveries by Trevor Ludwig and Jon Jutzi as well as moves by the Marlies.
The Solar Bears miss Findlay, Faille, and Cameranesi
PPP: Do you think it's likely, given the Marlies season, that the Solar Bears will see Brett Findlay, Eric Faille, or Tony Cameranesi back in the south? Are there any players that look so good they might not be long for Orlando?
Don Money: I think it goes without saying that the Solar Bears would love to have Findlay (10 goals, 23 assists), Faille (16 goals, 26 assists) and Cameranesi (13 goals, 7 assists) back for the stretch run. Between them, they accounted for 24.3% of Orlando's offense to this point (39 goals and 56 assists). Add in defenseman Nik Brouillard (7 goals, 14 assists) who was recalled on Monday and that number jumps to 29.6%. That is a lot of offense missing. Adding to the missing, defenseman Taylor Doherty (2 goals, 9 assists) has been with the Providence Bruins since January 3rd.
All of that has left Denver Manderson (11 goals, 31 assists) and Joe Perry (21 goals, 9 assists) as the primary offensive threats. Patrick Watling (9 goals, 16 assists) and Austin Block (8 goals, 14 assists) have been picking up some of the slack up front with Gacek, defenseman Brenden Miller )6 goals, 9 assists) and rookie forward Chase Witala (3 goals, 7 assists) beginning to chip in.
Manderson, Perry and Miller might be good candidates for a call-up but I don't know if that will happen for them.
PPP: The Solar Bears are hanging on to a playoff slot of 3rd in the division with 46 points in 41 games played. The first-place Everblades and second-place Stingrays have two games in hand on them, but the fourth-place Swamp Rabbits have only one game in hand with 44 points. Do you think that third-in-division playoff slot will be the Solar Bears' to lose, this season? Or do you think one of the four teams beneath them might surge in the second half?
Don Money: The Solar Bears only have to worry about being in the top four in the division to make the playoffs. The key will be the 22 remaining divisional games left on the schedule. Six are against Florida - a team that Orlando is just 2-6 against this season with four of them in Estero where the Solar Bears are 0-3 so far. Another six are against Greenville (Bears hold 3-1-1-1 mark), four against Atlanta (Bears 3-2-0-0) and three with South Carolina (tied 2-2).
Overall, it will come down to how the Solar Bears play in stretches. They have a 10-game homestand (Norfolk, Atlanta, Greenville and Utah) that will be followed by a 9-game road trip (Florida, Adirondack, Brampton and South Carolina). The last three games of the season are all against the Evetblades with two at the Amway Center. The talent is there to succeed and with some help from Toronto, the postseason is within reach.
PPP: Thanks, Don!