Most Toledo Walleye faithful have heard by now that the almighty Jeff Lerg had returned to the Walleye! After playing 23 games for Rungsed Seier Capital of Denmark, Lerg was benched for another goaltender and decided to return back to Toledo. Upon his return, the franchise leader in wins, shutouts, goals allowed average, and save percentage now has a chance to improve up the records and make another run for the Kelly Cup. One major issue comes with Lerg’s return to the Glass City though: Toledo now has three goaltenders. An ECHL team doesn’t have the luxury of carrying three, there just aren’t enough roster spots, they can only realistically have two goalies at any time. If Heeter is sent back down to Toledo upon the return of Jimmy Howard from injury, then Coach Watson is going to have a tough decision to make concerning Heeter, Lerg, and Paterson.
Cal Heeter and Jake Paterson made a great starting tandem at the beginning of the season. The two netminders alternated starts for the first seventeen games of the season before Heeter was recalled to Grand Rapids for the first time. Of those seventeen contests the Walleye only lost three games, all of which were games started by Paterson. After returning to Toledo on December 8th the two goalies again split starting time, each started three games out of six played before Heeter was called up once more. Though the goaltenders were no longer on the same team, they both continued playing excellent hockey. Since the second call up to Grand Rapids Heeter is 5-2-0-1, while Paterson is 11-4-1-1 with the Walleye. So what does all of this mean in the grand scheme of things? Paterson and Heeter make a lethal combination in the ECHL, and such a combination would be wicked in the Kelly Cup Playoffs. Heeter has more professional experience compared to Paterson, while the Red Wings prospect has the agility advantage due to his youth. Now let’s throw Lerg into the mix. Out of the three goalies available to Toledo Lerg is undoubtedly the most popular, not surprising considering his achievements with the franchise. The combination of Lerg and Paterson highlighted the 2015-16 season, with the two combining for 46 wins in the regular season. Faced with these stats and the pressure of potentially having to pick two of the three, who do you go with?
Out of the three goaltenders there is one that you just can’t go forward without: Jake Paterson. Without taking his performance into account, Paterson is a prospect of the Detroit Red Wings. Toledo is never going to release a prospect in favor of a player that is not a prospect, as the prospect is not their property to release. Detroit would ultimately have to make that decision for the Walleye, and Paterson’s status with the franchise seems secure at the moment. Besides being a prospect, Paterson’s season alone is reason enough to keep him on board. Through 30 games Jake has 22 wins along with 4 shutouts and leads the ECHL in wins, Anthony Peters of the Florida Everblades and Jamie Phillips of the Tulsa Oilers are tied for second with 19 wins. Combine that with a save percentage (SV%) of 0.910 and a goals allowed average (GAA) of 2.56, earned with a defensive core plagued by call ups and injury, the Canadian netminder has earned his crease. So now that we have established Paterson will remain with the Walleye, that leaves a decision to be made between Heeter and Lerg. At first glance this appears to be a decision between the hot hand and the prodigal son. Heeter’s current numbers for both the Walleye and Griffins are superb, with 10 wins in 11 games and 7 wins in 9 games respectively. In the AHL Cal’s GAA and SV% have both improved from his time in Toledo, as they rank at 2.11 and 0.932 respectively. Heeter’s current numbers suggest that if he is loaned back to Toledo that we should go with him, but Lerg has a case of his own. First off, the Walleye faithful want to see Lerg on the ice way more than Heeter. Jeff helped bring the Walleye back to prominence by leading Toledo to a Brabham Cup, an Eastern Conference Final appearance, and back-to-back North Division titles between 2014-16. Lerg was a critical part of each landmark achievement due to his effort and determination during games, practice, and training sessions. Ultimately Heeter has prioroty over Lerg, so Cal would get the second spot due to his AHL contract. The scenario can be heavily impacted on what the Red Wings do in the coming weeks as well.
Detroit is fighting what appears to be a losing battle as they continue to try and get into a playoff spot. Tied for last place in the Eastern Conference with the Sabres, the Red Wings should begin to look into becoming sellers before the trade deadline. So who is likely to be traded? Mike Green and Thomas Vanek are likely candidates, but so are any of the three Red Wings goaltenders. Jimmy Howard would be an excellent backup and mentor for a young starting goaltender on a team ready to make a playoff push; due to his injury history I wouldn’t be surprised if his starting days are over. Petr Mrazek, on the other hand, if traded could immediately be a starter on a number of teams that are not immediately playoff bound. Mrazek’s contract would be hard to trade away to a backup role however. Finally, if Detroit really decided to blow things up, Coreau could be worth a couple good picks or players if he continues his strong play. Coreau’s youth would also be very appealing to a number of teams. How does all of this effect Toledo’s goaltender situation? Because if the Red Wings trade Mrazek, Coreau, or Howard, then that would allow all of Toledo’s goalies to stay in the Red Wings system. Of the three I see Howard having the greatest chance of getting traded, and if he does Heeter would most likely remain in Grand Rapids for the rest of the season. With Heeter remaining a Griffin, Paterson and Lerg would reunite to form the tandem from last year. This scenario is the most appealing to me, and I‘m guessing to quite a few of you as well. Now, if none of the Red Wings netminders get traded, things get messy. One of the Detroit goalies will be sent to Grand Rapids, which will push Heeter out of his job. Here is where Coach Watson has to replace Lerg with Heeter, like I said before Paterson isn’t leaving. From a statistics and contract standpoint the only choice is Cal Heeter, despite Lerg being a franchise leader in many of those stats. Cal has been rock solid throughout the year, even with him moving between leagues and cities over the course of the season. Lerg’s relationship with Watson and this Walleye team runs deep, so having to potentially cut him will be hard on eveyone. This Walleye team wants to play for Lerg, and Lerg wants to win with Toledo. After coming up short in the playoffs last season, I think Jeff is on a mission to prove to all his doubters that he can lead a team to a professional championship to go with his NCAA Championship at MSU. Coach Watson would give him that chance too, but it just doesn’t seem probable given the contract situations.
However the goaltending situation turns out for the Walleye and Red Wings we are going to be losing someone. More people will be upset seeing someone like Howard or Mrazek leave over Heeter or Lerg, but for the hockey fans in Toledo we don’t want to see our boys get the axe. With his play earlier in the season, Heeter has earned a place within this franchise, and his contract guarantees him a spot on the team. Lerg has already left Toledo once to pursue his goals in Europe, but when that team disregarded his ability he was welcomed back by his teammates for another potential crack at the title. Leaving during the offseason seems to have cost Lerg a permanent spot on the roster though. Regardless of who joins Paterson, the Walleye will continue to strive for a number one seed in the playoffs. Hopefully Lergie will get another shot at the Kelly Cup, and maybe Heeter will have a go at the Calder Cup. Let’s go Walleye!