Roster changes happen frequently in minor leagues sports across the nation, and the ECHL may have the most movement of any league. Call ups, loans, reassignments, and conditioning stints are the cause of significant personal shifts for the vast majority of franchises across the league. For example, out of 62 Toledo Walleye player transactions this season 41 of them have involved call ups/loans and reassignments. As a result, we never quite know how our roster is going to look going into the weekend. Walleye fans were reminded of this when A.J. Jenks was loaned to the Iowa Wild yesterday for his first AHL trip of the year. Toledo managed to break even today though, as we received Tyler Sikura after he was released from his professional tryout with Iowa. Coach Lalonde has given numerous Walleye players a chance at the AHL, as the former Walleye bench boss is in the process of revitalizing a bottom tier franchise. There is no reason to feel bitter or upset about the player movement we have seen this year though, as it is all a part of the professional hockey process. As a matter of fact, there are many ways that Toledo can get better as a result of these roster changes.
The Walleye, as well as the rest of the ECHL, has seen significant movement of players to and from the AHL throughout the season. Whether it has been to their particular AHL affiliate or a separate organization, ECHL teams have averaged almost 28 player transactions (loaned to or added from the AHL) during the 2016-17 season so far. It is important to note that players sent back and forth between the AHL and ECHL multiple times count as separate transactions, so each roster change is not necessarily a unique player being added or removed. Let’s take a look at the teams within the Central Division: Toledo has the most loans to and additions from the AHL in the division with 41 separate transactions. Fort Wayne, on the other hand, has not made this type of transaction all year! In Fort Wayne’s case it is partially due to them being an independent organization with no affiliates, so the next lowest within the division is Kalamazoo with 12. As for the rest of the Central: Indy has 32, Quad City 25, Tulsa 24 and Wichita 26 AHL reassignments or loans. With rosters being so fluid in the ECHL due to this kind of transaction, it presents a unique challenge for coaches to get the best out of their players despite semi regular line shifts or goalie changes. At a glance one would assume that teams with a low amount of these transactions, like Fort Wayne and Kalamazoo, would have a distinct advantage over a team like Toledo. I would disagree with this sentiment though, and it has to do with exposure to higher levels of competition. While in the AHL, Toledo’s players have time to learn from their AHL counterparts and coaches, which in turn leads to improved performance when they return to the ECHL. Repeated trips to the AHL, even if they are only there for a few days or games, can lead to a player becoming better than if they were to just stay in the ECHL for that amount of time. The players who don’t get called up also get better as well, because they have to step up in the absence of a goal scorer or model blue liner. For instance, when Jacob MacDonald and Jared Nightingale were loaned to the AHL it forced our young defensemen to get better. In a trial by fire, Simon Denis and Nolan Zajac have become top tier defensemen, which will prove invaluable as the season continues. All of that is ignoring the players that Toledo receives from the AHL as well, and these men can prove to be invaluable.
The Walleye have been reinforced with AHL players many times throughout the year, mostly from Grand Rapids. Cal Heeter, Zach Nastasiuk, Dylan Sadowy, Mike Borkowski, and Matt Caito have all played for Toledo this season, with everyone besides Borkowski being sent down for at least two stints with the Walleye. Sadowy and Borkowski are offensive minded forwards that helped Toledo create offense while other forwards are loaned to the AHL, but both have only played 6 games for the Walleye. Borkowski was very effective in those six game though, scoring 9 points in them when reunited with former Colgate College teammates Tylor and Tyson Spink. Matt Caito and Cal Heeter have spent more time in the Glass City, with Matt playing 14 games and Cal starting 12. With Czarnowczan out with a torn ACL and MacDonald in Albany, Caito’s reassignment stints with Toledo are great for helping a defense that sometimes has to limp through a stretch of games. Heeter’s performance has been excellent while in Toledo, having won 11 of 12 games started, despite a rather high goals allowed average of 3.01. Were it not for Howard’s injury with the Wings I believe Heeter could have grabbed the starting job over Paterson, although I’m certainly not complaining about Jake’s stellar performance thus far as the starter. Zach Nastasiuk has spent the most time with the Walleye out of all of the other players, having participated in 36 Walleye contests so far this year. Nastasiuk’s development has been great, as he has grown into a special teams asset and a tremendous forechecker for Toledo while racking up 23 points as well. The four games from February 19th to February 26th are prime examples of how all these players boost our team, when we outscored our opponents 23 to 5. While in a Walleye uniform all of these men were able to make the regulars around them better, whether it was through instruction or support. The Nastasiuk-Hirschfeld-Berschbach and Spink-Borkowski-Spink lines are great examples of mutually beneficial situations thanks to the reassignment. Unfortunately for the Walleye, all of these players except for Nastasiuk have been reassigned to the Griffins after the end of Red Wings bye week. So where does that leave the Walleye?
It leaves us on the call up carousel once again! As players go round the AHL-ECHL-AHL cycle Toledo will simply have to adapt. There is a lot of concern with our defensive core once again, since Nightingale and Caito have both been recalled to their respective AHL teams and Travis Jeke was claimed off of waivers by Reading. We aren’t the only ECHL team in this situation though, so we can’t use it as an excuse for a dip in play. Coach Delmore and Coach Watson will look at their options, but I wouldn’t expect to see a trade for a defenseman quite yet. We’ll most likely look for some talent in the SPHL or do some waiver watching to sign a player to a contract, because with the Red Wings in sell mode we can expect help come playoff time. The call ups and loans may hurt us now, but it greatly benefits the player loaned as it gets them closer to their personal goals. Plus it may prove highly beneficial to us if they do return to the Walleye, can you imagine getting Bonis and MacDonald back come playoff time after spending so much time in the AHL this year? They would be monsters in the Kelly Cup Playoffs! So be patient and keep the faith Walleye fans, as come playoff time we can expect great things! See you at Pink the Rink this weekend, and Let’s Go Walleye!