Coach Watson enters his second offseason as head coach with a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Walleye. After falling in five games to the eventual Kelly Cup Champion Colorado Eagles, a general feeling of coming change hung in the air around Toledo. Many fans could sense a major shift on the horizon, and Watty himself stated that he would have to add some hard hitters to the high skill and speed style of play that has characterized Toledo these past few seasons. At this point of the summer he certainly has his work cut out for him, with the departure of many key players. With our current situation it is easy to feel grim about our upcoming year, but this is a great opportunity to grow our team and coaching staff’s skills. Now is the time to stand behind our team, especially our coach, as we look to build a Kelly Cup Champion team from potentially the ground up.
After being eliminated from the Kelly Cup Playoffs in the first round of the 2016 playoffs Dan Watson earned the head coaching job following the departure of Derek Lalonde. Watson’s primary goal for that offseason was to keep the team together for a deep run during the 2016-17 season, and he was extremely successful in doing so. After the 2015-16 season the biggest names we lost were Shalla, Chouinard, Lerg and Freigbergs while retaining the core group of forwards (Hirschfeld, Rankin, Berschbach, the Spinks, Sikura, Jenks, and Bonis). For the 2017 offseason, Dan Watson is presented with a new challenge: building a championship team. We have already lost Tylor and Tyson Spink, Jeff Lerg, Matt Caito, Nolan Zajac, Mathew Santos, and most likely Jake Paterson. Another question is Evan Rankin, as rumors swirl around the Walleye legend’s status for the 2017-18 season. Will Schmitz, Bonis, LaFontaine, and Jenks be back, or will we lose them as well? All of these questions are some of the toughest aspects of a head coach job, and this degree of change is a first for Watson’s head coaching career. Sure, he has seen some major roster revamps and rebuilds while working as an assistant for the team from 2009-2016, but it is entirely different when you are the man working with the GM to bring in the future stars of Toledo. I believe Coach Watson to be more than up to the challenge, and in some way I look forward to what is to come this offseason.
Now, of course Coach Watson would like nothing more than to see the all of the key contributors (and fan favorites for that matter) back for the 2017-18 season. By this point it is abundantly clear that will not be happening however. So he will need to adapt and retool his team, something that Dan has proven to be quite good at during his first year. Last season the Walleye had 43 different skaters take the ice due to call ups, injuries, assignments, or trades over the course of the regular season. Watson was able to lead the team to a 51 win season despite all of that roster movement, so his ability to get the most out of his players is not in question. Our bench boss now must show off his skills as a recruiter. Free agents should be aware of his name and of our organization, both from Coach Watson’s achievements (All-Star Classic Coach, Coach of the Year) and from what Toledo has accomplished in recent years. College grads looking to make their pro debuts, along with an open Free Agent Camp, are sure to bring on potential talent as well. Last season Coach Watson was able to draw free agents from as far away as the Czech Republic for Training Camp, which bodes well for the team. Expect rookies and younger players to make up most signings this offseason, as a major obstacle that Coach Watson must work around is the ECHL Veteran Rule.
At this point in our offseason the Walleye have brought back Charlie O’Connor (F) and Parker Reno (D), while adding on Colin Martin (F) and Brock Beukeboom (D). All four of these players are rookies either fresh out of college or have not played a season’s worth of professional games yet. The largest issue that faces Coach Watson this offseason is his abundance of veterans on the roster. ECHL rules only allow four veterans (players with 260+ pro games played) to be on a team at a time. After last season, the Walleye have 7 veterans on the season ending roster: Kyle Bonis, Jordan Hill, Alden Hirschfeld, A.J. Jenks, Landon Oslanski, Evan Rankin, and Beau Schmitz. All of these players were listed on the season ending roster, which prevents them from being traded and allows Toledo to match an offer given to a player by another ECHL team. Coach Watson’s main goal is to decide which one of these four veterans to bring back. Hirchfeld and Schmitz are two players that are almost certainly coming back, especially Alden. As our Captain and home town player, I think we would all be shocked to not see him return. Coach Watson is going to do his best to bring back Schmitz as well, as he has been a top pair defenseman each season with Toledo. Bonis and Rankin are both up in the air on returning, but for different reasons. After spending the majority of last season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, you have to think Bonis’ goal is to be an AHLer this season. As for Rankin, he still hasn’t made a decision whether he will retire or to lace em up for the 2017-18 season. Just from talking to Rankin since the season ended, you can still hear the passion in his voice, and see the fire in his eyes, that comes with being a pro athlete. I’m sure Coach Watson has picked up on this, and will try to convince him to come back. That leaves Jenks, Oslanski, and Hill up for consideration. Watty’s goal is to bring physicality to this team, and Oslanski provides that. Landon dropped the gloves and brought the hits when it was needed, with some good work on the PP unit as well. A.J. Jenks needs no explanation: crowd favorite with a goal scorers touch and a knack for throwing timely hits. Then we have Hill, a grizzled veteran of 352 combined ECHL and AHL games that brought age to a very young D-core last season. Out of those three, assuming we bring back Hirschfeld, Schmitz, and Rankin, who does Coach Watson choose? Fans will most likely want to see Jenks back the most, and perhaps Coach Watson will too. But so many variables play apart in these signings, that we very well might not see any of these players back. Never let it be said that coaching an ECHL team is an easy gig. Coach Watson is up for the task though, and I can’t wait to see what he does as the offseason moves forward.
Toledo is sure to look different when the puck drops on the 2017-18 season. No twins, no Lerg (again), and possibly no Rankin or Paterson have some fans anxious for what’s to come. Despite wanting to see them back, I’m also looking forward to what’s coming for Toledo. We have signed the son of a Stanley Cup Champion, Beukeboom, to our team to potentially share the blue line with Denis, can you imagine that pairing? Maybe our next goaltender will capture our hearts as Lerg caught ours, we just have to be open to the opportunity! The Walleye aren’t going anywhere anytime soon in terms of standing, and we have Coach Watson to ensure it. Give him your support, and Watty will provide us with another spectacle of a team. See you all at Training Camp, when Coach Watson has worked his magic! Let’s Go Walleye!
Stats obtained from the Toledo Walleye website and Elite Prospects.
Special thanks to Diane for allowing me to use her photos, check out her work at: