Toledo is a little over halfway through their 2017-18 campaign and finds themselves in a third place of the ECHL. After falling in the Western Conference Finals last year to the Colorado Eagles, Coach Watson retooled his team for yet another run to the Kelly Cup. Opting for size along with speed, the changes appear to be working out so far for the Walleye. Before Toledo plays game 38 on Friday, how about we break down the different components of the team and see how their performance stacks up so far.
Offensively, when Toledo is on they are wicked. After losing the firepower of the Spink twins to Europe and Evan Rankin to retirement there was some concern about the status of our forward core. Those doubts have been put to rest… when we are healthy and not gutted by call-ups. As of today, Toledo has scored 121 goals in 37 games, ranking 12th in the ECHL and good for 3.27 goals scored per game average. Your three top goal scorers so far are Christian Hilbrich, Mike Borkowski, and Kyle Bonis who have 15, 12, and 11 goals respectively. In terms of point producers, your top three is the same except for third place which goes to Tyler Barnes with 25 points. Hilbrich and Borkowski have 28 and 27 points on the year respectively, who both technically trail Erik Bradford with 29 points. Six of those points came while he was with Norfolk though, so that’s why I don’t have him in the top spot. Most fans would have expected to see A.J. Jenks and Barnes further up the goal list, but Hilbrich and Borkowski have stepped up in their new roles in Toledo while managing to stay healthy. At this point, I would say that Hilbrich has been their most valuable offensive signing as the former Nailer has made quite a home for himself in Toledo. Injuries and call-ups have once again proven to be Toledo’s Achilles heel. With injuries to Alden Hirschfeld and Jenks, compounded by the occasional call-up of Borkowski, Nastasiuk, Esposito, and others, the Walleye offense has a tendency to flounder. Obviously, not the fault of the team itself as you can’t control those circumstances. With either injuries or call-ups Toledo manages well, but when both occur at the same time they sometimes struggle to produce and keep the heat off of their goaltenders. The good news is that Jenks is close to returning to the team, which will bring a much needed boost to get through the call-up sessions. As long as Toledo can get and stay healthy, expect the offense to have an even better second half of the season.
Now for the blue-liners. Toledo’s defensive core has been hit just as hard by injuries as the forwards, but have still managed to have a solid first half. Through the first 37 games, Toledo has allowed 93 goals. That’s good for third in the league with a goals allowed average of 2.62. The Walleye are on pace for only allowing 189 goals in a season, which would be better than last year’s squad. Four defensemen stand out in terms of point production in the first half: Ryan Obuchowski (15), Kevin Tansey, Simon Denis, and Davis Vandane who all have 13 points. In what could be argued as a more important stat for blue-liners, the top three in terms of plus/minus rating are Vandane (14), Obuchowski (11), and Kevin Gibson (10). Vandane has quietly been making up for a slow start of the season, in which he found himself as a healthy scratch more often than not. With a game-winning goal in Toledo’s last game and critical goals in others, he has proven to be worth the signing despite the criticism he received early in the year. In a similar fashion, Obuchowski has been having a strong second professional season with few mistakes and plenty of heads-up plays to supplement Toledo’s back end. Former ECHL All-Star Kevin Tansey has quickly become a fan favorite as he brings a hard-hitting, team-first style that is somewhat reminiscent of Nightingale but with more offensive benefits. A household name that has been left off the list until now has been Beau Schmitz, who has struggled with injuries this season. So far he has missed 20 games due to a laceration on his ankle and a broken hand that is expected to keep him out until February. Fellow defenseman Simon Denis has also missed significant time, 13 games, due to a back injury sustained early in the season. Denis has bounced back from that injury well though, as seen by his point total. Vili Saarijarvi spent limited time with the team before his call-up to Grand Rapids and performed well, but don’t expect to see him back down in Toledo anytime soon. Keys for our defense are the same as our offense: get and stay healthy. We have all the pieces in place, so if Beau can recover and stay off IR we would have a great defensive unit of Schmitz, Tansey, Denis, Obucowski, Gibson, McCarron, and Vandane going forward with Parker Reno in reserve.
Last season Toledo had the best special team units in the league, but have not reached the same mark for the power play (PP) so far. The Walleye finished out the 2016-17 regular season with a 25.1% on the man advantage along with 73 PP goals, an impressive mark to say the least. Halfway through this campaign, the number has stabilized at 17.3% with 23 goals which both rank 15th in the league. Toledo’s current problem from on the power play is a slight hesitation to shoot the puck. The Walleye pass well and can create the shooting lanes, but there is a hesitation to let it go that has cost us goals. Unit shuffling and call-ups play a part in this, along with the fact that Toledo doesn’t receive a lot of opportunities on the power play. Compared to the rest of the league, the Walleye rank 21st in power play opportunities with only 133 chances, as only six teams have fewer chances than Toledo does. On the other hand, the penalty kill (PK) unit has maintained their efficiency from the previous season. After the 2016-17 season, the PK finished at 86.8%. Currently, the Walleye PK unit ranks second in the league behind South Carolina with an 89.3% kill rate. Even though the current percentage is unlikely to hold, it shouldn’t drop much by seasons end barring multiple injuries, and it shows how well coached and skilled the Walleye are when down a man. To go with that, Toledo is one of the least penalized teams in the league. We are the 6th least penalized team, with only 444 penalty minutes, and have given opponents the third fewest power play opportunities with 122 times shorthanded. As time goes on and we get more opportunities on the power play, expect to see that percentage improve. Expect the special teams’ units to continue to win games for Toledo, especially when concerned with the penalty kill.
Finally, time to discuss the last line of defense of any hockey team. Goaltending has been a highlight for Toledo during the last three seasons and continues to be this year thanks to Pat Nagle and Matej Machovsky. Nagle hasn’t missed a beat since coming over from Fort Wayne to take over the starting role for Toledo. Out of the Walleye’s first 37 games, Nagle has started or played in 24 of them and amassed a record of 18-3-2-0. A few of those wins were thanks to stellar performances in which the Walleye won because of the netminder’s tenacity, like those 38 and 37 save victories in December over Indy and Wheeling respectively. Among qualified netminders Nagle’s goals allowed average sits at 2.49 (12th) with a save percentage of 0.913 (11th). Those numbers aren’t too shabby, but the experience that he brings to the table is of great value as well. Toledo is a young team, especially with the older players sidelined by injuries. Nagle helps set an example and guide players on the ice, as young guys like Obuchowski, McCarron, and Machovsky can look to him for guidance. Speaking of Machovsky, the young Czech goaltender has started off his first professional season in North America with a 6-6-0-1 record in 13 games played. Despite suffering an injury in his first game of the season, he has bounced back with splendid stats. Looking once again at qualified goaltenders, Machovsky’s goals allowed average is 2.17 and tied for 2nd best in the league, along with a save percentage of 0.923 that comes in 6th. The young Red Wings prospect has shown flashes of brilliance even in losses, despite the occasional lapse that is bound to happen to any netminder. Machovsky’s next task should be working on putting past goals out of his head, there have been instances of one goal opening up the floodgates for the opposing team. By no means a common occurrence, it should still be a point of focus at as the season goes on. Regardless, the tandem of Nagle-Machovsky is sure to be imposing to any offense heading into the second half of the season, and is debatably the strongest part of this 2017-18 roster.
Expectations are as high as ever for the Toledo Walleye, as fans have grown restless for a Kelly Cup. Players certainly understand the situation they find themselves in, as they want to take the next step as well. Despite a few hiccups Toledo is off to the right start to make that a reality this year. A few people have been critical of the style change in that we haven’t used our size effectively and still let teams push us around. In that, I must disagree. Some teams still give us trouble, that much is true, but overall Toledo has been much quicker to stand up for each other and drop the gloves thanks to players such as Crisp, Tansey, Brassard, and lately Sadowy. That builds camaraderie that will pay off greatly in the long run. If Toledo can combine that with a slightly more consistent offense, then you are looking at a potential championship squad. For now, the focus needs to be on the second half of the regular season, as Toledo looks to secure another regular season division title and catch Colorado for the top spot in the conference. The Walleye start the second half of the season with a three-game weekend road trip down to Central Division opponent Kansas City, looking to extend their four-game winning streak and chase down Florida for second place in the league.