As a vital member of the most successful Walleye team in the organization's history, what forward Tyler Barnes remembers most is the confidence — and the constant smiles.
Barnes, a tireless worker and creative producer, is in his second stint with Toledo. He earned the ECHL's rookie of the year award while with the Walleye in 2014-15, when he burst on to the scene as a point-per-game player.
Now a 27-year-old in his fourth season, Barnes sees many similarities between the team that captured an ECHL regular-season championship and this year's club.
“A lot of guys that I played with that year are still really good friends of mine,” Barnes said. “I just remember the amount of fun we had. The entire room knew we were going to win. We had swagger and confidence. We showed up at the rink as a team. Everyone was always smiling.
“I feel the same things with this team. We're talking and having a good time [and winning].”
VIDEO: Tyler Barnes in action
Barnes was named to the ECHL all-star game in 2014-15 when he set a franchise record for points in a season. The native of Burnsville, Minn., racked up 74 points in just 71 games the last time he suited up for the Walleye.
“I forget about some of that [individual] stuff,” Barnes said. “It's fun to remember that season. That first year was a turnaround year.”
Under first-year coach Derek Lalonde, Toledo produced the best turnaround in ECHL history, going from 49 points the previous season to 107 points. The Walleye went 50-15-7, winning the Brabham Cup, and then reached the Eastern Conference final, where they dropped a seven-game series to South Carolina.
“The whole reason why we play is to make a run at that championship. They've developed that as a program here,” Barnes said. “There's something special here. The biggest thing is we have the community. It's not just 20 guys, and the coaches, and management. It's thousands of people that are itching at another chance at winning [a Cup].”
Walleye coach Dan Watson, who was an associate coach in 2014-15, said he considers the reacquisition of Barnes one of the most important moves of the offseason.
“He’s a player who loves Toledo, wants to win for Toledo, and is about the team before himself,” Watson said. “This was a big signing this summer to help in the offensive category, and he has produced. Tyler came back to Toledo with high expectations of himself and the team.”
Barnes ranks third on the team in scoring with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 19 games. He has recorded at least one point in six straight home games.
Toledo (14-4-3) leads the ECHL Central Division despite playing 14 of its 21 games on the road, including several busy stretches.
“We've done really well,” Barnes said. “We've had some pretty intense weeks with three games in three days and four in five, so for us to be jockeying and in a good position, it's what we were looking to do.”
Toledo ranks second in fewest goals allowed per game (2.43).
“One of our biggest strengths is team defense,” Barnes said. “Our goal is to give up two or less goals per game. When we do that, with the talent we have up front, we should win most games. It's an all-around team.”
Veteran goaltender Pat Nagle, who was named ECHL goalie of the month for November, leads the league in wins (16) and ranks sixth in goals-against average (2.36).
“Nagle’s been phenomenal. He's one of the core assets of this team,” Barnes said.
A selfless contributor, Barnes has produced 178 points in 185 ECHL games. He has scored 74 goals and has dished out 104 assists.
Watson said Barnes has more than lived up to expectations.
“Tyler is an offensive weapon who is a threat to produce every night,” Watson said.
Barnes split last season between Rockford of the American Hockey League, and Indy and Allen of the ECHL. He followed up his 74-point campaign with the Walleye with another strong ECHL performance with Missouri in 2015-16, producing 24 goals and 37 assists. Barnes played at the University of Wisconsin, scoring 45 goals with 58 assists in 152 games.
Watson called him a relentless worker.
“That's one thing you can control,” Barnes said. “You make sure you are focused, especially on the defensive side. With the way the game is played, it's a roller coaster, especially on offense. It can be so streaky. In the grand scheme of things, stopping goals is just as important as scoring goals. It all starts on that end.
“Winning is fun and that's all that matters. It's a lot better to have no points and a win than three points and a loss. We have so much talent. You just focus on what you can do. That's what makes a championship team.”
Five players who were part of the 2014-15 team also are part of this year’s team. However, three pivotal players — captain Alden Hirschfeld and assistant captains Shane Berschbach and A.J. Jenks — are injured.
“We've lost a lot of key, iconic players that are leaders,” Barnes said. “It's never ideal to lose three lettered players for an extended period. This shows the depth and what we're made of. It's a testament to the team and its depth that we can pick up the slack. Those guys are still around the rink every day and leading. They're special people and players.”
Barnes said the passion of the team's fans can not only be seen in their support of the injured players, but also at the Huntington Center. Toledo is off to a 7-0-0 start at home — the best in franchise history — and leads the ECHL in attendance (7,868 per game).
“We have the best fans in the league,” Barnes said. “It's rocking in there. It's a great atmosphere. I've been fortunate to be part of multiple good organizations. But the people here are so passionate. They support us more than any other team in the league. You can feel it around the city. People here love this team. They live, breathe, and die with the team. That's something you can't measure.”
Barnes said the support has an effect on the players' level of play and effort.
“The energy helps you raise your game to another level,” he said. “It's a huge advantage.
“It's all stuff you can't take for granted. It goes so fast. I feel like I was here as a rookie just last year. Now that's three years back. So this is another special opportunity. You try to live in these moments. When you have a group like this, you have to take advantage.”
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