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Published: Monday, 8/3/2009

Red Wings link with Walleye

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

A logjam of quality young goaltenders in the Detroit Red Wings minor league system all but guarantees the Toledo Walleye will have a gifted goalie in its inaugural season.

The Walleye will officially announce an affiliation agreement with the NHL's elite franchise at a press conference Monday. The contract extends a longtime relationship the Red Wings have had with Toledo minor league teams.

The Walleye will serve as Detroit's Double-A farm team in the ECHL. The Storm, Toledo's former ECHL team, had a similar agreement with the Wings for 15 seasons.

Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill said it's a win-win situation.

"Toledo has always done a great job developing our players," Nill said. "We've had a lot of players that have come up through Toledo. It's a great fit."

Detroit has four goalies in its system.

Jimmy Howard, a longtime Red Wing farmhand, will likely backup Chris Osgood in Detroit. Two others will land in the American Hockey League in Grand Rapids. The fourth would play for the Walleye.

The most likely prospects to start in Toledo are recent Notre Dame graduate Jordan Pearce, 2008 first-round pick Thomas McCollum and Swedish standout Daniel Larsson.

"We have three young goalies that will all battle it out in training camp," Nill said. "Whoever plays the best will be in Grand Rapids or possibly Detroit. The odd man out will be in Toledo. So either way you look at it, [Toledo] will have a pretty good goalie."

Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, an ECHL hall of fame goalie, said Toledo has a tradition of developing quality netminders.

Pearce led the Irish to a Central Collegiate Hockey Association title in 2008-09. He was a finalist for the CCHA player of the year after posting a 30-6-3 record and a 1.68 goals against average.

McCollum, 19, posted impressive numbers in the Ontario Hockey League (34-16-4 with a 2.11 GAA) last season.

Larsson, 23, started 40 games for Grand Rapids last year and went 22-12-2 with a 2.76 GAA and five shutouts.

Vitucci said whether the Red Wings send him "just one player or seven players" he is honored to coach them.

"The Red Wings have shown over the years they are the class of pro hockey," Vitucci said. "To have the opportunity to help develop players for the Red Wings is humbling. Hopefully those players will make it to the NHL."

Nill called the Walleye ownership and the new Lucas County Arena first class. He also said the Red Wings recognize the strong fan base they have in northwest Ohio.

"We appreciate the support we get in that area," Nill said.

The proximity of the three organizations also means player transactions can be expedited quickly.

The Walleye open training camp on Oct. 2. The team's first game is Oct. 16.

Vitucci called the affiliation agreement a very important step in getting the Walleye off the ground.

"They've had so much success. It's a thrill for us to be a part of that," Vitucci said. "It's a huge shot in the arm for our hockey club."

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-304-4760.



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