In his first season as a professional hockey coach, Derek Lalonde will have full control of the makeup of his new team's roster.
Lalonde, who was named head coach of the Toledo Walleye on Monday, said the ECHL team will mirror the construction of his junior teams in Green Bay of the United States Hockey League.
“Our first expectation is to establish a culture of winning where players want to be here,” Lalonde said. “A realistic goal is to make the playoffs. We will seek out that free agent that competes and plays hard and wants to be here.”
Lalonde's scouting and recruitment will be done in conjunction with the team's former coach Nick Vitucci, who is now part of the front office. Vitucci, who is the organization's director of operations, will assist Lalonde in the formation of the roster.
“[Lalonde] has the final say 100 percent,” Vitucci said. “I will give him every means to succeed. I will give him advice on what I know about players. But ultimately he will have 100 percent responsibility of putting his fingerprints on this hockey club.”
Joe Napoli, the team's general manager, said Vitucci's role will be “complementary and supplementary.”
“It will be Derek's decision,” Napoli said. “He will run the show. It's his team to develop.”
Toledo went 21-44-7 last season, but Lalonde said he sees talent on the roster. Lalonde said he will evaluate those players before the start of free agent signings, beginning on June 15.
“There are no doubt players on the roster that we're excited about. They fit what we want,” Lalonde said.
On Monday, the organization announced its protected player list from the 2013-14 season. The team has reserved the rights to 21 players. The team has the right to sign those players before any other ECHL team.
The only goaltender on the list is Hannu Toivonen, who went 12-17-1 this past year with a 3.38 goals-against average. But Toivonen has signed a contract to play next season in his native Finland.
Among the protected forwards that saw significant action are Kyle Rogers, the team's all-time leader in games played with 278, Brett Perlini, Travis Novak, Ryan Flanigan, Matt Abercrombie, Jesse Messier, Stephon Thorne, and Alden Hirschfeld, who finished his first season in his hometown with 29 points in 49 games.
Among the seven defensemen protected are: C.J. Chartrain, Tyler Elbrecht, and Cody Lampl, who spent the entire 2013-14 season with St. John's in the American Hockey League.
Vitucci said he advised Lalonde to “do his homework” on those players.
“This is such a great place and great organization,” Vitucci said. “I want to see this franchise succeed and, if I have to do it from the press box, it will be an honor.”
Lalonde, a former goalie, said he hopes to bring in a veteran netminder. The team also is expected to reap the rewards of six trades made late in the season for future considerations.
Lalonde and Vitucci plan to meet this week with officials from Toledo's American Hockey League team in Grand Rapids. A portion of the Walleye's roster will consist of players sent down from the AHL club.
Napoli said officials with Toledo's NHL parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, were heavily involved in the coaching search. He said Ryan Martin, Detroit's assistant general manager, was “totally engrossed” in the interview process.
“The Red Wings' keen interest in this was very impressive,” Napoli said. “Synchronizing is already dramatically different.”
Over the organization's first five years, it has had dual NHL affiliations with Detroit and the Chicago Blackhawks. The Walleye ended their affiliation with the Blackhawks in April.
The dual affiliate arrangement had detrimental affects on Toledo's roster as the demotions and promotions put the roster continually in flux.
Lalonde said he is looking forward to working with Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill, who also got his head-coaching career started in the USHL. Blashill led the Griffins to a title in 2013.
Lalonde worked with players under age 20 in the USHL, a major junior league.
A large portion of the team's roster last year consisted of recent college graduates or recent junior players.
“The coaches that just left the USHL transition very well [into the pro ranks] because you have to care about your kid. You have to have good communications,” Lalonde said. “This is a natural progression for me. Coaching in pro hockey is something I've always wanted to do and there is no better place to do it.”
Napoli called Lalonde a stellar candidate.
“He has had a balance of developing players, even with roster turnover, and at the same time he continued to win,” Napoli said.
“Teams in our league that are challenging for the Kelly Cup … this approach fits that.”
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