New Toledo Walleye coach Derek Lalonde has hit the ground running, vigorously working to form a roster primed for playoff contention.
During the 42 days at the helm of his first ECHL team, Lalonde said he has been seeking players with character and leadership.
“We want to do things correctly,” Lalonde said. “We want to establish a culture. We want players that have our core habits and values. It's very important for this organization to make the playoffs this season. We need to make the playoffs for this community. That's the goal.”
Lalonde, 41, was hired on June 2 to turn around a franchise that has made the playoffs just twice in five seasons. Lalonde is coming off three successful seasons as the coach of the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. Lalonde, who also served as the team's general manager, said he will employ similar philosophies with the Walleye.
“It's stacking up well,” Lalonde said. “We've been very aggressive in the offseason. We try to get out front. We want the most talented team in the ECHL. We want to attract [quality] players. We'll do all the hard work this summer and then you cross your fingers.”
Lalonde spent five days last week helping run the Detroit Red Wings' prospect camp in Traverse City, Mich. He said he has been on the road recruiting and scouting for most of June and July.
“I've only been here literally one or two days,” Lalonde said.
The team is expected to announce the signings of multiple players this week, including a veteran goalie. The organization also is expected to announce the re-signing of three or four players who played for the team in previous seasons.
Lalonde said he wants to bring in players who have been either captains or assistant captains.
“We want players that have worn a letter in professional hockey, or in junior or college hockey previously. That is by design,” he said.
Lalonde said he is compiling his roster hoping to achieve a balance of core ECHL guys with promising youngsters. The goal is to offset any roster turnover during the season.
“That's the reality of this league. It's a tough balance,” he said. “But when you develop a kid properly, it's going to be a benefit for you night in and night out.”
In one weekend, an ECHL team can see a drastically different roster.
“It's plugging pieces in and kind of projecting,” Lalonde said. “It's the reality of it. You want a makeup of guys that will be core guys, who will be here throughout the season. But you also want guys that you are preparing for the AHL. I want to develop kids who get called up. You do your homework, work hard at it, and be prepared for anything. We will see where it ends up.”
Lalonde said only “a very small number” of players will be back from last year's team.
He said the team's longstanding affiliation with the Detroit Red Wings is stronger than ever. Lalonde helped run the team's rookie camp with Jeff Blashill, the coach of Detroit's American Hockey League team in Grand Rapids.
“It was a great experience. Part of the vision was being in sync with Jeff Blashill,” Lalonde said.
He said both organizations will have similar ideas and habits.
“We want the guys that go up and come back down from Grand Rapids to have an easy transition,” he said.
He said the number of players Toledo will receive from the Red Wings is yet to be determined. But he expects one goalie within the Wings' system to filter down to Toledo.
Lalonde said he expects four or five players will sign two-way contracts with Grand Rapids. Those players can move back and forth between the ECHL and AHL. Those players are paid based on the league that they are assigned to, which helps with the ECHL's $12,400 per week salary cap.
“We will be more of a feeder system,” Lalonde said. “That's exciting for us.”
The team suffered one setback when one key acquisition signed to play in Switzerland. William Rapuzzi, who was the ECHL's rookie of the year last season, was acquired in a trade last month. Rapuzzi, who collected 58 points in 60 games with Idaho, opted to play overseas.
“That was disappointing for us,” he said. “It was a contract he couldn't turn down. But that's the reality.”
Lalonde said he firmly believes he has been given the resources to succeed.
“They're letting me run the hockey side of things,” he said. “It has been [assistant coach Dan Watson] and my show to put this together. It's truly my team. That is important.
“There are challenges that come with playing in the [ECHL], but we're trying to prepare ourselves and be detailed and have a plan in place for it. It's extremely competitive.”
WINTERFEST: Ticket packages for the team's outdoor hockey games at Fifth Third Field will go on sale at 9 a.m. on Friday.
The first ECHL outdoor hockey games will feature the Walleye playing Kalamazoo on Dec. 27 and Fort Wayne on Jan. 3 as part of a 10-day Walleye Winterfest.
Five hundred game packages will be available on Friday. Packages are $85. For more info, go to toledowalleye.com or call 419-725-9255.
“There is already excitement and momentum building,” Lalonde said.