With the ECHL trade deadline looming on Thursday, the Walleye plan to make one more big move to be fully primed for another push at that elusive Kelly Cup.
A deal is imminent.
While Toledo has charged to the top of the overall ECHL standings with a 40-14-5 record, Walleye coach Dan Watson is not content with the current makeup of his roster. The second-year head coach has made it abundantly clear that he would like to shore up his defensive corps.
“I think we're still a deal away,” Watson said. “Obviously with the amount of forwards we have right now, we'll be looking to get a high-end D-man.”
The goaltending is more than solid with the ascension of vet Pat Nagle to clear-cut No. 1 status. His teammates and coaches have the utmost confidence in the calm and confident Nagle, who leads the ECHL in wins.
The offense remains as steady as ever with an average of 3.24 goals per night. In fact, Watson believes the abundance of quality forwards should allow him to let go of a high-end offensive weapon.
It's clear it will be one of the team's top producers. “100 percent,” Watson confirmed.
To get something of high value, you must be willing to give up something of high value. That's how it works in every sport for teams that are chasing a realistic shot at a claiming a championship.
Such decisions are obviously not easy. But they are necessary.
“It doesn't matter what their stats are. It's going to come down to what the best move is for us,” Watson said.
So what goes into determining the odd-man out? For Watson, it comes down to the players' daily commitment to the team.
“If you look at our roster, I think all of our forwards can play,” Watson said. “Now [it comes down to] the guys who are detailed. It's the guys who come to work every single day. It's the guys who play the game the right way. It's guys who are here for the right reasons.”
Remember Watson was named the ECHL coach of the year in his first season at the helm when he led the Walleye to the conference finals. He's in full control of the roster. And he's earned the benefit of the doubt.
But a deal at last year's trade deadline offers a cautionary tale. It's fair to say the acquisition of defenseman Justin Agosta just prior to last season's trade deadline did not pan out. Watson had to give up a huge commodity in highly productive forward Tyler Sikura to bring in Agosta.
On March 6, 2017, Agosta was acquired from Manchester in exchange for Sikura — a versatile, two-way forward — and defenseman Chris Leone.
Watson brought in Agosta, who had played in 40 games for Manchester picking up seven goals with 18 assists and 36 penalty minutes, for his size (6-3, 205). He also earned a nod as a 2017 ECHL all-star.
Sikura was in his second season with the Walleye. He had tallied 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 39 games and played as a plus-16. In his first campaign with the Walleye, Sikura had 48 points (16 goals, 32 assists) in 68 games.
Agosta ended up posting 10 assists and no goals in the final 12 games of the regular season. And then in 14 playoff games, Agosta had just one assist.
Meanwhile, Sikura produced 11 points with five goals and six assists in 19 playoff games for the Monarchs. Sikura has since moved up to the American Hockey League, playing all of this season in Rockford.
Agosta returned to Manchester this season but was sent to Worcester in a trade on Monday.
So it's very difficult to predict the outcome in these deals.
Another factor to consider is that the current roster is loaded with current and future ECHL veterans. The league allows teams to have only four veterans (players with 260 or more pro games played) on the roster at one time.
Toledo's current four veterans are forwards A.J. Jenks, Kyle Bonis, and Mike Embach and defenseman Beau Schmitz. Captain Alden Hirschfeld, who has been on IR since November with a lower-body injury, also is a vet. He was slated to return to the lineup in early April.
“If you look at our roster, we have eight guys that will become vets next year,” Watson said. “So for me personally, the era of Bonis, Jenks, [Shane] Berschbach, [Tyler] Barnes, Schmitz, Hirschfeld … all of these guys playing together, this could be it. So we want to make sure we're doing the right thing where we give them the best opportunity to win a championship here.”
The deadline is officially at 3 p.m. on Thursday.
CUP ASPIRATIONS: In what seems to be sudden fashion, the Walleye have vaulted to the top of the ECHL overall standings.
A shot at winning the Brabham Cup has quickly become a very realistic goal for this 2017-18 team. It would be the second straight year the Walleye claimed the regular-season championship and third time in the last four seasons.
Since the start of the new year, the Walleye have produced a 20-5-2 record. Toledo was the first ECHL team to reach the 40-win plateau. They've been extremely tough at the Huntington Center (24-4-1) and have the most points at home (49). This squad tied the franchise record with 13 straight home wins before losing in OT to a tough South Carolina team on Saturday.
That success has come during what is considered the dog days of the season. The roster also has been routinely rattled because of injuries and movement between here and Grand Rapids.
With just 13 games remaining during the regular season, another Brabham Cup banner is within reach. Of course that will never be the ultimate goal. But the biggest perk to winning the overall regular-season title is clinching home-ice advantage throughout the Kelly Cup playoffs.
There have been 22 sellouts at the downtown arena this season, a franchise record. The Huntington Center seats 7,431 for hockey games. This season an average crowd of 7,543 has attended the team's 29 home games. The players and coaches all emphasize the boost and edge it gives them performing before huge crowds.
BIZARRE DELAY: A capacity crowd at the Huntington Center grew increasingly antsy on Saturday as a strange convergence of events postponed the start of Toledo's game against South Carolina.
It seems the referee for that night's game, Liam Sewell, was held up at the border. Sewell and linesman Michael Fusani were apparently the subject of an investigation by customs officials at the U.S./Canada border. The pair were then further delayed by a traffic jam caused by an accident on I-75.
The opening faceoff was postponed by 40 minutes. It was an unprecedented event even for those who have been around the game at this level for 20-plus years. And it's frankly unacceptable. It led to a poorly officiated game — on both sides.
Sure, there's a numbers shortage of ECHL officials. Sewell and Fusani had called the game up in Brampton the previous night. But the pair should have had ample time to make the five-hour trip with plenty of time to spare. ECHL officials are required to be at the arena at least an hour and a half before faceoff. That rule should be more like two hours, especially if travel is involved.
ECHL teams are routinely fined by the league when opening faceoffs are delayed. Embarrassment may be enough to prevent such an incident from happening again. But it sure wasn't a good look for a league that bills itself as the Premier “AA” Hockey League in the country.
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