ORLANDO, FL – All through this offseason, the Solar Bears organization has been teasing their fans with announcements of additions to their 2017-18 regular season roster. The team is seeing the return of some familiar faces (most notably Chris Crane, Austin Block, and Joe Perry) as well as some seasoned newcomers.
Head coach Drake Berehowsky is striking mountain gold when it comes to drawing former players from the Allen Americans and the Colorado Eagles. The moves promise to bring a different style of play to the team—one that emphasizes tough defense and physicality. This will definitely not be the Solar Bears of previous years.
The Eagle Edge
With the Colorado Eagles moving up to the AHL level next season, the Solar Bears have been capitalizing on Colorado’s players who had been left without a home. Among these players are Sam Jardine, Sean Zimmerman, and Darryl Bootland.
Last year, Jardine split time between Colorado and the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL, gaining five points (three goals and two assists) with San Antonio and boosting his assist productivity in Colorado, gaining 15 points (four goals and 11 assists) with the Eagles.
But the moves that have turned the most heads are the acquisitions of Zimmerman and Bootland. Zimmerman was captain for the Eagles last year when they seized the Kelly Cup, and he brings a notable 662 games worth of experience to the table. Berehowsky seems to have found a formidable replacement for the hole vacated by last year’s captain Eric Baier.
Though not yet made official, Bootland’s addition to the Solar Bears roster seems imminent. Technically a forward, Bootland is a notable two-way player. He netted 10 goals and 12 assists for a total of 22 points last season. But Bootland’s forte is his high-energy, physical play that he brings to all zones. Look for him quickly to win over fans and for him to ramp up the crowd’s volume in the Amway Center.
The Americans Angle
Another team the Solar Bears have been getting many players from is the Allen Americans. Two of these former Americans the Bears have acquired are Tristan King and (again!) Darryl Bootland.
Bootland during his time in Allen gained 51 points (22 goals and 29 assists) in 2012-13 and 34 points (18 goals and 15 assists) in 2013-14. He earned a reputation as a force (and an enforcer) to be reckoned with in Allen.
King had a solid season as a veteran journeyman last year, acquiring two points with the Allen Americans (one goal and one assist), nine points with the Indy Fuel (two goals and seven assists), and 26 points with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (12 goals and 14 assists) for a grand total of 37 points.
King and Bootland will join Chris Crane and assistant coach John Snowden as Solar Bears with an Allen American pedigree.
Digging in on Defense
When looking at other moves made by the Solar Bears, what becomes apparent is the strong, systematic stress on the defense. Three other notable blueliners joining the team deserve special notice—Mike Monfredo, Adam Phillips, and Nolan Valleau.
Monfredo is looking to bounce back after a rough 2016-17 season, tallying 14 points (two goals and 12) assists with Quad City and 13 points (three goals and 10 assists) with Rapid City for a total of 27 points over the course of last season. One thing to note about Monfredo is that he is a large and physical player, marking up 508 penalty minutes over the course of his career. He for sure will bring some intimidating presence on the ice for Orlando.
Phillips comes to Orlando from the Indy Fuel. He acquired five points (one goal and four assists) with Norfolk and 14 points (two goals and 12 assists) with Indy for a total of 19 points during last season. Much like Monfredo, Phillips is a physical player, tallying up 91 penalty minutes over the course of 65 games. He was acquired in the early summer as a future considerations trade, and in retrospect, he could be seen as one of the earliest signs that the Solar Bears were looking to get serious about defense.
Last but not least, there is Valleau, whom Orlando acquired from the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. Valleau gained three goals and five assists for a total of eight points over the course of last season in Rockford. While not as physical as Monfredo or Phillips, Valleau did acquire 14 penalty minutes while with the IceHogs. Another thing to note is that Valleau comes from a team that has a history of a very physical style of play (which in some cases has led to notorious line brawls).
Hackett in Goal
Among all of the players the team has gained the rights to, there is another that stands out—goaltender Matt Hackett. Hackett is a very seasoned goalie, playing several seasons in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild, Buffalo Sabres, and Anaheim Ducks. He led the AHL’s San Diego Gulls through their opening season in 2015-16 with a .932 save percentage, and in 2016-17 had a .898 save percentage.
Shoulder surgery in December last year led to an early season exit for Hackett. The Solar Bears have pounced on the opportunity to give him a chance to prove that he is physically fit and ready to climb again to the NHL ranks.
One question that remains is what will become of last year’s star netminder Ryan Massa and whether he will recover from the injury he sustained in the playoffs last season. If Massa can come back, the combination of he & Hackett will be tough to beat.
Where the Team Stands Now
While it is still early in the year to give a full assessment of how the team will do this season, from where they stand now, the team has had a lot of new faces added to the roster. They also have put a heavy emphasis on the defense, which is good because the Solar Bears in past years have shown weakness around their own net, especially when facing hard-hitting teams like the Florida Everblades.
There are many things that Orlando is doing that mirror that of the 2016-17 Colorado Eagles—emphasis on defense, embracing physical play, and relying on veterans. The team has even gone so far as to acquire several players who spent last year with the Eagles themselves.
What is clear is that Berehowsky is taking a calculated risk this season, and the hope is that some of that good old Mountain magic will turn East to propel the Solar Bears to the playoffs.
Sources for statistics: Eliteprospects.com and OrlandoSolarBearshockey.com