ORLANDO, Fla. – With the opening puck drop just weeks away, the Orlando Solar Bears have put the pieces in place to make another strong run for the Kelly Cup. More so than in previous years, the first weeks of the 2019-20 season will be especially crucial for setting the team on a course for glory — or misery — in the spring.
Here’s a breakdown of what to look for in the October through November run. If the Solar Bears can attend to these five areas, they will be filling their bags with treats through Halloween and heading onto a feast for Thanksgiving.
Strong Start from Day One
Twelve of the first 13 games of the new season will involve South Division rivals who made it to the Kelly Cup playoffs last year. So a poor start to the year will immediately put the Solar Bears into an icy hole that it will be hard to climb out of.
Between October 12 and November 16, the Solar Bears will square off against the South Carolina Stingrays three times, the Jacksonville Icemen four times, and the Florida Everblades five times. Trying to play catch-up with the Everblades, in particular, is a nearly impossible feat.
Head coach Drake Berehowsky is positioning his squad to meet the early-season challenge. When he took the helm of the team back in 2016, he made drastic overhauls in the offseason, retaining only a few players heading into the 2017-18 season. That approach has been dramatically reversed this year. Currently, there are have 12 players who have re-signed with the team, and the number of returning players could be higher, depending on who comes up Interstate 4.
The training camp for the ECHL is only a couple weeks long. The hope is that the core of returning players will set them up to develop team chemistry more quickly than its rivals, leaving the Solar Bears in the driver’s seat as they head toward Thanksgiving.
Sharpening the Penalty Kill
Orlando finished last year at the bottom of the league on the penalty kill. Berehowsky will be focusing extra attention on this area, and there will be added pressure on the team’s new assistant coach Jared Staal to guide the team’s special team approach. The good news for Staal is that there’s only one direction for the team to go in its penalty kill ranking. The bad news is that the team needs to be better than mediocre in the special teams department, and it has a long way to go to get to a competitive level. Orlando doesn’t need to be perfect on the penalty kill in October, but it certainly needs to show its rivals that it is seriously shoring up the defense when playing down a man.
The Solar Bears were fourth in the league last year serving time in the sin bin, and that statistic along with its woeful penalty kill was a surefire recipe for woe. Seasoned defensemen like Mike Monfredo and Alexander Kuqali will be bearing some burden for taking leadership in this area and showing younger players how to maintain a physical intensity on the ice without incurring meaningless penalties. Don’t expect the Solar Bears to be saints in October and November, but the squad needs to ensure that trips to the penalty box are the result of wise, intentional choices. The Everblades and company will be looking to goad the Solar Bears early, and the Orlando squad needs to show that it won’t take the bait.
Sixty Minutes of Grit
There is no statistic that measures consistent effort on the ice, but it is clear that some of the Solar Bears stumbles last year were a result of periods where the team lost its intensity and focus. This is another area where Staal and the more seasoned players will need to provide leadership.
Though the ECHL does not track the statistic, time of puck possession is one item that Berehowsky will be watching. His system demands that players be willing to chase down dumped pucks, to take care of possession in the defensive zone, and to battle hard on the boards. When the team loses its edge, it almost always translates into spending time without the puck.
Stability In and Around the Goal
The Solar Bears currently have one good anchor between the pipes in Clint Windsor. Look for him to be taking on more of the spotlight now that Connor Ingram has been traded to the Nashville Predators organization.
It is unknown who Tampa Bay will be sending to Orlando, so it’s not yet clear how exactly things are going to shake out in the crease. The Solar Bears have a good record with developing goalies, but this has also been accompanied by some stressful reshufflings and periods of uncertainty early in the season. Given this, it will be crucial for the team to be committed to two-way play and to give Windsor and company extra support around their net. Windsor can hold his own provided his teammates are not expecting miracles.
Closing Note: The Double-Barreled Pipeline
One of the brilliant surprises last year was the stable of San Jose players who were shipped to Orlando for long-term development. That is not to mention the additional players sent down from Syracuse by the Tampa Bay organization, Orlando’s official NHL affiliate.
Three former Barracuda players—Colby McAuley, Alex Schoenborn, and Cody Donaghey—have now signed contracts with the Solar Bears for another year. If Berehowsky can secure players from a second AHL organization, this would be another significant development of the off-season. The full contingent of AHL contracted players being sent to Orlando is not yet announced, but things are looking bright for young talent on the team.
Chad Boerth contributed to this article. Robbie and Chad cover the Orlando Solar Bears for the Sin Bin and you can follow them on Twitter @SinBinSolarBear.