The normal flurry of offseason transactions and movement among players can be taxing on those that follow the ECHL closely. However, on July 24, the Toledo Walleye announced a signing that has been on my mind as one of the most understated signings this summer.
Mark Auk signed with the Walleye for his second professional season after playing in Finland’s top league, Liiga, where he had a less than stellar year. Upon analyzing Auk’s statistics and watching film on him, it’s clear that Toledo knew what they were doing with this signing. Auk has a tremendous opportunity to make his presence immediately felt not only with the Walleye, but throughout the ECHL. This signing brings the Walleye closer to winning the elusive Kelly Cup that they were so close to raising last year.
PREVIOUS PLAYING EXPERIENCE…WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER
A quick glance at Auk’s Elite Prospects page highlights a couple of very intriguing seasons and helps make a case for why he will fit in on the Walleye squad. Auk had a consistently progressive collegiate career, upping both his goals and assists totals each season, and led all Michigan Tech defensemen in scoring his senior year. Following his time in college was a short stint in the AHL with the Iowa Wild, where he registered a goal in his first game with the team. Most notably, though, was his aforementioned rookie professional season with Lukko in Finland, registering just one goal and nine assists in 47 games played. With this being said, I wouldn’t be so quick to write off Auk after just one mediocre season in Europe for a couple of reasons.
- Liiga (AKA the Finnish Elite League) is regarded as one of the top leagues in Europe behind the KHL, and is on par with the Swedish Elite League. The league has produced top NHL talent like Aleksander Barkov, Miro Heiskanen, Pekka Rinne, and has a plethora of former NHLers currently in its ranks. Playing in a league with this much talent was without a doubt challenging for Auk, but I’m sure it became beneficial for his development and has more than prepared him for the ECHL.
- Another thing to remember is that European leagues play on international sized ice which is considerably larger than what fans and players are used to in North America. Returning to familiar ice dimensions will be a step in the right direction, and the smaller rink will allow more opportunity for Auk to join the offensive rush.
OFFENSIVELY-MINDED DEFENSEMEN ARE PERFECT FOR THE MODERN GAME
Hockey is rapidly developing into a game of transitional speed, where having a defenseman who isn’t afraid to carry the puck into the offensive zone or join the rush is extremely valuable. While stay-at-home defensemen like Roman Polak have their place in the game, there’s a reason why a player like John Klingberg is more desirable in the NHL. When asked about his own style of play in an interview with the Walleye, Auk described himself as a good puck-moving defenseman who likes to join the offensive play, and I couldn’t agree more with his individual assessment. Auk highlighted this play in his collegiate career as both a playmaker and even a shooter, especially on the power play. During his senior year, Auk had 19 power play points, and garnered 15 power play assists as the quarterback for Michigan Tech’s power play unit. From the video footage I’ve been able to gather, it’s apparent that Auk also has a wicked wrist shot and sees the ice very well.
Mark Auk's first pro goal in his first pro game. Doesn't get better than that🔥 pic.twitter.com/YgTSXtQDjA
— Iowa Wild (@IAWild) April 7, 2018
— Michigan Tech Hockey (@mtuhky) October 9, 2017
A SHOOTING PERCENTAGE ANOMALY LAST SEASON
Moving forward from Auk’s struggles last season, an interesting thing to point out is that his shooting percentage was very much off, even for a defenseman. Though he’s not necessarily a noted goal scorer (and his assists are clearly where he and all other defensemen generally get their points), his shooting percentage hiccup from last year is something to take note of. Compare his percentage last season to his entire collegiate career, and it’s obvious that Auk was having an abnormal year. Next season on North American ice, I suspect him to be back around the 6%-7% mark. And, over the course of 72 games, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him reach the double-digit mark in goals.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2019-20
Returning to North American ice for the 2019-20 ECHL season, I suspect Auk will feel more familiar with the style of play and have an increased number of opportunities to score given the smaller ice surface and the ECHL’s pace of play. Even on a very talented Toledo squad, Auk has top defensive pairing potential in my eyes, and can clearly provide value for the Walleye in a power play role. I also suspect his experience in Finland did make him a better player, and that experience will better his game as the grind of the ECHL season hits in March.
Follow Mac Moore on Twitter (@LawMacMoore) for analytic breakdowns of various offseason signings in the ECHL. And, keep track of ALL the ECHL’s summer signings and roster movements on our ECHL Transactions page!