ORLANDO, FL – The Orlando Solar Bears have seen many overhauls this offseason including an affiliation change, an assistant coaching change, and a practical makeover of the team’s roster. After the ownership change last year—which brought the team into the DeVos family fold alongside the Orlando Magic—this year presents another intriguing new chapter to the Solar Bears’ history. Having left the Toronto affiliation behind, the Solar Bears have now partnered with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Solar Bears hope to use that partnership to spark more ticket sales and buzz. On the ice, Head Coach Drake Berehowsky is aiming to take his team past last year’s historic postseason run, which would mean getting past the second round and into the Eastern Conference finals.
Nuts and Bolts:
Record: 33-30-6-3, 75 points
Division/Conference Finish: 3rd in the South Division / 8th in the Eastern Conference
Playoff Finish: Second round exit at the hands of the Florida Everblades in five games
Record vs. Division: 25-25-5-3
Record vs. Conference: 30-28-5-3
Goals For Per Game: 2.94, 17th overall
Goals Against Per Game: 3.17, 13th overall
Power Play: 16.0%, 55 goals on 343 chances, 18th overall
Penalty Kill: 82.8%, allowing 61 goals on 354 attempts, 18th overall
New Affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning: The major piece of news for the Solar Bears this season is the change of affiliation from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This change has sparked fans of both the Solar Bears and Lightning alike, and it has opened up the possibility of many different co-sponsorship events between the two teams. One key question is exactly how the Tampa Bay organization plans to use the Solar Bears in terms of player development. Orlando’s affiliation with Toronto was seasoned and productive, and the Solar Bears benefited from a number of Toronto-contracted players who spent long stints in Orlando. It remains to be seen how Tampa Bay will approach its new ECHL affiliate.
Treasure Trove of New Players: Along with the affiliation change, there has been a drastic overhaul on the Orlando bench. The Toronto-contracted players have left, and Orlando has been busy signing a number of rookies and young talent. Berehowsky showed last year that he is not afraid of bringing in a flock of new faces, and the trend continues this year, though at a more moderate level. Last year, Berehowsky started the season with only three returning players, while this year, he has doubled the number of returnees. Of course, given that Berehowsky turned in the most successful year in the Solar Bears ECHL history in 2017-18, one is inclined to have some faith in his ability to build and shape a young team filled with new faces.
Hello, Marc LeFebvre: The Solar Bears announced the signing of their new assistant coach, Marc LeFebvre, towards the end of the summer. Last season, LeFebvre was the assistant coach of the Cincinnati Cyclones, which posted a record of 39-30-3-0, and which boasted the second best power play unit in the league. Power plays will be an area of focus for Orland, as the Solar Bears power play unit was near the bottom of the league last year. Berehowsky will be happy if LeFebvre can bring some of his power play unit experience to the Solar Bears this season.
Despite the whirlwind of changes over the summer, Berehowsky is optimistic about the upcoming season. When questioned on his thoughts on the new affiliation in an interview with 96.5 The Game, Berehowsky stated,
“I think it’s a great partnership, just with where everybody’s situated. It’s a close relationship. Hopefully they’ll be able to come down and watch some of our players play and hopefully we’ll be able to go up and watch some of their practices and some of their games. For me personally, it’s a chance for me to learn some more.”
While many faces on the Solar Bears are new this year, there are some players that will be key in guiding the rookies and other young members of the squad. Here are three core pieces of the machine to watch this season.
Mike Monfredo: One major piece of news this offseason was the signing of Solar Bears defenseman Mike Monfredo. The blueliner has proven to be a powerful leader for the squad, consistently sticking up for his teammates when they are in trouble, and thus becoming a huge favorite in the Solar Bears fan community. During last season, Monfredo registered 23 points and tallied 148 penalty minutes in the 68 games he played with the Solar Bears. Berehowsky was focused on bringing Monfredo back to the Solar Bears this season, and he was the first player signed for the upcoming campaign. He will be a major part in helping the new players sharpening their claws.
Hunter Fejes: On the offensive end, a key player returning to Orlando this season is forward Hunter Fejes. Fejes came to Orlando in January last year, and he was costly, with the Solar Bears giving up two players and a future consideration in the deal. But Berehowsky’s gamble paid off, with Fejes averaging nearly one point per game and boosting the team’s win percentage. When Fejes scored a goal in a game, Orlando was a perfect 10-0-0-0. Fejes was a late signing for the 2018-19 campaign, but the Solar Bears came to terms with him on Oct. 2, and he immediately showed up for duty at the team’s training camp. The team will be looking to Monfredo and Fejes to bring success on both ends of the ice.
Martin Ouellette: Out of all the players to be donning a Solar Bears uniform this season, perhaps the most unlikely individual would be Martin Ouellette. The former Florida Everblade joins the Solar Bears after being added into the Lightning prospect system during the offseason. Ouellette is a rock solid goaltender, having earned the title of ECHL goaltender of the week two times last season. In addition to leading Florida to the Kelly Cup finals last season, Ouellette also represented the Everblades at the 2018 ECHL All-Star Classic in Indianapolis. With all of the change going on in the team, many fans were left to wonder what would become of the goalie situation this year. With Ouellette in the net, the team will have some solid protection between the pipes this year.
Gone but Not Forgotten:
Especially with the affiliation change, the Solar Bears are seeing a significant overhaul in their personnel. Below are three people who fans will surely miss.
Kyle Rankin: Late in the summer, the Solar Bears traded forward Kyle Rankin to the Tulsa Oilers in exchange for forward Christophe Lalancette. Rankin was a very hard working player for the team last year, registering eight points in 59 games and recording 51 penalty minutes. The trade of Rankin is a gamble. While Rankin was not an offensive powerhouse, he was always a spark on the ice and he was notably flexible, capable of switching to blueline duties when the need arose.
Cal Heeter: The Solar Bears will miss their goalie from last season, Cal Heeter. Heeter was one of the many players contracted to Toronto, and he will this not be returning to Orlando. Last season, Heeter registered 2.74 goals against average with a .915 save percentage. Heeter had a magnificent development during his time in Orlando, going from some tentative play in goal towards the start of the season, to being an intimidating presence towards the end.
John Snowden: Though not a player, former Solar Bears assistant coach John Snowden will be missed. Snowden was a huge part of the Solar Bears’ success during their affiliation with Toronto, having been an assistant coach and then associate coach for the team since the 2015-16 season. Snowden even stepped in as the main coach when Berehowsky had a medical emergency during the 2016-17 season. Snowden starts his new journey with the Newfoundland Growlers, and he will remain an active force in the ECHL.
Sin Bin Swami Sez:
Considering the honeymoon affiliation with Tampa Bay, the departure of Snowden, and the player changes, the crystal ball is a bit murky. But Berehowsky’s leadership remains steady, and the Solar Bears are looking to extend last year’s success. They have some impressive pieces in place in all zones and between the pipes. We won’t be surprised to see them pushing further into the playoffs, which means going past the second round and into the Eastern Conference Finals.