ORLANDO, FL – The Orlando Solar Bears’ busy offseason has seen yet another major event—the release of the qualifying offers list. The ECHL limits teams to eight offers, so choices must be carefully weighed and considered. The short list gives us a good view of the types of players whom head coach Drake Berehowsky is keen on retaining. Those who made the list are . . .
Forwards: Darik Angeli, Milos Bubela, Justin Buzzeo, Joe Perry, and Ethan Werek
Defensemen: Chris Bradley and Taylor Doherty
Goaltender: Ryan Massa
What can we conclude from Berehowsky’s choices thus far?
The Foundation Stones
If you want to erect a monument that will take you up to the Kelly Cup, you need to start with a solid building block and a rugged construction crane. Prior to the June 30 deadline for qualifying offers, the Solar Bears had already signed Chris Crane and Austin Block to the team, and with those signings, Berehowsky is signaling the type of scrappy, gutsy play he expects from his team.
Crane had a stellar run with the Solar Bears last year, acquiring 35 points in the regular season and 9 points in the playoffs. Crane is also committed to maintaining puck control in the offensive zone, and he’s willing to grind along the boards to win battles for control. Faceoffs are another crucial specialty that Crane brings to the team.
Austin Block was an invaluable plus as well, with 35 points in the regular season. He is an all-in type of player who can be counted on to bring energy into all three zones and who is not intimidated. Both Block and Crane are seasoned players who will be key leaders next year.
The Overseas Prospects
While many would expect players such as Perry and Massa to receive qualifying offers, some of the less expected choices for the list are Werek, Buzzeo, and Bubela. Bubela and Buzzeo have left the team and gone to Europe, and Werek, while spending most of last season on a call-up to the Texas Stars, has now gone off to China.
Werek signed a contract the Kunlun Red Star of the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), while Buzzeo has gone to the Graz 99ers of the EBEL (Erste Bank Eishockey Liga) in Austria and Bubela has signed with the HC Banska Bystrica in Slovakia. Notably, that team has also acquired the services of teammate Eric Faille.
Many would ask, “Why would Orlando give offers to these players when they’ve already signed with other teams overseas?”
The reason is this: If the players were to return to North America next year to play, the Solar Bears would retain some contract rights. This protects Orlando from other teams simply snatching these players. The fact that Coach Berehowsky used three of his eight qualifying offers on these players while leaving last year’s captain Eric Baier out of the running shows that Berehowsky believes that there is some chance of the Solar Bears getting Bubela, Buzzeo, or Werek.
As reported earlier, Baier has left professional hockey to coach for the Central Florida Hockey Club, and while we will see him in Amway Center, it will be as a spectator, not a player.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether we will see Bubela, Buzzeo, or Werek take the ice in North America next season, but Solar Bears fans will recall that former player Rory Rawlyk started off last year in Hungary only to reappear midseason in a Florida Everblades uniform. Berehowsky obviously sees enough of a chance that one or more of them will come back over the pond to expend some of his qualifying offers. If any of those gambles pays off, it will be a notable jackpot for Orlando.
Now, the question is—who will be most likely to accept their qualifying offers and return with the team? Based on his success with the Solar Bears last year, one of the players who is a prime candidate is Joe Perry. Perry was one of the team leaders in points last season, collecting 54 points in the regular season and four in the playoff. He is a highly charged offensive player who is not afraid to bring physical play to the ice and to force matters in front of the opposing goal.
Another player who is a worthy candidate is Darik Angeli. Angeli acquired a total of 20 points in the regular season and a total of three in the playoffs. Some might be surprised by Berehowsky’s choice here. But keep in mind that Angeli saw stints with the Colorado Eagles, the Norfolk Admirals, and the Tulsa Oilers last season before he finally found a home in Orlando. Angeli’s numbers got stronger as the year progressed, and it seems that Berehowsky sees that upward trajectory continuing next year.
Taylor Doherty is one of two defensemen receiving a qualifying offer, and if Doherty accepts, Berehowsky will have struck gold. Doherty will be a veteran at the start of this upcoming season. He is a rugged, physical player, who brings an anchoring presence to the ice. ECHL teams are restricted to having four veterans on their team. With last year’s captain Eric Baier gone, and Werek questionable, the Solar Bears would benefit greatly from having a veteran such as Doherty on the blueline. Doherty became only more impressive during last year’s playoff run, when he scored seven points, making him the third on the team in that category.
Another defenseman, Chris Bradley, was also on the qualifying offers list. He collected a total of 19 points in the regular season and 3 points in the playoffs. Bradley, while not quite the defensive powerhouse that Doherty is, is a good scorer whose puck-handling skills are key for defensive zone breakouts. A defenseman who can score is a definite plus for any team.
When it comes to goalies who would benefit the team, the obvious choice was Ryan Massa. Massa was Orlando’s star netminder last season, with a .912 save percentage in the regular season and a sizzling .941 save percentage in the playoffs. While Massa is a great goalie, he suffered through numerous injuries throughout last season. If he is willing and able to play another year, the Solar Bears will be stoked.
Not on the List
Some of the players who did not make the cut but would be worth mentioning are Denver Manderson, Adam Phillips, Trevor Ludwig, and Mitch Gillam.
Phillips is a player whom Orlando acquired in a future considerations trade deal with the Indy Fuel. He played part of his season with the Norfolk Admirals and part with the Fuel, gathering five points in Norfolk and 14 with Indy. Given the fact that he was acquired by Orlando after the playoffs, some might have expected him to get a qualifying offer nod. Even though he did not, don’t rule out the possibility of seeing him in a Solar Bears uniform in October.
Gillam was another latecomer to the Solar Bears, and he was called upon to mind the net when Kasimir Kaskisuo was called up to the Toronto Marlies (Orlando’s AHL affiliate) and Massa was injured. His save percentage of .867 was largely due to the lack of defense in front of the Solar Bears’ net. Another factor weighing on Gillam is that the Maple Leafs and Marlies may be interested in using the Solar Bears to develop an as-yet-unnamed goalie as they have done for the past three years. If that is the case, Gillam might be left out.
Ludwig has had injuries over the past few seasons, but prior to the injury last season, he acquired 5 points overall and he brought a seasoned defensive presence to the ice. With Ludwig’s injuries over the past two years, there must be questions as to whether or not he’ll be back this year.
Manderson is the most surprising player not to receive a qualifying offer. Last season he had a total of 47 points and a grand total of 10 points in the playoffs which made him tops for the team.
Some might wonder why Orlando didn’t give offers to Manderson, Phillips, Ludwig, or Gillam. Berehowsky, in gambling on Bubela, Buzzeo, and Werek, had to make sacrifices. There also is the possibility that some of these players are in talks with the team, and so some news might still be forthcoming.
In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to update you on how the team is shaping up. In the meantime, for the latest list of player signings across the ECHL, visit our 2017 ECHL Transactions page!