The Toledo Walleye will open their 10th season with the biggest team in the ECHL but don't expect any drop off in speed or skill.
The Walleye open up Friday at Greenville, and third-year coach Dan Watson has revamped his roster, making it larger yet still offensively explosive and defensively sound.
“We wanted a little bit of everything,” he said.
Watson also is intent on maintaining the team's “culture of winning” which has included two Brabham Cups for finishing with the best regular-season record in the league twice in the past four years. But Watson is looking to bring the organization a much coveted Kelly Cup.
“We brought in guys who have won championships. We have guys that are young and hungry,” Watson said. “With only six full-time returnees. We started something here four years ago and we don't want to lose that. The product is winning.”
VIDEO: Walleye season preview
Toledo has won its division four consecutive years and has twice advanced to the conference final series in the playoffs. One of the returning forwards, A.J. Jenks, has been part of all four teams and said this roster looks promising.
“There are a lot of things to be excited about,” Jenks said. “With the amount of size we have, we're still playing very fast. The speed and tempo have been really good.”
The team's average height is 6-foot-2 and average weight is 200 pounds.
One of the massive new forwards is Ben Storm, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound left winger. Storm, who played last season for the ECHL champion Colorado Eagles, said the team looks like it will have a good dynamic of skill and grit.
“I can already see these guys work their tails off,” Storm said. “There are guys with speed. There are guys with size and can hit. We can fight when we need to and we have guys that can bury the puck. And we have two goalies that can stop the puck. That's what you need to have a successful team.”
Two of the newcomers expected to make the biggest impact are defenseman Matt Register and forward T.J. Hensick.
Register is a three-time winner of the ECHL's defenseman of the year award and has been part of three consecutive Kelly Cup title teams — the past two years with Colorado and with Allen in 2016.
“They have a winning track record here, and the fan support is unbelievable here and that's a big part of the game nowadays. It was an easy decision to come here,” said Register, who posted 65 points with 17 goals and a career-high 48 assists in 72 contests last season.
Hensick, a 32-year-old former University of Michigan star, has played in 112 games in the NHL. Hensick has played the past seven seasons in the American Hockey League, has skated in 630 games at that level, and has racked up 568 points (166 goals, 402 assists).
“There's pretty good size on the back end here,” Hensick said. “I've been impressed with the skill level. So it's exciting to be here.”
Newcomer Brenden Kotyk, a 6-foot-5 and 225-pound defenseman who played last season in Greenville, said Toledo will have a lot of toughness this year.
“That's not to say fighting. We have a lot of big guys, and even the smaller guys are making contact out there,” he said. “Teams will be intimidated by us. And then you have guys like [Shane Berschbach] and Jenks and Register, who are guys that are known to put up some points. So it looks like a really good combination. I'm excited to see how things go.”
Second-year forward Dylan Sadowy, who is a prospect in the Red Wings organization, will start again this season with the Walleye. He had 29 points in 39 games in 2017-18.
“There are a lot of new faces. So we're starting fresh,” Sadowy said. “We have a lot of big boys this year. That back end will be big. But those guys can move as well. We have a lot of size, but a lot of speed as well. It will be fun to be a fast team and big team as well.”
Veteran goaltender Pat Nagle, who set a Walleye record with 37 wins last season, will be paired with highly-regarded rookie Kaden Fulcher.
“I wouldn't say we've lost the speed or skill that Toledo is usually known for,” Nagle said. “We'll have a strong power play and a great transition game. We're just fortunate to add a little more size. It’s a long season, and you need those big bodies banging. That's going to help us down the line.”
Toledo plays five consecutive road games before opening up at home Oct. 27 against Fort Wayne.
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“Being on the road to start the year is always nice,” Sadowy said. “It brings guys closer together because you hang out and get to know each other.”
Jenks said starting on the road has been a common theme with the team.
“It's been the same way all five years I've been here. We don't play a home game until Thanksgiving it seems like,” Jenks said, chuckling. “But it is nice. It gets you out of your comfort zone. You might room with someone you don't know. It helps things gel quicker.”
The Walleye, who were 50-17-5 last season, will open the season with two goalies, six defensemen, and 11 forwards.
Watson made one final move Tuesday, trading forward Hayden Hodgson to Wichita for defenseman Samuel Thibault. The 6-foot-1, 201 pound Thibault played in 39 games for the Thunder last season and had nine assists.
Watson said he likes having the bus trip right away.
“You spend 12 hours on a bus together. All the meals are together. You spend time in the hotel room getting to know guys you don't really know,” the 2017 coach of the year said. “I think it's important that the guys get to know each other to become a team as fast as possible.”
Berschbach, the organization's all-time leader in points (267), is back for a fifth consecutive season.
“This is probably one of the better teams we've had since I've been here,” Berschbach said. “It's a full team from size, grit, skill, goaltending. I think we have a little bit of everything. The sky's the limit. We're ready to get this thing going.”
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