Orlando Solar Bears growing to be part of Toronto Maple Leafs tree

Jack Rodewald, Orlando Solar Bears
Orlando Solar Bears forward Jack Rodewald skates against the Atlanta Gladiators in a 4-3 Solar Bears loss at Amway Center. Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Solar Bears.

The Orlando Solar Bears are in their third year affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The two organizations have been drawn closer together than ever.

It has happened several times during the course of this early season.

Orlando Solar Bears coach Anthony Noreen will come to the media room following a loss and praise his team for their effort and commitment to their system. Or he will come after a win a bit disappointed with the way his team played.

Some of that certainly has to do with maturity. This is a young team learning how to be professionals (including the rookie head coach coaching professionals for the first time) and get through the grind of the regular season. The players are still finding that experience and rhythm.

The Solar Bears want to win — at 9-7-1-3, the Solar Bears have slipped to a tie for last place in their division, 10 points behind the first-place Florida Everblades — but that is not necessarily their main goal at the end of the day.

The organization — from a hockey standpoint — is to do what they have done with Ryan Rupert, Ryan Massa, Brett Findlay and Jack Rodewald. And then ultimately what has happened with Garrett Sparks, who started last year for the Solar Bears in net, moved up to the Marlies and now starts for the parent club, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Solar Bears are in the development business first and foremost with this young team. And they are trying to teach and prepare their players to play for the Maple Leafs organization as a whole. The system they run is the same at all levels.

“I think their goal all the way up from the Leafs down to the Marlies and down to Orlando is pretty much the same,” Rodewald said. “Even being up with the Leafs, the systems are the same. We want to play in the defensive zone and the offense zone the same way. So when we are able to make the jump up to the next level, it will be easier to fit in and roll with it.”

Several Solar Bears players are actually on deals with the Marlies and spent training camp in Halifax, Nova Scotia with the Marlies. The Solar Bears, now in their third year affiliated with the Marlies, seem to have more vertical integration than ever before.

That comes from new Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello. The Maple Leafs are trying to build a true farm system and that includes the Solar Bears at the ECHL — essentially AA for a baseball minor league comparison — level.

The decisions the Solar Bears make with their roster are run through Toronto and Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas. He essentially works as the general manager of the Marlies in the AHL.

Dubas explained when the Marlies need to call a player up, he discusses the schedule and the duration of the call up with coach Anthony Noreen as well as who the team might be sending down. There is still a lot of constant communication going on and Dubas said he watches about every Solar Bears game, if not live then on tape delay.

The Marlies are very aware of the development and success going on at the ECHL level.

“I’m happy with the way the team has progressed,” Dubas said during a recent trip to Orlando. “The team struggles with the same things that we struggled with the Marlies early in the year. They are a younger team relative to the league. When you are younger, you are smaller. . . . We try to watch them all and talk to Anthony and get his pulse on the team. We’re happy with the progress that was made.”

The Solar Bears are having their struggles. It seems there are still stretches of getting the system or being prepared. This is a team of many rookie players — nine players officially listed as a rookie — learning to play professionally for the first time.

Noreen noted after last week’s loss to South Carolina the team’s lack of practice time led to some slipping in the kind of hockey they want to play. As Dubas noted, the ECHL is one of the tougher leagues to get a good measure because of the travel and schedule involved in the league — even West Coast teams probably do not look forward to series in Alaska.

The Solar Bears, and by extension Marlies and Maple Leafs style, is to play with a lot of pressure on the puck. The defense for the Solar Bears tends to put pressure on puck handlers and try to force turnovers to create offense.

The Solar Bears have been very strong with a man advantage — now fifth in the league in power play conversions at 22.1 percent and leading the league in shorthanded goals with seven. Their aggression to counterattack and use that to carry the puck into the offensive zone is what helps generate opportunities.

Sticking to this system has been inconsistent. The Solar Bears have struggled at time to generate consistent opportunities and constant pressure. They can possess the puck, but not necessarily get the best and constant scoring opportunities. Noreen noted in the weekend series against the Atlanta Gladiators, which the Solar Bears split, they played some of their best hockey, getting that consistent pressure. Seeing some ugly goals late in the game Sunday to close the 4-1 deficit to one goal was encouraging too.

The goals for this team and the way Noreen is coaching them is to teach the system. Players are judged more by their adherence to this system than by wins and losses. The theory goes that if they stick to the system, the results will take care of themselves.

“I think we have to stick to our systems,” Faille said. “Coach really told us what to do. If we stick to it, we are in the zone pretty much every time and moving the puck really well. If we stick to what we have to do, I think there is no problem there.”

Entering Wednesday’s games, the Marlies are in first place in their division and the Maple Leafs are in last. There is still a lot of variability. Coaching makes a difference as does talent on the roster. Toronto throughout its program is still building up its young talent base.

That too has trickled down to the Solar Bears with their relative youth even in the ECHL.

The job for Noreen and his staff is to get the Solar Bears playing the right way within the confines of the team. He has to get them to play with effort and prepare as professionals for each challenge. There have been hiccups already and things have not been implemented and executed perfectly.

The Solar Bears will be continuing to make this transition and adjustment to the Maple Leafs way. The hope is it prepares them to play for the home team soon.