Orlando Solar Bears go about solving their expected unexpected challenges

The ECHL season and minor league hockey present their own special challenges. Anthony Noreen and the Orlando Solar Bears are addressing those challenges now.

Eric Baier, Orlando Solar Bears
Orlando Solar Bears defenseman Eric Baier scored the game-winning goal in overtime in a 4-3 win over the Elmira Jackals on February 14, 2016. Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Solar Bears.

When coach Anthony Noreen took over the Orlando Solar Bears last summer, there was a big task ahead of the then-32-year-old coach. He was a kid still in very many ways, coaching players older than him. But not too many older than him.

The Solar Bears were hoping for a third straight trip to the playoffs. Their relationship though had changed somewhat. There was new management with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And it was trickling down to the Toronto Marlies and then to the Solar Bears.

The changes throughout the year were constant.

The Solar Bears made more than 100 roster moves and transactions throughout the season. It seemed every weekend was a new set of players going to Toronto for the weekend series. And it was often the team’s best players. T.J. Foster, Eric Faille, Eric Baier and Brady Vail all spent time with the Marlies and away from the Solar Bears.

The disruptions, particularly in December and January, hurt the Solar Bears’ record in the end. Orlando failed to make the Playoffs despite a late push to do so.

“I think it was certainly a year where everything a team could possibly go through we went through as far as guys getting called up, guys getting sent down, injuries happening, bringing in new players, winning streaks, losing streaks, I think we kind of went through everything,” coach Anthony Noreen said after the season. “The way I always judge a season is did you learn from it and did you get better? I felt like our guys got better. I felt like I learned a lot of lessons moving forward. I think the best thing about it is you take what you learned and we’re excited to have a full offseason to build a team the right way.”

This very young roster, and it was young intentionally because of the Toronto Marlies’ development desires, had its growing pains on the ice. The Marlies wanted things seamless and called up players freely. And that hurt the Solar Bears in the 2016 season.

It was clear the Solar Bears had to learn some things too. The coaching staff had to learn some things too. This was a young coach, coaching professionals for the first time. A minor league at that.

The team got better as the year went on. Orlando made a late push for the playoffs that eventually fell short. And a big part of that was the stability added to the roster and some veterans in Rylan Schwartz, Rory Rawlyk and Nicklas Lindberg.

When Noreen took the job, he knew the challenges of the ECHL. Or at leas the was told of them. There would be nights he would not have a full roster. It was an experience for sure.

The Solar Bears had games with just six forwards and four defenseman. They had those moments where the team just did not have enough players to field a full team. It was all a learning experience.

“You learn from it,” Noreen said. “You grow, you get better, and you challenge yourself. The one thing I would say you learn is the ability to have that next man up how important it is. You need to be solid top to bottom. You need to be able to beat the best teams with your depth guys because there are going to be nights you have to do that.”

The Solar Bears have tried to go about things this summer to fix that. They will have their slew of players from the Toronto Marlies that have already been signed — Eric Faille and T.J. Foster will be back on two-way contracts. Orlando also signed captain Eric Baier, Johnny McInnis and goalie Ryan Massa.

They will form the foundations for the team this year. But the Solar Bears realized with their young team last year, they needed veteran help. Rawlyk, Lindberg and Schwartz were incredibly valuable for their consistency as professional players and their presence in the locker room.

Coming into camp without a veteran was one of the regrets the team had. That was something they missed early on that they needed to be sure to add.

They added that in signing veterans Paul Crowder and Trevor Ludwig. They will serve as the guiding voices for a young Solar Bears team.

Crowder has played professionally since 2009, bouncing between the AHL and ECHL and various other leagues. He has 83 goals in 284 ECHL games. He played part of the season in Fort Wayne last year.

Ludwig has played professionally since 2008. He played for Missouri in the ECHL last year. He will help anchor the defense for the team.

Orlando’s team is far from complete obviously. There are still plenty more players to sign. The team though was seriously looking to address bringing in experience to the team and help stabilize things for the young group the Marlies and Maple Leafs are hoping to develop into their future stars.

The offseason has given the Solar Bears the chance to reflect some on the season that passed. And now they have the chance to make something happen and improve the roster. They have largely done that.

Training camp will come soon enough for the Solar Bears. There will be more players to sign as the team mines for talent and works with the Marlies to build a Playoff-caliber roster.

The team had some expected challenges. Now it has the experience to deal with them better. That should mean a better team next season.

“My expectation is to get it to a point where it is a team that is hard to play against every night,” Noreen said. “A team that is full of guys that play the right way, that play the game hard and are physical and are tough to play against. Is it there yet? No. But it will get there. I can promise it will get there. That’s the thing we’re excited about this offseason is to put a full summer to put our stamp on it. We’re going to work tirelessly until we do.”