I couldn't post the picture in the title that I really wanted to, so check out this and this and it will all make sense. The Walleye wore batman jerseys and their opponents wore riddle jerseys and after the game the jerseys were auctioned off for charity.
If you followed the Toledo Walleye last year or even read the occasional article or update about them, the phrase "dumpster fire" was often deservingly used to describe them. Last year they finished one point out of last place in the ECHL and had a 21-44-4-3 record and only 49 points in 72 games. Woof. Their leading goal scorer had 18 goals and their leading point scorer had 35 points. You probably remember that last year was Jared Coreau's rookie season and he spent most of it in Toledo getting shellacked by pucks, and coming away with an abysmal 1-12-3-3 record. Marek Tvrdon started in Toledo and was eventually sent back to juniors, and you probably remember the team having to bag skate after one of their terrible losses. Toledo was a garbage team and I don't think they were good for player development at all.
Something had to change with the team because last year was just too terrible to ignore. After last season the Walleye went through several big changes and right off the bat it was easy to see this was a completely different team. The first big piece of news that made me very happy was the Walleye cutting affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks and becoming a Red Wings only affiliate for the first time in their six year existence. Having two different NHL affiliations was pulling the Walleye in different directions and it didn't end up benefiting either team. Dave Hackenberg of the Toledo Blade wrote an article that eloquently described what it's been like for the Walleye being able to focus on serving one NHL team instead of two.
"Trying to serve two organizations, two masters, meant trying to satisfy two somewhat conflicting systems. It proved to be a frustrating task for former coach Nick Vitucci. So was keeping up with incessant roster moves. Vitucci always appeared to have three rosters - one coming, one going, one playing. Now, the Walleye have a more stable roster - with many of the players picked by new coach Lalonde to fit his style of unselfish play - and are an extension of the Red Wings' system, one that is built on speed. That means these dudes can all skate. It's the fastest hockey team on Toledo ice in recent memory. You can see the Red Wings' influence in the stretch pass as defenders clear the zone and go. Speed makes the transition game click. "We spent a lot of time last summer identifying what we wanted to do and who we wanted to do it with," Lalonde said. "The NHL contracts we have and the two-ways [shared contracts with Grand Rapids of the AHL, another Detroit affiliate] are a really important group, a big reason we're off to a strong start. We've had very little turnover so far. "But having my own guys - our own guys - has really allowed us to define who we are and what we are."
The Walleye also brought in a new head coach, Darek Lalonde whse reume includes being the assistant coach at Ferris State University under Jeff Blashill. The Walleye also went out and signed a whole slew of free agent players, several of whom had been free agent invites to the Red Wings Development Camp and Prospect Tournaments over the last couple years. The result of all these changes has been drastic and immediate. The Walleye are 10-3-0-1 with 21 pts through 14 games, are 2nd in the North Division and 5th in the Eastern Conference- with fewer games played than 4 of the teams ahead of them. They also have the top power play in the ECHL at 30.0% and have the top penalty killing at 90.0%. Jared Coreau has a 4-2-0-0 record with the Walleye this year and is rebounding nicely after last season. With Petr Mrazek in Detroit backing up Jimmy Howard, the Griffins and Walleye have been trading off Coreau and Jeff Lerg to back up Thomas McCollum in GR to ensure that Coreau is still getting to play in Toledo. The attitude and mentality coming from Toledo players and coaches alike appears to be worlds better than last year, and I can't stress enough how important the mental aspect of the game is.
Since Jeff Blashill became the head coach of the Griffins, there's been great consistency between the Wings and Griffins, and the benefits have been easy to see. Whenever a Griffins player has been called up to the Wings, they[ve been much better prepared than in the past and the similarities between the Griffins and Wings have even garnered national attention and praise. Think back to how well prepared guys like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, and Xavier Ouellet have been to play for the Wings. Their systems are the same, the execution is very similar, and the players are able to make the transition to the next level easier and with better results. A similar relationship is developing between the Walleye and Griffins and it's been incredibly beneficial for player development.
One of the most exciting player improvements has been Marek Tvrdon, who as I mentioned earlier was sent back to the WHL for his overage year part way through last season. In the first attempt at his rookie season he played 22 games, had 13 points, and was having such a rough time making the jump to the ECHL that the Wings organization thought it would be better for him to go back to juniors for the rest of the season. Of course, talking about Tvrdon's development up until this point always has an asterisk by it because he missed about a year of hockey after having emergency surgery in November of 2012 to remove a blood clot which also required the removal of a rib. Doctors didn't know if he'd even ever play hockey again so not only did he miss a year of hockey, but he also had to overcome both the physical and mental challenges from the scary ordeal. Last season Tvrdon went back to the WHL and had 27 points in 29 games and seemed like he was not only shaking off the rust but also gaining some confidence. This year he re-joined the Walleye at the start of the season and has 15 points in 12 games, is 2nd on the Walleye in scoring, and is 7th in rookie scoring in the ECHL. After his rough start last year and everything he's been through so far, he's doing great so far this year and I'm thrilled he's doing so well.
The other Red Wings prospects in Toledo are Martin Frk, who was send down from Grand Rapids and has 2 points in 2 games, and Richard Nedomlel who has 2 points in 3 games and has spent most of the season being a healthy scratch in Grand Rapids. I think there's one reason why Martin Frk is in Toledo, and it's not because he wasn't playing well in Grand Rapids. Frk is significantly better this year than he was last year, and despite playing well and having numerous scoring chances, he only had 1 point in 7 games in Grand Rapids. The biggest thing he was lacking was confidence, so the Griffins sent him to Toledo in the hopes that he'd be able to build his confidence up. I hope it's working because I really really want Frk to be the player I know he is, because he really is a skilled player who's fun to watch and can put up points.
Richard Nedomlel is a big boy who prides himself on being physical, has a tendency to go too far with that physicality and take penalties, and who has very little offensive abilities. I have a hard time imagining him ever making it to the NHL, and even a full time AHL job will be hard to come by on a very deep team.
I'm excited to see what else the Walleye can do this season. In the previous 5 years, the Walleye have missed the playoffs three times, have been knocked out in the first round twice, and have only had a winning record twice. I don't think it's a stretch to say that this is the best the Walleye have ever been and that their playoff potential is much higher than ever before. The experience growth the players get in the playoffs isn't something that can be simulated any other time, so whether you're interested in the Walleye as a team, or simply because the Wings have prospects playing there, it's a win-win situation.