When the Toronto Marlies received Byron Froese on a loan from the Cincinnati Cyclones on December 9th, 2014, The Leafs Nation did not have a piece about the news. We talked about the Leafs being bad (what else is now), and I suggested that Phil Kessel should probably take a couple of games off to rest his probably broken body.
When Froese turned that loan into an AHL contract on January 7th, 2015, The Leafs Nation did not mention it. We were still in a “holy crap they actually fired Randy Carlyle” fueled euphoria, and wrote about literally everything else.
Now, at the three month mark of his arrival we will finally address Byron Froese.
Who is this kid…
Froese is a 23 year old from Winkler, Manitoba. Drafted in 2009, his career has been an interesting one to say the least. Making his major-junior debut in his draft year, Froese put up 57 points in 72 games with the Everett Silvertips; a team that had absolutely no notable NHL names, but still managed to barely squeak into the WHL playoffs. For his efforts, he was drafted 119th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Logically, they sent him back to the WHL. Everett wasn’t much better on paper than they were the previous year (Radko Gudas and a 15 year old Ryan Murray are the only two players to play in the NHL thus far), but with the core a year older, they moved up to fourth overall, helped in part by Froese’s 29 goals and 32 assists in 70 games. After the season, Froese was moved to Red Deer, where he ended up teaming up with eventual 2011 1st overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. This time around, Froese had 43 goals and 38 assists, which put him in the top ten in goals on the year.
From there, Froese headed to the pros, but up until this point, has struggled to gain much traction anywhere. The Hawks gave Froese opportunities with the Rockford IceHogs for three consecutive years, but in the final two, found themselves unhappy with his production and sent him down to the ECHL for extended periods of time.
In his 2013/14 stint with the Cincinnati Cyclones, where he was coached by Marlies assistant Ben Simon, Froese seemed to catch on to his offensive game. He put up 21 points in 25 games in the regular season and followed that up with 25 points in 23 games in the playoffs. Nonetheless, the Blackhawks chose not to qualify him at the expiration of his Entry Level Contract, leaving him a free agent. Froese stayed in Cincinnati, and started this year with 24 points in 17 games, which at the time, lead the league. At that point, the Marlies made a call and arranged a loan.
…and why is he lighting up the AHL?
Since coming to the Marlies, Froese has been a very pleasant surprise for the team. “He’s been a great signing.” said Gord Dineen after Sunday’s game against Utica, where Froese opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal. “He went down to the ECHL and didn’t pout while he was leading the league in scoring before getting called up. He’s been a great addition, not only as far as scoring timely goals, but on the defensive side, and winning faceoffs, and killing penalties. Basically doing everything for us, and he’s opened up a lot of people’s eyes.”
In 28 games with the Marlies this season, Froese has put up 23 points, good for the highest points per game count of any player on the team. He’s also producing points about 400% more efficiently than he ever did at the AHL level. But, what’s causing this?
As crazy as it sounds, it might be as simple as him shooting the puck more and taking advantage of the opportunities that come out of it. “I think it’s something I picked up last year in Cincinnati,” Froese told me on Sunday. “I realized that the more shots I had, the more chances I had to score, and the more chaos goes on in front of the net. I found last year, especially in the playoff stretch, that when I was shooting the puck more, I had a lot more success.”
The numbers back it up for the new guy, who has taken at least one shot on net in every game he’s played for Toronto.
As you can see above, Froese was taking twice as many shots at the ECHL level as he was in the AHL, and having a high shooting percentage wasn’t particularly abnormal. While the goaltending in the AHL is slightly better, it’s not enough to account for this significant of a difference. A combination of being used as an offensive catalyst and having a mindset to shoot seems to be what stirs Froese’s drink, and that carried over to Toronto, where he’s taken over a shot per game more than he did with Rockford or San Antonio. Sure enough, the pucks are going in, and the rebounds are there for others.
Finally getting powerplay time at this level may also play a factor, though only two of his goals have come with the team on the powerplay. “I played on the penalty kill for a lot of years in Rockford, but never really got on the powerplay. In Cincinnati, you had to play everything, because you only have ten forwards. Even in junior, I played both.”
Seriously, how good is he?
What has particularly impressed me is Froese’s versatility, in that he’s played all three forward positions this year. I asked him where he was most comfortable, and he said he was most familiar with playing centre and having the defensive responsibilities of the positions, but also enjoyed the offensive flexiblity of the wing.
Froese seems to be producing the most down the middle at the moment, though it’s a small sample, and the bulk of that seems to be coming from an uptick in assists. In terms of shots, he is indeed taking more on the wings.
What’s interesting is that this comes without much consistency in terms of linemates. Froese hasn’t spent more than eight of his 28 games with any particular linemate, but has continued to produce, and in many cases, has elevated the games of those around him. Matt Frattin is a great example; in his eight games with Froese, he’s averaged over a shot more per game, and has half as many goals as he did in the 33 games without him.
Yes, that’s a makeshift, small sampled, non ice time considered AHL WOWY chart. 2015!
In fact, almost the entire team appears to be generating more offence while playing with Froese than without him. There are some exceptions to the rule, but overall on the whole, Froese’s linemates have averaged 0.31 goals per game while playing with him, a significant increase over the 0.18 they average without him. Those players are also taking 0.2 more shots per game, which adds up in the long run.
As for who he thinks he plays best with, Froese isn’t picking favourites. “It’s a hard question, because I’ve been with pretty much everybody. I feel like I’ve had success with almost everybody on the team. There’s nobody I particular, but I think we’ve got a great group of guys here, and four lines that can play”.
Froese played his first game with William Nylander on Sunday, and the two showed initial signs of chemistry. I’m personally hoping to see their line (with Frattin on the right wing) get a few games together; if Froese can do for Nylander what he’s done for Frattin, it’ll be huge for his development.
So.. what now?
Now that Froese has been given the offensive opportunities that he never really saw in previous American Hockey League stints, we’re starting to see the flashes of brilliance that were apparent in him as a WHL player. While he’s still a very capable, positionally sound defensive forward, Froese has re-integrated the offensive element into his game and for the first time in years, looks like a legitimate prospect.
At the same time, the AHL isn’t the end goal for him. At his age, the NHL still isn’t a complete impossibility, something that Dineen credits to his attitude. “He does everything right. He comes to the rink prepared every day. We’ve sat him for some games through the mid part of the season, and even with the numbers he had, he never pouted and always kept good composure.”
The next step for Froese will be to sign an NHL contract. Technically, he’s an unrestricted free agent, and any team could theoretically sign him and own his rights moving forward. Seeing how he’s fit into this system, and how he’s benefitted a bunch of his teammates, I don’t think it’s completely insane to suggest that the Leafs should be entering the third phase with him and offering up a deal in the near future.
The combination of his personal play, his ability to elevate the play of others, and positive mindset is something that you want in your organization, no matter what the level. At the very least, he helps develop your prospects at the American Hockey League level, but in the right situation, could find himself contributing to the bottom six in what projects to be a pretty barren Leafs roster next year.
Until that contract comes though, Froese continues to work on the things he thinks will help him make the next step. “Overall, I have to make my game better. I need to get faster and stronger on my skates, and keep up the consistency. I need to bring my best game night in, night out, and put a lot of effort in.”
Photographs courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com.