Since the inception of the Newfoundland Growlers, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ vision for their ECHL affiliate was to make this team a true development pipeline, a place for young players to get accustomed to the organization’s systems, culture, and the way they intend to win it all someday. 12 games into the 2022-23 ECHL season and we can declare it: the Leafs have themselves a group of stone-cold killers stashed away in this tier of AAA professional men’s hockey.
The Growlers have started their season with a pristine 11-0-1 record, they currently sit on top of the entire league by a narrow three point margin (their division rivals, the Worcester Railers, sit in second place) and, unsurprisingly, numerous members of the team sit on top of the league leaders lists. Zach O’Brien and Orrin Centazzo, both on AHL contracts with the Marlies are #1 and 2 on the scoring list, O’Brien with a ridiculous 24 points in 12 games and Centazzo with 19 in 12. Tied with five other forwards for fourth place in league scoring is another AHL contracted player in Zach Solow (14 points)
Between the pipes, both goaltenders assigned to the Growlers from the Marlies have been beyond stellar. Dryden McKay picked up four wins in his first five appearances and put forward a .911 save percentage in his first stint with the team before being called up to the AHL to replace Keith Petruzzelli during the Leafs’ latest stint of goalie issues. He has since been returned to Newfoundland and will likely be back in action this weekend against the Maine Mariners.
McKay’s partner in the crease, Luke Cavallin, has been nothing short of a revelation. He is 6-0 and leads the ECHL with the highest save percentage (.959) and lowest goals against average (1.17). Cavallin and McKay both exude confidence and rightfully so. Through each of their respective games, both of them have exhibited rock-solid positioning and the ability to make at least one nearly-impossible save when the team most needs it. Cavallin’s most recent game on Wednesday night (November 16) was a 38 save effort in his first professional shutout, which included this example of his skill:
The Growlers also got, for a short time, a pair of bonafide Toronto Maple Leafs prospects in Finnish defencemen Mikko Kokkonen and Axel Rindell. Both players were assigned on conditioning stints that, for the first time in team (and possibly league) history, had expiration dates attached to the news that they would be sent to the ECHL.
Rindell arrived just in time for the Growlers’ fourth game of the season, his first ever on North American ice as a pro. His conditioning stint lasted from October 28 to November 6. In that span, he played in five games, and put up four points (2 goals, including a highlight reel end-to-end rush). Rindell was the Leafs’ 6th round pick in the 2020 entry draft who plays a pretty complete game already despite his youth. He defends the rush extremely well and picks his places to jump up offensively. More often than not, it pays off when he does.
Kokkonen, meanwhile, arrived just before the sixth game of the season, and played in the Growlers’ next six games. A third-round pick in the 2019 draft, the scouting report on Kokkonen was that he plays more of a defensive role, preferring to stay at home rather than leap up in the rush. With the Growlers however, the truth could not be further from that. Perhaps he was emboldened by the team’s play style, but he was all over the ice in most of those games, and he absolutely dominated most of his minutes. Kokkonen put three points on the board during his time in the ECHL (one goal) but he had chances in every single game to put at least one in the back of the net
“Really glad to see it go in for him, it was a great shot,” said coach Eric Wellwood in a postgame interview on November 11. “When he was with us on the road, I felt like he had a lot of great opportunities to get a goal, but he got that one tonight at a key moment for us.”
The last thing we’ll touch on for this edition, since it’s Hockey Fights Cancer month, this is a story you need to take a look at. Growlers’ alternate captain and fan favourite Todd Skirving has launched a charity initiative for Movember:
No one in the world wants to see cancer take a seven game series over anyone, so if you’re interested in joining the cause, Skirving’s fundraiser shirts can be purchased here
If you’d like to read more about the Growlers at every step of their season, I have a Substack where I recap every game that you can follow along with right here: LINK