ECHL: 2023-24 Toledo Walleye Season Recap

Drake Hartlett/InsideTheRink

The Toledo Walleye 2023-24 ECHL season came to an end on Monday, May 27th, at the hands of the Kansas City Mavericks. In the Western Conference Final, Kansas City eliminated the Walleye, four games to two. Toledo had a good run in the playoffs, sweeping the Kalamazoo Wings in the first-round and the Wheeling Nailers in round two.

Toledo finished the regular season with a record of 48-14-4-5 for 105 points. This record gave Toledo second place in the Western Conference and first place in the Central Division, and a .739 winning percentage. The Walleye were as good in the playoffs, posting a 10-3-1 record and a .715 winning percentage. Throughout the season, the Walleye were an elite offensive team, scoring 4.07 goals-per-game. The goaltending was good but not great, posting a goals-against-average of 2.94 in the regular season.

Top Three Forwards

Brandon Hawkins

Walleye forward Brandon Hawkins had an amazing season, winning the ECHL MVP Award after posting 93 points on 40 goals and 53 assists. He finished first in goals (40), shots (346), power-play points (34), and power-play goals (15). He finished up his third season with the Walleye as one of the top point producers in Walleye history.

Trenton Bliss

Toledo forward Trenton Bliss, finishing his second season in Toledo, was as good as Hawkins this season. He continued to dominate on the ice and earned a call-up to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League (AHL), producing one point in two games. This season, he was second on the team in scoring with 27 goals and 45 assists for 72 points in 63 games.

Sam Craggs

Forward Sam Craggs was consistent throughout the season and ended up third in team scoring. His 28 goals and 28 assists for 56 points were good enough to triple his past season-high for points in a Toledo jersey. He provided secondary scoring, led the middle-six on the ice, and scored some crucial goals along the way.

Top Three Defensemen

Riley McCourt

Defenseman Riley McCourt has been a warrior on defense since he joined Toledo. He led the defense in scoring with eight goals and 44 assists for 52 points in 67 games. He was a +27 and accumulated 120 penalty minutes. His tenacity and recklessness put the opposition on their heels, and he played a sound and consistent overall game.

Matt Anderson

Matt Anderson had a good, yet quiet, season for the Walleye. He had 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points in 68 games. He was stellar, played his position well, and never put his team at a disadvantage. His 13 goals led Toledo’s defensemen, as did his two short-handed goals and 144 shots.

Michael Prapavessis

Veteran defenseman Michael Prapavessis had his second-best point total in his career during the 2023-24 season, scoring two goals and 17 assists for 19 points. Not flashy by any means, he is a hard-working player who plays a simple game. He was a good pickup for the Walleye last off-season who could add value if he returns to the Toledo blueline.

Goaltenders

John Lethemon

Goaltender John Lehtemon had a good season, posting a record of 26-7-2 with a .892 save percentage and a 2.90 goals-against-average. The former Nick Vitucci Goaltender of the Year Award winner played well enough to earn that award for the second time this season, but that award went to Taylor Gauthier of the Wheeling Nailers. While he struggled in the playoffs with a .899 save percentage, his record was 6-2 with a 2.46 GAA.

Jan Bednar

Backup Jan Bednar was equally as good as Lethemon. He posted a record of 22-7-2 with a .901 save percentage, a 2.66 GAA, and three shutouts. This was Bednar’s first full season as a professional, and he did not disappoint. He has a bright future with enormous potential.

Storylines of the Season

Hawkins Amazing Season

Hawkins was the Walleye’s leading scorer as every time he touched the puck it went in the net. He was consistent and the best player in the league from start to finish, resulting in him being named a captain for the Warrior/ECHL All-Star Classic. He scored a hat trick and added an assist for a four-point night and was a +5. At the end of the season, he was awarded the Warrior Hockey ECHL Most Valuable Player Award for the 2023-24 season.

Goaltending Up and Down

In hockey, the goaltending position is the most important position and can be the reason a team does or doesn’t go far in the season or playoffs. The goaltending of the Walleye was both good and bad. The duo of Lethemon and Bednar had a tremendous win/loss record and were both excellent in the Kelly Cup Playoffs. However, the GAA and save percentage in the playoffs may have cost them in the Western Conference Final. In the regular season and playoffs, those two stats suffered greatly, and the team did not recover.

Mikesch Shines In First Season as Walleye Coach

Head Coach Pat Mikesch made the transition to pro hockey an easy one. After 11 seasons with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL), he took his spot behind the Toledo bench and did not miss a beat. His smooth transition allowed the players to play their game yet stay disciplined in all areas of the ice. A lot of good things happened this season due to his management style, and the Walleye could be in for another big season in 2024-25.

End-of-Season Awards

Hawkins MVP

Hawkins demonstrated great leadership on the ice and let his play do the talking for him. His playmaking is smooth, while his shot is lethal, making his linemates better because of it. Hawkins wins the Walleye Team MVP this season, and it is not close.

Most Improved

McCourt set career-highs in points, doubling his career-high from the 2022-23 season. He was better with his positioning on the defensive end. His neutral zone play set the tone for the game as he shut down plays as they came to him. His skating also improved, allowing him to join the rush but get back into position on defense.

Best Rookie

Forward Mitchell Lewandoski came onto the scene and produced like an ECHL veteran. In 57 games this season, he scored 14 goals, added 40 assists for 54 points, and was a +6. His strong play earned him a call-up to the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL for six games in which he scored one goal and two assists for three points. In nine playoff games for the Walleye, he registered three goals and seven assists for 10 points.

Best Interview

Hawkins. As good as he was on the ice, he is as good in an interview. With the success he had this season, he rarely wanted to talk about himself, only his teammates. He praised them for their hard work to get him the puck, making his job much easier. A much-needed presence in the locker room.

Areas for Improvement Heading Into the Off-Season

Size and Toughness

While the roster was elite offensively, they need to add size and toughness. McCourt led the team with 120 penalty minutes and played a physical game, while the rest of the team played a bit soft. For Toledo to succeed further in the playoffs next season, they need to play a more physical brand of hockey and add players that have size and can move the puck. These two were costly in the playoffs as they ran into a big, physical Kansas City team.

Add an offensive defenseman

Another area of improvement would be to add an offensive defenseman. McCourt led the defense with 52 points, while Anderson and Prapavessis combined for 39 points, and that was it as far as point production from the back end goes. McCourt is more of a physical defenseman who may not put up the same numbers next season. The Walleye could use a power-play quarterback who can produce on a regular basis.

Storylines Heading Into the Off-Season

Will Hawkins return?

Hawkins has had a remarkable run with the Walleye and has done his part in offensive production. However, they have not won a championship and may not get any closer than they already have. He is 30 years old and may not see Toledo as a threat from here on out. Also, with his offensive abilities, he may get a stronger offer elsewhere. The main question is, does he come back for another crack at a championship, or has he played his last game in Toledo?

What Will the Goaltending Situation Look Like?

Lehtemon and Bednar were amazing this season between the pipes for the Walleye. However, could this have been their last season as the goaltending duo? Lethemon has a contract with Grand Rapids of the AHL, as does Bednar. Goaltender Sebastian Cossa will be the start for the Griffins next season, and the Detroit Red Wings have a promising goaltending prospect in Trey Augustine, who could be in Toledo next season. Will Lethemon and Cossa be the tandem in Grand Rapids, while Bednar and Augustine are between the pipes for Toledo? Something to keep an eye on.

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