Despite losing in the first round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, Brenden Kotyk and the South Carolina Stingrays had a tremendous season. Taking off the interim title after coaching the last 18 games of the 2022-23 season and missing the playoffs, Kotyk was ready to get to work and restore greatness back into the franchise. “Right from day one, the guys were willing to compete and work,” said Kotyk, and that is precisely what they did. Under Kotyk, the Rays were tied for the league lead on the power play, 8-2 in the final ten games of the year, and finished with 45 wins, marking them as one of five teams to go down in history within the franchise.
For most of the season, Clay Stevenson and Tyler Wall were a deadly duo between the pipes for the Stingrays, giving up the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference. With Wall with 22 wins and Stevenson with 19, and both earned ECHL Goalie of the Week titles respectively throughout the season, these two were powerhouses on the back end. Wall finished the year with a 22-10-1 record with a 2.58 GAA, .912 SV%, and three shutouts; Stevenson on the other hand went 19-12-3 with a 2.54 GAA, .916 SV%, and three shutouts. The Albert native also went 3-0 in three starts with the Hersey Bears in the AHL.
Lions, Tigers, and Bear Hughes
The rookies helped lead the charge this year for South Carolina, but one name kept coming up again and again, Bear Hughes. Hughes was 8th among all rookies in points and was second on the team in all categories with 23 assists, 59 points, and 23 goals.
Hughes came up from the WHL after being drafted by the Washington Capitals, “I was back to being the young guy,” said Hughes, “Coming up to pros, it was more of a learning year from the older guys; my role changed in the locker room and on the ice.” Hughes soon found his stride within the organization; after four games, he found the back of the net and soon after recorded his first hat trick, “The transition took a little bit of time, but once I did, it became easier and easier.”
Alongside Coach Kotyk and Equipment Manager Travis Ward, Hughes would be the Stingray’s representative on ice at the ECHL All-Star Game.
From Huskies to Stingrays
Three former UConn Huskies made their way onto the South Carolina Roster this season; Kevin O’Neil, Carter Turnbull, and Jonny Evans. Turnbull and Evans spent their entire career as Huskies, where Turnbull would later become the Captain during his senior campaign. At the same time, O’Neil would join them from Yale for his final year of eligibility.
While Turnbull was at the top of his game, he opted to head overseas to join HKM Zvolen for the remainder of the season in February. Before departing, Turnbull had recorded 24 goals and 14 assists in 24 games. Around the same time, Jonny Evans suffered a long-term injury, only returning to play during the postseason. Evans, at the time, had been leading the team in assists and was starting to get hot on goals as the injury struck. Kevin O’Neil also spent some time away from the team on loan to the Colorado Eagles of the AHL but continued to lead the team in goals and was ranked within the top 20 of all rookies for points. The former teammate’s chemistry greatly impacted the Rays lineup this year, even if it didn’t end in a Kelly Cup.
Arguably the most memorable game of the entire season, but definitely one of the most memorable games for Garin Bjorklund. Getting his first professional start of the season on the last game of the regular season and the game that could determine if South Carolina would clinch the Division title, it was a night to remember, “Once that final buzzer went, it was chills” said Coach Kotyk, “To just look around and see how big the crowd was and to see how pumped they were from how the season ended last year to winning the division. After the shootout thriller, the Stingrays claimed the South, and Bjorklund claimed his first professional win.
Post Season Blues
Going into the postseason, South Carolina knew it would be an uphill battle, “They are a very experienced team,” said Bear Hughes. The Florida Everblades were the reigning Kelly Cup Champions and one of the Stingray’s biggest challengers throughout the regular season, “I stressed the importance of us playing our game” said Kotyk going into postseason play, “Our ability to wear teams down with our forecheck and taking care of the puck.”
One big difference in the lineup was the return of Jarid Lukosevicious to the lineup after his loan to the Belleville Senators. “He is the ultimate competitor; you can see it in his play. I thought he competed hard and brought that tenaciousness we needed,” said Kotyk. Lukosevicious scored a third of the goals for the Stingrays during postseason play, tallying four against the Everblades.