By Mark Simon
Special to NHL.com
It is extremely rare for an NHL first-round pick to land in the ECHL and extraordinarily rare for a top-six prospect to begin his career in this league, so the Toledo Storm plan to enjoy the services of goalie Brian Finley as much as they possibly can.
Finley, a Nashville Predators’ prospect who was selected sixth overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft after a fine career with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League, got his pro career off to a nice start, earning a 4-3 win over the Peoria Rivermen by stopping 33 shots on opening night.
“He’s going to be a great goaltender,” said new Storm coach Claude Noel. “He moves great laterally and he handles the puck very well. He plays like Tom Barrasso in that he’s very smart and he covers the bottom of the net well. He just needs to play.”
That game for Finley marked his first action in more than a year. He missed all of the previous season after having surgery to repair a torn groin muscle. The Predators, newly affiliated the Storm this season, are using the early part of this campaign to give the 21-year-old a mental boost.
“I don’t think they want to put too much pressure on me,” said Finley, who spent three weeks at the Predators’ training camp last month. “I think they want me to get on a little bit of a roll.”
The best thing about Finley, according to Noel, is that one would ever be able to guess that he was such a highly touted player. There’s no flashy car or cocky sneer in sight. As Finley noted when this was brought up: “It’s not a big deal being a high draft pick. It’s what you do after you get picked that counts.”
“His attitude is tremendous,” Noel said. “He accepts that this is part of the process for him. He’s a very low-key guy that draws absolutely no attention to himself. There’s no reason to dislike him.”
Finley is the second-highest drafted player to compete in an ECHL game, trailing forward Daniel Dore, the No. 5 pick selected by the Quebec Nordiques in 1988, who played six games with the Greensboro Monarchs in 1991-92. Finley, however, is the highest selection to play his first professional game in the ECHL. He has this year, plus one more, left on his contract with Nashville, so while he may not move up immediately, he should be in their future plans. The Milwaukee Admirals should be his next stop, though their roster includes an impressive former ECHL’er in goalie Jan Lasak.
“I don’t have the sense that we’re going to have him for a long, long time,” Noel said. “I think he’s a huge asset though. It’s great for our fans to be able to see a No. 1 pick and a guy who is probably someday going to be starting in the NHL.”
Storm fans, among the most loyal in minor league hockey (The Toledo Sports Arena has consistently filled to 90 percent capacity during its time in the ECHL), should also benefit from what should be a much better team. Toledo failed to make the playoffs twice in the last three seasons and replaced head coach Dennis Holland over the summer.
Noel, a former IHL player and coach who was a fan favorite when he was a center with the Toledo Goaldiggers, overhauled most of the roster. Veteran defenseman Matt Eldred, who played under Noel previously, was signed. Forward Jeff Mitchell, another who played for Noel was retained. The Storm added three other prospects from Nashville, most notably forwards Erik Anderson and Wes Mason, and three prospects from an affiliation with the nearby Detroit Red Wings. Doug Teskey, who played the past two seasons for Fort Wayne of the United Hockey League, was also signed to provide a second quality goalie who will likely stay with the team for the entire season. Noel knows how important it is from the net out.
“Both the players and the coaches are happy with the direction we’re heading,” Noel said. “That’s the beginning of a formula to win.”