By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – Putting together a successful ECHL team is a tough balance. It’s like trying to build up an impressive tolerance while avoiding a drinking problem.
Because it’s the minor leagues, there’s an emphasis on developing players. But because it’s a professional sport, fans don’t want to spend their money to watch a losing team.
Karl Taylor admitted last winter that it was tougher than he’d expected. In his first season as the Reading Royals coach, Taylor led a strong team that was eventually ravaged by call-ups and injuries.
Back after last year’s first-round exit from the playoffs, Taylor feels has a better feel for the chaos that is the ECHL. He’s put together another potentially explosive team for the Royals’ sixth season, which begins Friday with a 7:30 matchup at Trenton.
Taylor has made adjustments in his approach, but he hasn’t revamped it. He still tries to sign the best players possible, even if it means losing them to the American Hockey League. And he still refuses to turn down call-ups for his players.
His philosophy follows that of fellow North Bay, Ontario, product Claude Noel, who was ECHL coach of the year in 2002-03 with the Toledo Storm. Since getting hired in Reading, Taylor has often called Noel for advice.
“It’s a hard ball to juggle at that level,” said Noel, the head coach of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. “If you have a good team in October or November, you’re going to lose a lot of your players. As a coach, you have to find a balance between helping your players out and loyalty to your fans.
“How can you accomplish the things you’re trying to accomplish and still win? That’s something that (Taylor) needs to figure out.”
While in Toledo, Noel leaned on assistant coach Mark Bernard, now the assistant general manager of the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals. Bernard helped Noel with the endless task of paperwork and balancing of the salary cap. He also developed a pipeline of part-time replacement players from the Detroit area.
Taylor got some help from player-coach Larry Courville last season. This year, he has a full-time assistant in Jeff Flanagan.
“For a guy that’s able to do that and get the record that he had with all those transactions, he must be doing a heckuva job,” Noel said of Taylor. “Now, if he has an assistant coach, I think it’ll be quite a load off of his plate.”
Besides the hiring of Flanagan, evidence of Taylor’s adjustments can be seen just by glancing at the roster. With three vets and an average age of 25, it’s an older team this season. Several of those older players have families and might be less likely to jump at a short-term call-up.
But Taylor still isn’t interested in bringing in guys who are just happy to be here. Three of his players, winger Doug Christiansen, center Malcolm MacMillan and defenseman T.J. Kemp, have already been called up.
“Most days I like them,” Taylor said of this year’s squad. “When everyone’s here, we’ve got a pretty deep team. We’ve got two good goaltenders, lots of offensive power up front. Our D-corps, we’ve got a lot of ability there.
“So I like our team and I like our chances, but it’s very early and we all know what happens in Reading. I don’t think we could’ve recruited any better for what we were trying to do.”
He brought back his top scorer in Christiansen, along with forwards Chris Bala, Jon Francisco, Kevin Saurette and MacMillan. The Royals also got a break when prospect Greg Hogeboom was sent down from Manchester, and vet Arpad Mihaly signed with Reading to remain close to home.
The group to watch is the defensemen. The unit was depleted before the season began when Nick Vukovic retired and James Laux succumbed to a season-ending knee injury.
The remaining seven D-men are an interesting mix. There’s Scott Crawford, Jason Becker and Shawn Thompson, a trio of older guys who played in Europe last season. They’re balanced by exciting rookies Roman Tesliuk and Rob LaLonde.
Overall, it might be the only pro team in North America with a native Romanian (Mihaly), a Japanese player (Fukufuji) and a Russian (Tesliuk). Taylor joked that he held a Canada-versus-The World scrimmage.
“When I look at this team and the good group of guys that we have in this locker room,” Francisco said, “I think with the chemistry that we have here and the amount of skill and toughness that we have around here, I think it’s gonna be a good group of guys again.”
It’s going to be a team that will inevitably have to deal with being short-handed due to call-ups. But it’s a team that’s been built to better withstand those challenges.
“We need to win the games when we have a full team, then try to survive when we’re short,” Taylor said. “That’s very important here. When we have a full team, we need to try to make our bacon and get our points when we can and not let points slip away.
“When we have our squad, we have to win.”