South Carolina Stingrays head coach Spiros Anastas knew the call was coming.
It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
So when Anastas answered his phone Saturday morning — less than 24 hours after the Stingrays lost by a goal to the Orlando Solar Bears in Game 2 of their ECHL Kelly Cup playoff series — and received the news that defenseman Joey Leach was being called up to the American Hockey League, the rookie head coach just shrugged and wished his team captain all the best with the Hershey Bears.
“You’re happy for Joey because he’s put in the work to get this opportunity with Hershey,” Anastas said.
Leach’s promotion, however, leaves a huge void on South Carolina’s blue line as the Stingrays prepare for Game 3 of their South Division semifinal series with the Solar Bears. The teams play Wednesday (7:05 p.m.) at the North Charleston Coliseum with the best-of-seven series tied at 1-1.
Going into the postseason, Leach was considered a veteran by ECHL standards, having played in 303 regular-season games. Leach, 27, also has 63 postseason games under his belt, including an appearance in the Kelly Cup finals in 2017.
Of the remaining defensemen on the Stingrays' roster, five are rookies and three of them were playing college hockey a month ago.
Tim Davison, Kevin McKernan, Ryker Killins, Steve Johnson, Cameron Heath and Matt Nuttle have a combined total of just 213 ECHL regular-season games between them. Only McKernan, who played nine games for Fort Wayne last spring, had postseason experience before Game 1 of their current series with Orlando.
The Stingrays have only two defensemen with more than 100 ECHL games in Miles Liberati and Chase Harrison.
If the Stingrays are going to get past the Solar Bears and advance to the South Division finals, they’ll need this young group of defensemen to grow up – in a hurry.
“This is life in the ECHL,” Anastas said. “We’ve battled youth on our blue line all season, but the bigger battle for us has been depth and quality. While we’re still young, I think we’ve made a lot of upgrades on the back end and we’ve got a lot of faith in the guys we’ve got here now and in their ability."
Losing Leach is a blow to the Stingrays on and off the ice. Leach was vocal leader in the locker room, on the bench and on the ice, and he was never shy about holding his teammates accountable.
“We’re kind of treating it like an injury, I think that’s the way you have to treat it when there’s a ton of turnover,” said Johnson, who was acquired by the Stingrays in a trade in February. “Obviously, we’re all happy for Joey, he earned it, but he’s a big piece of our team. He was great at communicating with everyone and teaching guys the right way to play and how to be a pro.”
Leach also ate up tons of minutes on the ice, playing nearly half the game and in just about every situation, including on special teams.
“Some guys are going to have to step up even more than they have been,” Johnson said. “Guys are going to get more ice time. They’re going to get more opportunities to play in different situations and they have to take advantage of that and show the team and the coaches that they deserve to be out there.”
Killins, Heath and Nuttle were all in college a month ago. Even by ECHL standards, having three defensemen just out of college playing significant minutes in the playoffs is the exception rather than the rule.
“It’s really the next man up mentality, it’s their turn to step up and develop and take the reins,” Anastas said.
Killins said he feels like the Stingrays have been in playoff mode since the beginning of March.
“We’ve been battling since the first day I got here,” said Killins, who joined the team in March after completing his senior season with Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. “It seems like we’ve been in playoff hockey for a month. Playoffs are the same no matter what level you are playing at, the intensity gets a little higher.”
Forward Mason Mitchell, who had six goals and 10 points in nine regular-season games, will miss Game 3 serving an ECHL mandated one-game suspension for a slew footing penalty in Game 2. McKernan is doubtful for Game 3 as well with an upper body injury.
“Besides McKernan and Mitchell, we might be missing another body as well,” Anastas said. “We submitted a 23-man roster knowing that any of those 23 players could be the 18 guys we’re going to put on the ice on any given night and they’ve got to be good enough to get the job done."