2024 Kalamazoo Wings vs Fort Wayne Komets

Our ECHL MVP Choice: Kalamazoo Wings' Erik Bradford

Our ECHL MVP Choice: Kalamazoo Wings' Erik Bradford

Erik Bradford has been a spark for the Kalamazoo Wings this season. That’s a big reason FloHockey's Justin Cohn chose him as the ECHL Most Valuable Player.

Mar 30, 2024 by Justin Cohn
Our ECHL MVP Choice: Kalamazoo Wings' Erik Bradford

I don’t know if the Kalamazoo Wings are going to make the playoffs, though I think they will. 

With nine games remaining in the regular season, they are in the fourth, and final, playoff spot in the Central Division – two points behind the Wheeling Nailers and two points ahead of the Fort Wayne Komets.

If the Wings didn’t have Erik Bradford this season, well, I think they’d be at, or near, the Central Division’s cellar. And that’s a big reason I chose Bradford as the ECHL Most Valuable Player.

As long as leagues have handed out MVP awards, people have argued about how to choose them. Does MVP go to the league’s best player? What if that player is on a bad team? Or, should it go to the player most valuable to his team? Again, what if that team is bad?

The ECHL’s award isn’t for Player of the Year, which seems to be a conscious choice, since they do hand out awards for Goalie of the Year, Defenseman of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year. 

The league defines its MVP award as one that is “presented annually to the player selected to be the most valuable to his team as determined in a vote of ECHL coaches, broadcasters, media relations directors and media members.”

There certainly have been years in which the voters undoubtedly got it correct. 

When Fort Wayne’s Will Graber won it in 2022, he was the league’s leading scorer, but he’d also done something I’d never seen before by playing every forward position and many a night as a defenseman, covering a lot of holes for a team that may not have otherwise made the playoffs.

Other years, it seemed the voters were more apt to go with just the most talented player. 

Often, those things align, but not always, and this season has produced an interesting conversation about it.

I suppose most voters – their ballots were due Thursday – went with Brandon Hawkins, the Toledo Walleye forward who leads the ECHL in goals (37) and points (86). 

It’s certainly a justifiable pick. Not only does he produce so many points, opposing teams must spend a ton of time game planning ways to contain his blistering shots, particularly on power plays, and his leadership intangibles are noteworthy.

My perspective – and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Hawkins fan – is that even without him, Toledo still would be very good. 

Offensively, Toledo is stacked with Trenton Bliss (24 goals, 63 points), Sam Craggs (26 goals, 52 points), Riley Sawchuk (25 goals, 52 points), Orrin Centazzo (19 goals, 50 points), Brandon Kruse (16 goals, 49 points) and Conlan Keenan (23 goals, 36 points), to say nothing of Mitchell Lewandowski, who’s in the American Hockey League, Riley McCourt, who has 51 points from the blue line and a cast of others.

Hawkins absolutely elevates the play of those around him, but he also has 14 goals and 33 points when the opposing team is short-handed.

Is Hawkins the league’s best offensive player? Yes. Most valuable, though, I’m slightly less convinced and had him third on my ballot, and that’s just because I tried to conceptualize what the team would look like without him. 

Toledo still would be in first place in the Central Division, it just wouldn’t have a 15-point lead over the second-place Indy Fuel.

Second on my ballot was the Florida Everblades’ Cam Johnson, a goaltender, who has a 22-13-6 record with a 2.32 goals-against average (second only to Wheeling’s Taylor Gauthier among netminders who have played at least 1,260 minutes), a .917 save percentage and three shutouts (second to Gauthier’s four). 

While I easily could have put Gauthier in my top three for MVP – Wheeling and Florida both are in third place in their divisions – and I did have Gauthier on my first-team All-ECHL ballot, I felt Johnson’s impact for the two-time defending Kelly Cup champions was particularly profound this season as they tried to remain a juggernaut despite many changes to their lineup from seasons past.

To put it simply, Johnson has not only been a workhorse, he’s particularly excelled when the schedule or opponent lent itself to a potential Florida letdown, and his reliability has allowed the Everblades to remain firmly in the hunt for another championship.

Which brings me back to Bradford, the 29-year-old Kalamazoo forward. His 28 goals rank 12th in the league, his 75 points rank third behind Hawkins and the Kansas City Mavericks’ Patrick Curry’s 77.

Only one other Kalamazoo player, Josh Passolt, has more than 20 goals. No one else on the Kalamazoo roster has more than David Keefer’s 47 points.

Sure, it’s easy to find incredibly valuable players on not-so-good teams – the Rapid City Rush’s Alex Aleardi comes to mind – and I do think success of the team should be in the equation.

If Kalamazoo gets into the postseason – and really, that point alone means we should be doing these ballots after the regular season has been completed – the Wings have proven they can compete with anyone, so I think Bradford checks the most boxes, even if I had him on my second-team All-ECHL picks, which I think are more about skill than straight value.

Offense isn’t the bread and butter of the Wings’ game – they rank 23rd with 2.97 goals per game – but they’ve still got to put the puck in the net and if Bradford isn’t doing it, or setting up others to do it, where would they be? 

He’s also a team-best plus-16, has gotten only five of his goals and 19 of his points with the man-advantage and he’s netted five game-winning goals.

Not that this should necessarily matter for the MVP conversation, but Bradford never has produced like this before. 

He had 19 goals for the Wings during the 2021-2022 season and 61 points for the Utah Grizzlies in 2016-2017. 

After spending much of last season in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters, he returned to the ECHL a more confident player and has been integral in them becoming among the ECHL’s most surprising teams. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2019 and haven’t won a playoff series since 2012.

For kicks, let’s look at what Bradford has done against Toledo: Kalamazoo has a 9-3-1 record, which is incredible, since no one else in the division has figured out the Walleye, and Bradford has five goals and 15 points. Hawkins, meanwhile, has four goals and 12 points against Kalamazoo.

No problem for those who picked Hawkins, and if there were Vegas odds, he’d be the favorite, but for me, Bradford has been the ECHL’s MVP.

Here’s a look at who else I chose for other ECHL awards …

Rookie Of The Year

1. Austin Magera, South Carolina

2. Ture Linden, Fort Wayne

3. Cade Borchardt, Kansas City

Coach Of The Year

1. Jeff Carr, Norfolk

2. Tad O’Had, Kansas City

3. Pete MacArthur, Adirondack

Goalie Of The Year*

1. Taylor Gauthier, Wheeling

2. Cam Johnson, Florida

3. Matt Vernon, Jacksonville

* Voters don’t pick this award directly; it goes to the top vote getters for first team All-ECHL.

Defenseman Of The Year*

1. Jalen Smereck, Cincinnati

2. Marc-Olivier Duquette, Kansas City

3. Riley McCourt, Toledo

* Voters don’t pick this award directly; it goes to the top vote getters for first team All-ECHL.

Sportsmanship Award

1. Yuki Miura, Iowa

2. Joe Pendenza, Florida

3. A.J. White, Idaho

First Team All-ECHL

F: Brandon Hawkins, Toledo

F: Jack Dugan, Fort Wayne

F: Patrick Curry, Kansas City

D: Jalen Smereck, Cincinnati

D: Marc-Olivier Duquette, Kansas City

G: Taylor Gauthier, Wheeling

Second Team All-ECHL

F: Erik Bradford, Kalamazoo

F: Austin Magera, South Carolina

F: Alex Kile, Maine

D: Riley McCourt, Toledo

D: Patrick Kudla, Idaho

G: Cam Johnson, Florida

All-Rookie Team

F: Austin Magera, South Carolina

F: Cade Borchardt, Kansas City

F: Ture Linden, Fort Wayne

D: Kyle Mayhew, Utah

D: Isaac Beliveau, Wheeling

G: Matt Vernon, Jacksonville

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