Head Coach Riley Armstrong returns behind the bench for the Maine Mariners as they begin their second season Friday at Cross Insurance Arena. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After nearly 300 minor-league hockey games over five ECHL seasons, Zach Tolkinen finally earned a promotion to the American Hockey League last winter. He appeared in nine games during two stints with the Hartford Wolfpack before returning to Portland, where he wore the captain’s C for the inaugural Maine Mariners.

“It was a treat and you’re excited to go up there,” Tolkinen said. “You feel appreciated. Obviously, you want to be up there every chance you can.”

Tolkinen is back in Maine for the start of Season 2 of the Mariners. If he harbored any disappointment coming out of Hartford’s training camp, he hid it well.

“I’m 29 years old,” he said with a smile. “I kind of know where I’m at. I enjoy very much being here. That’s not to say that I don’t want to go back up and take advantage of that, but I see both sides. This team looks great. Hopefully, we can start off a little hotter than last year.”

Indeed, the Mariners are hoping to avoid a similar stumble when they take the ice Friday night at Cross Insurance Arena against the Adirondack Thunder. Last October, Adirondack won the opener 6-3, and the Mariners sputtered through a 2-6 stretch out of the gate.

As a new franchise, there were plenty of moving parts. The Mariners made 118 transactions and finished sixth in what was then a seven-team ECHL North Division. They missed the Kelly Cup playoffs by two points.

Fans can expect more continuity this season, and maybe even get to know these guys instead of continually checking a roster that by season’s end included 57 different names.

“I’m hoping there’s not going to be as much movement as what you saw from us in the first year,” said Danny Briere, Maine’s vice president of operations. “There’s still going to be the transfer movement between Hartford and Laval” – the AHL clubs in Connecticut and Quebec that have 11 current Mariners under contract – “but I don’t expect as many trades as we made last year.”

Adirondack wound up second in the division and lost a first-round playoff series to the Manchester Monarchs, a franchise that ceased operations in May after 18 years in New Hampshire.

The Mariners have two more home games this month. On Oct. 25-26, they host the defending Kelly Cup champions – the Newfoundland Growlers.

As an ECHL affiliate of the New York Rangers and the AHL Wolfpack, Maine functions as a developmental stage for players moving up the professional ladder. Hartford hasn’t sniffed the AHL playoffs since 2015, but the Wolfpack are off to a 2-0 start, and a renewed emphasis on winning in the Rangers’ farm system means the Mariners may have more AHL-ready players on the roster.

Greg Chase, center, returns to the Mariners this season, along with teammates Michael McNicholas and Taylor Cammarata. All three scored at least 10 goals last season for Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It’s that depth part that Hartford wants,” Maine Coach Riley Armstrong said. “Hartford is tired of losing. (Hartford General Manager) Chris Drury and (new Hartford Coach) Kris Knoblauch are looking to turn that ship around. With that comes a lot of players down here. Now it’s my job to develop those players, develop our players on ECHL contracts and win.”

Tolkinen returns as Maine’s captain. The forward lines include eight players who scored at least 10 goals for the Mariners last season: Greg Chase (21), Dillan Fox (16), Morgan Adams-Moisan (15), Alex Kile (13), Michael McNicholas (13), Ty Ronning (12), Terrence Wallin (11) and Taylor Cammarata (10).

Alternate captains are defensemen Scott Savage and Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin and Wallin, who grew up in Pennsylvania but lives in Kennebunk.

Early-season struggles would surprise Armstrong, who said he feels the team’s blue line is stronger with the return of Tolkinen, Savage, Josh Couturier and Johnny Coughlin and the addition of Crevier-Morin, Brandon Crawley, Gabriel Sylvestre and Jonathan Racine, a former Portland Pirate.

In goal, the Mariners return Connor LaCouvee and Francois Brassard and received veteran Tom McCollum from Hartford. McCollum, 29, is a former first-round draft pick (2008, 30th overall) of the Detroit Red Wings who has three NHL games under his belt.

Maine’s depth, at least heading into the season, became apparent when Briere had to turn away players from the Montreal organization, which has no ECHL affiliate. That is how former Mariner forwards Hayden Verbeek and Antoine Waked wound up with Adirondack after failing to make Laval’s roster.

“We were so loaded,” Briere said, “we had to say I don’t think we can take all your players.”

LaCouvee and Adams-Moisan are the two Mariners playing under contract with Laval. The only player with an AHL contract not affiliated with the Rangers or Montreal is Savage, who played 19 games with Milwaukee last winter but whose ECHL rights were retained by the Mariners.

NOTES: The ECHL tinkered with its overtime rules. In an attempt to cut down on the number of shootouts, the league increased the 3-on-3 period from five to seven minutes of sudden-death overtime. The only other significant rule change is that when a team takes a penalty, the opposition is allowed to choose which side of the offensive zone to take the faceoff.

“With every centerman, there’s always a side that you’re better on (at winning the draw),” Briere said. “That could lead to more possession time in the offensive zone, which could lead to more goals.”

The Mariners are planning six themed jersey nights, including The Incredible Hulk (Nov. 2), Aquaman (Nov. 30), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Dec. 26), Make-a-Wish Foundation child’s design (Feb. 1), Miracle on Ice (Feb. 23) and Throwback Night (March 6).


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