Some of you may remember me as your erstwhile Chicago Express reporter. Well, as we all know, the Express went to the big ice rink in the sky shortly after the conclusion of their inaugural season. So what is a newly minted Chicago-area ECHL fan to do?
The upcoming 2012-13 ECHL season has seen four new teams added to the league, including two “local” entities, the Fort Wayne Komets and Evansville IceMen. I say “local” because in reality, Kalamazoo is closer to either one of those locations from Chicago, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I root for the Wings (*gag*).
So my allegiances (and somewhat limited reporting skillz) has fallen behind the Toledo Walleye, the farm team of the Blackhawks and dreaded Detroit Red Wings. What sadist in the Toledo front office came up with that marriage made in Hades?
Team History: The Walleye were originally founded in 1991 as the Toledo Storm. They were twice ECHL champions in 1992 and 1993. Throughout the Storm’s existence, they were affiliates for the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Predators, Sharks and Lightning.
The franchise was bought by the current Walleye owners, Toledo Arena Sports Inc in 2007. They are also owners of one of the best named minor league baseball teams, the Toledo Mud Hens.
The team’s operations were suspended until a new arena, the Huntington Center, was opened in 2009. Upon their rejoining the ECHL for the 2009-10 season, the team was renamed the Walleye, in honor of the fish that graces both the Maumee River and Lake Erie.
Last Season: The Walleye finished out of the Kelly Cup playoffs for the second year running in 2011-12. They accumulated a woeful 62 points on the season (28-38-2-4), the third worst record in the entire ECHL. The Walleye were second-to-last in the league in total scoring (189 goals total), goals against (258 goals allowed) and the power play (terrible just like the Blackhawks!). The Walleye also had the not-so-glamorous distinction of having the longest winless streak of the season at seven games.
The leading scorer for the Walleye was center Joey Martin, who barely cracked the ECHL’s top 50 with 49 (22G, 27A) points. The leading point getter for Blackhawks prospects on Toledo was David Gilbert, with 6 goals & 12 assists in 29 games. Despite their shortcomings on the ice, the Walleye have a very devoted following, ranking 2nd in the entire ECHL with total attendance at 225,060 last year (a 6,252/game average). There’s nowhere to go but up right? Right? *crickets*
Season Preview: With the shuffling of the divisions due to both addition and subtraction, the Walleye’s North Division now includes five teams with newcomers Fort Wayne & Evansville joining past unfriendly foes the Kalamazoo Wings & Cincinnati Cyclones.
While one would assume Toledo would leapfrog the new kids on the block, be cautious. Evansville has previously been a member of the CHL/UHL and has been an active franchise since 1992. Fort Wayne has been around since 1952 (!!) and has won 4 league championships (3 IHL and last year’s CHL crown) in the last 5 years. Add the usual rivalry of the Wings and Cyclones to this four-some, and the Walleye will have a difficult hill to climb in the year ahead.
The Walleye will once again be led by head coach Nick Vitucci, who has coached the Walleye since their rebirth in 2009. You may remember Vitucci from his little bench temper tantrum from last season. Good times.
Toledo captain, right winger Kyle Rogers returns for his third season for the Walleye. Other notable players returning to Toledo include Joey Martin, Center Todd Griffith, and Defensemen Phil Rauch and Joey Ryan. Newcomers to the team include longtime ECHL veteran, winger Randy Rowe, former Kalamazoo captain, defenseman Wes O’Neil, D-man Phil Oreskovic, rookie winger from U of Michigan Luke Glendening (from the AHL’s Griffins) and one-time Blackhawks draft pick Adam Hobson – remember him? The coaching staff is focused in bringing in a greater core of veteran players to add stability to what was last year, a very young team.
Sadly, Red Wings prospect Bryan Rufenach, who played 54 games for Toledo last season, passed away in June due to a freak accident while he was on holiday in Europe. A memorial will be held for him on opening night where some of his family will be in attendance. His number 21 will be worn on a sticker on all Walleye helmets this season.
Thus far, the Blackhawks have assigned goaltender Kent Simpson, and forwards Byron Froese and Terry Broadhurst to Toledo. All three players spent time in Rockford last season. The Simpson assignment is somewhat surprising, as it was widely thought either he or Mac Carruth (who was reassigned to the WHL) would be fighting for the backup spot in Rockford. Alec Richards, who spent most of last season in a Walleye sweater, will once again sit on the bench behind IceHogs‘ number one Carter Hutton. This may only be temporary, as Richards started last season in Rockford as well, and was soon never to be seen again. Forwards Jake Trask and Travis Novak, who both had tryouts in Rockford for the IceHogs’ training camp, have also signed with the Walleye. Goaltender Petr Mrazek, and forwards Willie Coetzee and Andrej Nestrasil were also assigned to the Walleye from Detroit. Everyone now, BOOOOOO.
This of course leads us to the elephant in the room — the NHL lockout.
With NHL-ready talent on two-way contracts being sent to play in the AHL, an influx of prospects on NHL/AHL contracts have in turn been sent to the ECHL. This has resulted in less ECHL roster spots being taken by the usual mix of undrafted talent and well-traveled veterans. Many of these players have signed with ECHL teams that do not have an NHL/AHL affiliate (there are three), lower level leagues or overseas. If and when the NHL starts up the season (and heaven help me if they don’t), roster spots left vacant in the AHL will be filled up primarily by the rosters of ECHL teams, meaning there will most likely be a rush to sign free-agents to fill up the holes in most of the league.
Currently, the Walleye have 6 players assigned to them that are either Blackhawks or Red Wings prospects. So, the key to doing well in the ECHL this year may be that the less AHL-ready prospects you have on the roster, the more stability and consistency your team will have.
Of course, if the NHL season is cancelled the above will all be moot. In which case you’re all invited to watch Mel set herself on fire come playoff time in April.
Upcoming Schedule: The Walleye open up the season at home on Saturday the 13th vs. the Kalamazoo Wings. The Walleye don’t play their second game of the season until Friday the 19th, at home vs. the Cincinnati Cyclones. Oh ECHL schedule, why you so crazy?
BREAKING NEWS: It was announced today that Toledo will hold a Winterfest which will culminate in an outdoor game at the Mud Hens’ ballpark, Fifth Third Field, featuring the Walleye and an ECHL team to be determined. Don’t rush out to buy tickets just yet – the dates for Winterfest are December 26, 2014 through January 4, 2015. Hopefully, the NHL lockout will be over by then. For more details, check out the press release and promotional video on the Walleyes’ website.
Going forward, I will be adding my insightful analysis (bwahahaha) and recaps of the Walleye on Mondays. Who knows, depending on how long this lockout drags on, maybe I’ll even get my arse out to a game or two this season. They have Culver’s in Toledo, right?