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Keep an open mind about Komets

October 10, 2018

Fans of the Komets are pouring over the roster and feeling awfully uncomfortable.

The defensive corps isn’t very big. With the exception of a handful of familiar faces : Jamie Schaafsma, Marco Roy, Justin Hodgman, Anthony Petruzzelli, Taylor Crunk : the identity of the forwards is unknown. The goalies look good on paper but have never played a regular-season game for Fort Wayne, where the expectations on netminding are particularly grueling.

So. I also feel a little uneasy. The template of last season was successful: Have a group of big, nasty defensemen able to move the puck; have experienced forwards such as Shawn Szydlowski, Garrett Thompson and Gabriel Desjardins, who proved they can dominate in the ECHL, add a pinch of grit and youth; and have a goalie : Garrett Bartus : you knew could take over games at Memorial Coliseum, and hope that the one you get from your affiliation : Michael Houser : pans out as well as he did.

The Komets were one goal from making it to the Kelly Cup Finals for the first time since joining the ECHL in 2012. Questionable officiating : a goaltender interference call on Dennis Kravchenko in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals : may have cost them the series with eventual-champion Colorado.

A post-playoff roster overhaul was inevitable: overseas teams came dangling huge contracts for almost the entire nucleus of forwards; and ECHL teams can only have four veteran players (260 games for non-goalies). The Komets aren’t the only team that was gutted for the latter reason this summer. Look at the Toledo Walleye, Florida Everblades or Idaho Steelheads : all very different.

Still, the Komets went smaller, younger, faster, more into an unknown territory. Fans are uncomfortable, and I’m uncomfortable, about the chances of success.

But I’m trusting coach Gary Graham, who did the bulk of the recruiting, and I think he’s earned everyone’s trust in his five seasons. Forgetting that he’s a native of Fort Wayne : and that’s cool : his record is 215-104-41. His playoff record is 38-29 with victories in seven of 12 series. The big thing is the Komets have gotten increasingly better every season of his tenure.

There is a group of Graham haters, which I don’t get, but I don’t think they’d be happy if Scotty Bowman was the coach.

I’m not saying the Komets will avoid taking a step back this season : it’s going to be a grind : but I see an excellent No. 1 goalie in Zach Fucale from the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, good leaders in the locker room in Jamie Schaafsma and Cody Sol, players who will score a ton in Garret Ross and Marco Roy, and toughness with Taylor Crunk and Chase Stewart.

Every ECHL team is trying to one-up each other and I get the concern; rival Toledo added three-time defenseman of the year Matt Register and got really big, and let’s not forget the Wheeling Nailers are now in the division.

“It always goes off the playoffs right? That’s how everybody builds during the summer. It goes off it you’ve won or lost and you’ve seen us adjust that way through the years,” Graham said.

Since dropping from the original International Hockey League to the Double-A level of hockey in 1999, the Komets have missed the playoffs only twice : 2002 and 2013 : and won five championships. Understandably, the fans’ expectations are incredibly high.

But they should be cognizant that there are people behind that success, such as general manager David Franke, and, until they prove otherwise for an extended period of time, we should trust the system.

I’m keeping an open mind, so you should, too.

Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. He can be reached by email at jcohn@jg.net; phone, 461-8429; or fax, 461-8648. You can also follow him on Twitter@sportsicohn.

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