Walleye add age, experience, stability to rosterWritten by Vincent D. Scebbi | | email@example.com
During the offseason, the Walleye added some age and experience to its lineup.
While last year’s team had 14 players younger than 23, only six Toledo players are younger than 25 this season, according to the roster.
Head coach Nick Vitucci hopes the extra years will give the Walleye the edge to push the team back into playoffs after missing the postseason the past two years.
“We’re just going to be a team that has a little more whiskers and experience under our belts, that in the long run we hope will equate to success,” he said.
Shoring up defense
Offensive production has decreased during the past three seasons.
The Walleye scored 254 goals in the 2009-10 season, the first year in the league for the team and its only postseason trip.
In 2010-11, the Walleye finished with 239 goals and 72 points (33-33-6), just two points shy of claiming the eighth and final playoff spot.
Last season, goals dropped significantly, to 189 and 62 points (28-38-6), 10 points higher than the basement-dwelling Trenton Titans.
Older players will add stability to the lineup, something Vitucci said will lead to chemistry on the ice and more goals scored.
“Our locker room door has been a revolving door, players coming in and out and not having an opportunity to just get to know each other on the ice, which is what certainly leads to goals,” he said. “Our chemistry was never set because of all the players that were moving because of recalls and being sent down because of injuries.”
While the team traded fan favorite and former Bowling Green State University defenseman Kyle Page to Kalamazoo, the Walleye picked up former Kalamazoo Wings captain Wes O’Neill as well as 33-year-old defender David Walker.
O’Neill played 21 games last season with Kalamazoo and has spent most of his career with the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters and Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Walker, who was captain of Ontario Reign during the 2010-11 season, recorded 19 goals and 89 assists in three seasons there.
“The players we signed are going to be huge for us,” Vitucci said. “I think at times we’ve been inconsistent back there and [now] we have some good veteran leaders back there. That’s going to settle things down for us. We’re going to be a good defensive team, which is where we struggled in the past.”
In addition, the Walleye re-signed forward Joey Martin, who led the Walleye with 49 points (22 goals, 29 assists) last season.
With this lineup, Vitucci said the team will look to implement a more aggressive, puck-possessive style of play.
The downside to this system, Vitucci said, is if the players are caught out of position, they are left more exposed on the other side of the rink.
“But we believe with the team we’ve got and the experience we have, especially on defense, that we should be in good shape,” he said.
Despite the possibility of no NHL this season, the ECHL should be minimally affected, said Joe Babik, director of communications for the ECHL.
The NHL lockout began Sept. 15 over disputes in the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association.
Exhibition games are already canceled and regular season games will be called off if no progress is made on a new deal. The first NHL game is scheduled for Oct. 11.
Babik said that while players in the ECHL work to get noticed by the American Hockey League (AHL) and NHL, they are part of a different union.
Vitucci said he is optimistic a compromise will be reached before the whole season is canceled.
“I am hoping that cooler heads will prevail and they will come together on all of these hot topics and we will have hockey this season,” he said.
However, the lockout could help bring stability to the Walleye roster.
Because the ECHL is a AA league, players move between it, the AAA AHL and the NHL.
“Whenever there’s an injury in the NHL with the Red Wings or the Blackhawks, they’re going to get a call-up from their American League teams and we’ll lose a player,” Vitucci said.
“[Now] with only one team playing above us, you’re looking at 20 guys who run the risk of injury instead of 40 players who run the risk of injury. Hopefully, there won’t be that much movement once the season starts.”
With no NHL, more pro scouts could make their way to minor league games, giving Walleye players more opportunity to be noticed, Vitucci said.
“It’s a great opportunity for players at our level to really promote themselves as far as the type of players they are and character they are,” he said.
Vitucci said he did not recall any surge in attendance to ECHL games during the last NHL lockout, which canceled the 2004-05 season.
Vitucci called the lockout a “possible catch-22,” in the sense that fewer people may be thinking about hockey.
“Without hockey in the NHL, you’d think people who would want to get their hockey fix, they’re going to want to come down here. But there’s also no hockey in the NHL and families aren’t home on a Friday night watching a game and getting an urge to come to Toledo to watch a game the next night,” he said.
New ECHL teams
The ECHL welcomed four new teams to the league this year.
Joining the Walleye’s North Division are the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Komets and Evansville (Ind.) IceMen.
The Walleye will square off against Fort Wayne 10 times and Evansville 11 times in the upcoming season.
“We expect them to be very good teams right out of the gate,” Vitucci said.
“Fort Wayne is a team that has won championships at every level they’ve played at and Evansville is a team that has been good in the Central Hockey League. We expect them to be contenders right out of the gate and we are going to have to play our best hockey to compete and battle with them every night.”
The Orlando Solar Bears will play in the Eastern Conference’s South Division and the San Francisco Bulls are in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division.
Toledo hosts the Solar Bears at home Jan. 5.
The Walleye season kicks off Oct. 13 when Toledo hosts the Kalamazoo Wings. The puck is slated to drop at 7:05 p.m.
For more information, visit www.toledowalleye.com.