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Ben Smith

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Komets
at Kalamazoo
When: 7:30 p.m. today
vs. Kalamazoo
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: 1190 AM,
92.3 FM

Komets get offseason to fix lost season

– So the season slips off without the usual tumult and shouting, and the silence is deafening. No playoff run? No once-upon-a-Jungle roar? No streamers dancing in the air currents as the Cup, whichever Cup, makes its slow turn around the ice?

Instead, March has not even left the room, and the Komets are exiting stage left. The players clomp off the ice. Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock stops to jaw a bit about Indiana’s chances in the Sweet 16. Outside, piles of filthy snow shrink slowly, winter hanging on like the obnoxious guest who doesn’t realize the party ended hours ago.

Here comes Al Sims now in his game-morning civvies, hashing over the might-have-beens and coulda-shoulda-wouldas with a visitor.

“You know, during the lockout we were competitive,” he says. “Five games over .500, and you know we stayed that way even when the lockout ended. But … the season went south with six losses in a row, and we never recovered after that.”

A pause.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing for me, for the players, for management, for the fans, everybody in Fort Wayne,” he goes on. “We’re not used to this.”

Nope. First playoff miss in 11 seasons, only the third in 38. And so the question, clearly, is what happened?

The easy answer is the Komets never got used to their new digs in the ECHL, but that’s too pat and ignores too many inconvenient facts. The more nuanced answer is they never got used to certain aspects of their new digs, most of which were about dealing with real affiliations in a season of lockout.

The line of demarcation is clear: Prior to lockout’s end, they were, as Sims says, right there, three points out of first and playing Cincinnati for the division lead. After it ended, and the inevitable shuffle of talent upward began, they never were right again, as players left and the Komets never found comparable players to replace them.

“The thing is you look through the season, we were playing for first place back in January, when we had that three-game series with Cincinnati,” team president Michael Franke says. “So I will disagree with people that think we weren’t prepared for the ECHL or we didn’t have the right type of team. Where this team went bad, unfortunately, was after the lockout ended; … we just didn’t have depth then or get any additional help from the American League to make up (for) four or five guys we lost.”

That would include their All-Star defenseman, Daniel Maggio, who was called up to the AHL the first of February. Ditto Ken Reiter, who’d just been named ECHL Goalie of the Month for January. Ditto Josh Brittain. Ditto Corey Elkins and Ryan Lasch, who played briefly in Fort Wayne before heading to Europe.

“In the end, the replacements we got were nowhere near the caliber of the players that left,” Franke said. “Now we have to figure that out.”

And if you take from that the Komets weren’t happy with their affiliations, don’t. Although, as an expansion team, they signed on with whomever the rest of the ECHL left them, Franke says they got “some damn good players” from the Anaheim Ducks. What they need now is more of them – more speed and size would be nice, Sims says – and if they have to go more an independent route, maybe they will. Or not.

“We’ll probably never ever see a situation like this with the lockout,” Franke says. “But the bottom line is, other teams figured it out.”

And the further bottom line?

They need to start figuring it out, too.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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