FORT WAYNE – The Komets open their 62nd season tonight at Memorial Coliseum against the Toledo Walleye. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and hiring a new coach in Gary Graham, there’s plenty of intrigue.
Here are some things to watch for this season:
5 areas of concern
Take fewer penalties: The Komets averaged 19.2 penalty minutes per game, fifth most in the league, last season. They were short-handed 337 times, also fifth most in the league. Opposing teams were short-handed only 262 times, giving Fort Wayne the third fewest power plays. The Komets have to play smarter and stay away from retaliatory penalties.
Special teams must improve: The Komets’ power-play unit was dismal last season, finishing last among the ECHL’s 23 teams with an efficiency of 13 percent. That has to change and it starts with productivity from the men running the point. The penalty kill was only slightly better at 80.1 percent, 21st best in the league, and that will improve if the Komets win more faceoffs.
Win at home: The Komets were 16-20-0 at the Coliseum, where they averaged a league-best 7,582 fans. They went 17-15-4 on the road.
Get the offense going: While the 17th-ranked defense took the brunt of the blame (3.42 goals against per game) last season, the offense was bad, averaging 2.85 goals, failing to sustain pressure and allowing the bulk of the play to be in Fort Wayne’s zone. The Komets can’t rely on one or two players to carry the offense, and they can’t shoot only from the perimeter and expect to win.
Follow coach’s lead: Graham has preached he wants a high-energy, puck possession team, one that will hit a lot and wear down opponents. Every season, the Komets promise toughness and it usually manifests itself in just bad penalties. If the Komets can be a hard-hitting, smart team, they can be successful.
4 players under pressure
John Muse: The goaltender won two NCAA championships and led Florida to the 2012 ECHL title, but last season was a down one, he was 9-8-4 with a 3.66 GAA for Florida and 7-7-1 with a 3.22 GAA for Charlotte of the higher-level American Hockey League. If he returns to his 2011-12 form, the revamped Komets defense will have time to jell.
Simon Danis-Pepin: The Komets dealt their lone All-Star – Daniel Maggio – to get him, and he will need to use his size (6-foot-7, 240 pounds) to be a menacing defenseman and produce points. He had 11 points last season for Orlando and San Francisco.
Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock: He’s the longest-tenured Komet, entering his fifth season, and can’t afford to be as ineffective as last season, when he had 10 goals and 20 points. He is a defensive specialist, checker and agitator. He needs to set the pace.
Mike Vaskivuo: Vaskivuo tore through the 2012 CHL playoffs with 10 goals and 24 points in 18 games as the Komets won the title. After a season in France, the fans’ expectations couldn’t be higher.
3 games to see
Oct. 26 vs. Cincinnati: The Komets will retire the numbers of two of their greatest goalies: Chuck Adamson (No. 1) and Nick Boucher (No. 33) as they join Robbie Irons as goaltenders to have received the honor. As for the game, the Cyclones won the North Division last season.
Nov. 28 vs. Florida: The annual Thanksgiving game is often a snoozer, but this year it should be fun. Muse will take on his former team for the first time.
Jan. 5 vs. Kalamazoo: Not only is it rival Kalamazoo’s first trip to the Coliseum of the season, but it will be the return of Colin Chaulk. After retiring last summer, he became an assistant coach with the Wings.
2 major questions
Will not having an affiliation matter? Last season the Komets were affiliated with Anaheim of the NHL and Norfolk of the AHL. It wasn’t fruitful. The Komets didn’t get much talent and some of the players sent down didn’t want to be here. Now, the Komets are an independent team in the ECHL. They like the control, but when other teams get loaded up by AHL teams near the playoffs, the Komets will have to prove they can keep up.
Is there enough offense at the blue line? When Frankie DeAngelis retired in the summer of 2012, it left the Komets without a legitimate offensive defenseman and they’ve been looking for one since. Danis-Pepin, Nick Tuzzolino and Rob Kwiet have to prove they can get the offense going from the back end.
1 thing the Komets need
Chemistry: There was bickering in the locker room, some players not giving it their all and a lot of tuning out of coach Al Sims last season. They all have to be in it together this season to avoid missing the playoffs yet again.
Komets will go 38-26-8 and reach the conference finals