FORT WAYNE – It’s hard to imagine the Komets could outdo last season, when it comes to having a mess. But they are well on their way, at least in drama if not record.
They’ve made five trades in seven weeks. At least four other players have asked to be traded. And then, Friday, came the worst of it all when Mickey Lang, the leading goal scorer in the ECHL with 17, along with another top-line player, Mike Vaskivuo, left the team and were subsequently suspended as the Komets look to deal them.
Somehow, the Komets have remained competitive. They were 10-9-5 heading into Friday’s game against Toledo, which signifies an improvement over last season, when they finished 33-35-4 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
So who’s to blame? The easy target is the new coach, Gary Graham, who has traded his hand-picked captain, Nick Tuzzolino, to Elmira; gotten into a spat during a game with another big offseason acquisition, Bobby Hughes, then traded him to Gwinnett; and not been afraid to call out players publicly.
But there’s no way the players should get a pass on any of this.
Graham has lost control of the locker room – and it bears mentioning he doesn’t have an assistant coach to serve as a mediator – but there doesn’t seem to be that alpha male getting the players in line, as Colin Chaulk, Nick Boucher and Brett Smith did in recent seasons.
Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock was given the captaincy Thursday night, after the Komets spent a month with three alternates, Schrock, Lang and Brandon Marino. It’s tough to imagine a harder first day on that job than Schrock had Friday; the Komets played with eight forwards, while Toledo had only nine.
But at the end of the day, hockey players don’t play for the coach or the fans, they do it for a paycheck and, supposedly, for each other. That players are bailing – no one has said so publicly, but it seems Lang and Vaskivuo initiated this divorce – it makes one wonder what’s going on in the locker room? And can Schrock fix it?
It’s hard to fathom that the players loathe Graham any more than they did Al Sims or Greg Puhalski, who were highly demanding coaches that won the Komets’ last five championships (2003, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, when Vaskivuo was playoff MVP).
The big gripe with those coaches was communication, too, which seems to be what’s holding back Graham, who didn’t play beyond juniors but has an encyclopedic knowledge of the game.
But Sims and Puhalski had capable leaders in the locker room to pick up the slack, whether it was Chaulk, Sean Venedam, Guy Dupuis or P.C. Drouin.
Fair or not, it falls on Schrock now to fix this thing, because it starts in the locker room.
Komets general manager David Franke didn’t take questions on the departure of Lang and Vaskivuo, releasing a statement: We feel that it is time to change up the team further and make the right move to better our team in the coming days. So, both players have been suspended until a move can be made.
At some point, though, the Komets need to stop making moves and just unify. That will take some give and take from everyone – the GM, the coach and the players.