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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Goaltender Garrett Bartus and defenseman Cody Sol are both expected back for the Komets this season. Sol, however, is trying out for Tucson of the American Hockey League.

  • Jason Binkley, left, is congratulated by Jamie Schaafsma after scoring a goal last season. They are two of the most important players returning for the Komets, who open training camp today. 

Monday, October 02, 2017 1:00 am

Komets camp to open

New affiliation, new players among changes for 66th season

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Schedule

Exhibitions

at Indy Fuel: 7:30 p.m. Friday

at Coliseum: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, vs. Fuel

at Coliseum: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9, vs. Kalamazoo Wings

Regular-season opener

at Coliseum: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14, vs. Toledo Walleye

Bob Chase Way dedication

At Arena & Expo Center entrance, 11:30 a.m. today 

The roster is different. The organizational philosophy is different.

With the Komets opening training camp for their 66th season today at Memorial Coliseum, and the regular-season opener against the Toledo Walleye on Oct. 14, there's neither much time for coach Gary Graham to get the team ready for success nor for the fans to get to know this year's team.

Here's a look at the biggest storylines for the Komets:

5 newcomers

• Dennis Kravchenko, a 23-year-old forward, totaled 18 goals and 43 points in 41 games last season with Adirondack. With Kyle Thomas and Mike Cazzola gone, they'll need him to carry a large scoring load.

• Ralph Cuddemi, 24, had 27 goals and 52 points in 64 games last season with Utah.

• Justin Hodgman, 29, isn't totally new here – he's had three previous stints with the Komets and lives in town – but the center hasn't played for the Komets since lifting a Cup for the third time in 2010. Since then, he has played five NHL games and this could be his last chance to demonstrate NHL-level potential.

• Tyson Fawcett, 24, has stood out for Fort Wayne opponents, namely the Evansville IceMen, where he totaled 42 points in 72 games two seasons ago, along with Brampton, Tulsa and Elmira.

• Alex Sakellaropoulos, a 23-year-old goaltender, had an impressive college career at Union College, winning the 2014 NCAA championship. But getting a goaltending spot isn't going to be easy, so he has to perform well during camp.

4 key returners

• Jamie Schaafsma, the captain, is 34, but he's coming off a season where he had 17 goals and 62 points in 53 games. The center still has game, deserves some credit for all the comebacks last season, but he needs to help get his teammates playing more consistent.

• Shawn Szydlowski, 27, is back for a fifth season and if he repeats his 25-goal, 66-point performance, we'll have to start talking about him among the team's all-time greats. His résumé really needs a championship and that's what he came back to get.

• Garrett Bartus, 27, was so good as a goalie last year that he may have salvaged the Komets' season and the team was comfortable enough to cut loose Pat Nagle, who may be in net for Toledo. 

• Jason Binkley, 25, needs to be the offensive defenseman the Komets always seem to be in need of, and he showed with seven goals and 44 points in 67 games that he has the potential.

3 needed improvements

Poor starts must be eliminated. As impressive as it was the Komets came back nine times from deficits of two or more goals, they can't sustain that another season.

The fourth-most penalties in the ECHL – 17.93 minutes per game – also can't happen again.

The Komets want to be tough, but that must be demonstrated through checking, forechecking and fighting, not minor penalties in the final minutes.

Special teams were uncharacteristically mediocre. The power play ranked sixth (21.4 percent), the penalty kill was 14th (82.3 percent), and the Komets had only two more short-handed goals than they gave up (11-9).

2 off-ice moves that must pay off

After going it as an independent team and still finishing with the fourth-best regular-season record and making it to the second round of the playoffs, the Komets are again affiliated with an NHL team.

The Komets hope the Arizona Coyotes provide them talented players but give them time to develop in Fort Wayne.

We don't know yet who will be in Fort Wayne from the Coyotes – forward Trevor Cheek, defenseman Kevin Ekman-Larsson and goalie Michael Houser are some possibilities – but the bigger issue would be mass call-ups happen at inopportune times.

Bringing in a full-time assistant coach, Ben Boudreau, is important. Graham is better when he has someone to bounce things off and help run practices and the bench.

1 intriguing position battle

Good luck making sense of the goalie situation. Bartus might have looked like the clear No. 1, but the Komets also signed the promising Sakellaropoulos.

Then, the Komets aligned with the Coyotes, which meant they will get a goalie from Arizona or the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners.

Houser was 22-14-1 with a 2.58 goals against average, .919 save percentage and two shutouts last season for Cincinnati.

Add on to that Sean Bonar, who won 32 games at the single-A level last season, and they all must take advantage of every practice and preseason game to lock down a roster spot.

jcohn@jg.net