The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 10, 2021 1:00 am

Komets to open camp with few familiar faces on hand

High turnover result of pandemic's effect

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

The Komets will open a training camp for a 70th time in their history Monday. While beginning defense of a Cup isn't a new experience – they've won 10 playoff championships – this offseason has been uncharted territory.

The Komets' current roster has only six players from last season (Anthony Petruzzelli, Matthew Boudens, Oliver Cooper, Blake Siebenaler, Marcus McIvor and Stefanos Lekkas) and the high turnover has largely been a product of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Komets won the Kelly Cup with some players whose expected 2020-21 teams had opted out – such as Brandon Hawkins, Justin Vaive and Randy Gazzola – and their rights reverted back to those teams.

While last season had only 14 participating ECHL franchises, this season there are 28. The growth, along with overseas leagues reopening, meant teams were frantically trying to get the top players. Naturally, players coming off a championship with Fort Wayne were in demand and eager to cash in on high contract offers.

Chalk on to that the retirements of A.J. Jenks and Zach Pochiro, and offseason surgery for Shawn Szydlowski, and the Fort Wayne roster looks wildly different as it readies for Monday's practice at Memorial Coliseum.

“There's no question about how difficult the offseason was. It's the first time ever that a landscape like this has ever taken place,” said coach Ben Boudreau, who is 60-40-13 with a 9-4 postseason record in two seasons.

There are other factors that changed the market, such as college players getting to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic; many major junior players having lost last season; and the desire of many French Canadian ECHL players, including some who had been with Fort Wayne, to skate for the new Trois-Rivières Lions.

“Every high-end guy was extremely valuable and sought after,” Boudreau said. “So if you didn't do work early in the summer, I think a lot of teams are going to be in trouble. But that was the one thing, we didn't take any time off (after winning the Cup on July 2). We spent a week celebrating the Cup and then (assistant coach Olivier Legault) and I spent a few weeks pounding it out and establishing contacts and trying to build for this season.

“I like the core we have gotten into the place, but I think the biggest thing is we don't have the depth right now that we're used to. But it's going to be the same for a lot of teams out there, and I know we have a lot of great players coming to camp.”

The Komets still expect to get players currently competing for spots in the higher-level American Hockey League, perhaps including playoff MVP Stephen Harper and Matt Murphy.

With Jenks retired, the Komets have yet to name a new captain, and Petruzzelli and Matthew Boudens are expected to shoulder the leadership load. Petruzzelli, who had 11 goals and 30 points in 50 games last season, is the only one from Fort Wayne's top 13 point-scorers last season who's on the current roster.

“There's excitement every year to get going back on the ice,” said Petruzzelli, now the longest tenured Komets player as he enters his fourth camp with the team. “Even though this offseason was a little bit shorter than previous (years), I think we're all just as excited to get out there and defend the Kelly Cup.”

Connor and Kellen Jones, twin brothers, are expected to be produce big numbers. Drake Rymsha, who played for the Komets in 2019-20 and played a game for the Los Angeles Kings last season, should be a top-line player. Rookie Shawn Boudrias was a monster scorer in juniors.

Defensively, veterans Jamie Milam, Corbin Baldwin and Zach Tolkinen were added.

And the goaltending will be done by Lekkas, ballyhooed rookie Samuel Harvey, and perhaps a player from the Vegas Golden Knights. Lekkas played 11 games last season with the Komets, going 7-2-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. He also played seven AHL games for Rochester and spent the last week of the regular season as the Buffalo Sabres' backup netminder. His NHL contract prohibited him from rejoining the Komets for the playoffs, and he hasn't played since May 1.

“My excitement level is really high,” Lekkas said. “Obviously, I wasn't able to get a full season in last year and I'm just excited to get things going. This is a quicker offseason than last year, obviously, but the season can't come soon enough.”

Komets training camp

Opens: Monday, at Memorial Coliseum

Exhibition games: Friday at Wheeling, W.Va; Saturday at the Coliseum vs. Wheeling

Regular-season opener: Oct. 23 at the Coliseum vs. Wheeling.

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