Stephen Harper went from a rookie trying to crack the lineup in February to Playoff MVP in July when the Komets captured the Kelly Cup. His return to the Komets – on assignment last week from Chicago of the higher-level American Hockey League – bolstered the restyled Fort Wayne lineup.
“He's gone from somebody who was supporting cast to being at the forefront of our offense,” coach Ben Boudreau said. “He's a great centerman, he pushes the pace, he's a big body, and he's somebody that we're going to look to and rely on for our offense throughout the hockey season.”
Harper, 26, is a microcosm of the Komets' training camp: The expectation of winning a championship remains the same, but the roles have changed heading into Saturday's season opener at Memorial Coliseum against the Wheeling Nailers.
Here's a look at 10 things that could shape the Komets' season, some good, some concerning, some a product of playing during a pandemic.
Goaltending strength: There shouldn't be much to worry about with Jiri Patera, a Vegas Golden Knights prospect; Samuel Harvey, who spent seven games in the AHL last season; and Stefanos Lekkas, who finished as the Buffalo Sabres' backup. It's just a matter of getting them enough ice time. “We have three No. 1s in this league, no doubt about it, and they might even be the three best goalies in the league. I'm not even joking,” Harper said. “We're going to have a fresh one in there every night and you're confident any time you have those goalies in the pipes.”
Speedy centers: Drake Rymsha and Connor Jones have played in the NHL, and Harper's upside is huge, so the Komets look solid in the middle. It remains to be seen if they can win faceoffs as well as the retired A.J. Jenks or if the wingers can produce the kind of offense we saw last season when Fort Wayne ranked second with 3.33 goals per game.
Defensive lapses: Fort Wayne ranked first last season with 2.67 goals against per game, but the only returning defenseman is Marcus McIvor (unless Blake Siebenaler returns from Henderson of the AHL). The blue-liners are big, led by 6-foot-5 players Will Graber, Josh Owings and Corbin Baldwin, but will they be stingy enough to stop plays in transition?
Special-teams prowess: The Komets ranked first on the power play (25.9%) and penalty kill (86.8%). It's tough to imagine those rankings holding up again, especially with the league going from 14 to 27 teams, and much will hinge on players such as Jameson Milam and Nick Jermain quarterbacking the power play.
Solid leadership: We don't yet know who the captain will be – presumably Anthony Petruzzelli or Matthew Boudens – and leadership will be pivotal with an almost completely new lineup. Jenks was the glue as captain, as Jamie Schaafsma was before him, and the Komets need guys to lead by example on and off the ice.
COVID conscious: The Komets didn't have a single player test positive last season, but it took sacrifices. Not everything is controllable – the Komets canceled their preseason games last week because two players tested positive – and an outbreak could make this season go sideways. The players must make wise decisions away from the rink.
Delivering toughness: It remains to be seen who will police the ice, especially since the Komets would prefer Boudens stay out of the penalty box. Fort Wayne is at its best when it agitates, at its worst when it gets sucked into bad penalties. Despite leading the ECHL in penalty minutes last season (18.14 per game), the penalty kill saved it and that's not a recipe for success.
Staying hungry: The ECHL geography has changed – powers such as Toledo opted out of last season – and Fort Wayne cannot take anything for granted. There's talk the Komets' championship deserved an asterisk and the team needs to use that as motivation.
Shake the rust: Expect the Komets to look sloppy early with so many new players, some of whom haven't played in 18 months, and no preseason. And there are only two games the first 13 days of the season. The Komet must use the time to build for the long haul.
AHL acquisitions: The Komets have Harper, Graber and Patera from the AHL, while Siebenaler and Tyler Busch are with Henderson. There's going to be more movement back-and-forth this season and the Komets are going to have to adapt.