In season two, the Toledo Walleye will be more gritty and less pretty.
They'll be more mean and less green with an unselfish approach.
Walleye coach Nick Vitucci is bringing back an established core of physical, blue-collar players. With a firm foundation of nine ECHL veterans, Toledo will not be outworked, he said. Nothing short of a Kelly Cup title is the goal.
"Last year, we had guys who were just driven for reasons outside of team success," Vitucci said. "They wanted to get their points, feeling that was the way to get out of this league. I want the hardest working guys to get rewarded. I wanted a better group of people. I want guys who are passionate to be playing for this team."
Adam Keefe is back for the Walleye. The former Storm player has 1,084 penalty minutes in a five-year career.
That passion starts Friday when the puck drops for the season opener in Wheeling. The home opener at the Huntington Center will be Saturday when the Walleye host the Nailers.
The Walleye drew 234,220 fans in their inaugural season (including playoffs) with 12 sellouts after a two-year hockey hiatus in Toledo.
That success was nearly matched on the ice as the Walleye went 35-30-7 and earned a spot in the playoffs before falling to Charlotte in the first round.
Yet the team's style of play left a bad taste in Vitucci's mouth. He bemoaned the lack of a consistent 60-minute effort. He detested the self-centered play. In the offseason he sought out a specific type of player that Toledoans have grown to love. Those attributes include tight checking, grinding effort combined with a hard-working attitude.
Scooter Smith, a former Storm player, returned to Toledo last year and had 13 goals and 16 assists in 47 games.
"The scuttlebutt around the league is that we're an old team," said Vitucci, whose team's average age is nearly 25. "But we have good, experienced leadership. We've established a core we can build around. We should be a good, deep successful hockey club. If we have a guy that is arrogant and more worried about his personal success than he is team success, someone in this core will set them straight quickly.
"Last year was a good first year for us," Vitucci said. "We're going to be greedier, for sure. A championship is the goal now. To be a championship team you need the on-ice talent but you need the off-ice character as well. That's just as important to me."
He sought toughness. He wanted hard-nosed guys like he had over at the Sports Arena when he was behind the bench as the head man for the Storm for three and a half seasons.
Two former Storm players, tough-guy Adam Keefe and spirited grinder Scooter Smith, fit that mold and re-joined Vitucci last season.
"We have guys that put winning above everything else," Smith said. "This year you'll see guys who are willing to put their bodies on the line every night. They won't have a big attitude and won't be worried about stats. It's a culture of teamwork and winning."
It's those types of players that have helped Vitucci compile a record of 175-132-28. Vitucci, who enters his sixth year in Toledo, has won five ECHL championships - four as a goalie and one as an assistant coach. Vitucci has yet to capture one as a head coach but believes this could be the group to lift a Cup in Toledo for the first time since 1994.
"These guys will be passionate about playing at this level and for this team," he said. "And we still have the talent level."
Keefe, an enforcer with 1,084 penalty minutes in a five-year pro career, said the players Vitucci brought back will battle.
"When push comes to shove, we'll stick up for each other," Keefe said. "You'll see good team toughness. We won't back down. That's the foundation we want to build from to win a championship. Everyone wants to compete for these fans. They're the sixth man out on the ice. I want to win a championship and we'll do it with good team people."
Walleye goaltender Jordan Pearce stops against Kalamazoo in a preseason game. Pearce had a 15-18 record last season.
Vitucci said Smith and Keefe will play on a line with another vet, Mike Hedden. He said the trio also will play on the penalty kill and power play.
"We won't get pushed around," Smith said.
Andy Bohmbach, Zach Torquato and Evan Rankin will form another line. Veteran Randy Rowe will team with Sal Peralta with a to-be-determined center on the other line.
"I'm not a big fan of No. 1, 2 and 3 [lines]," Vitucci said. "Different lines have different assets. All three can be a No. 1 line. It just depends on who's clicking."
Last year's captain, defenseman Ryan Stokes, said Vitucci is a "player's coach" who is respected. Stokes said the team's veterans "bring more smarts to the ice."
"I came to Toledo because I think we have a great group of guys and we have a great chance to win a championship," Stokes said. "We have a lot of leaders that are here to win. We have some accomplished players."
Goaltender Jordan Pearce gets the nod in net after making his pro debut with the Walleye last season. The Notre Dame graduate split time with Alec Richards, posting a 15-18-0 with two shutouts and a 3.63 goals against average. Pearce, 23, is a Detroit Red Wing farmhand and filtered down from the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins.
"I think we'll have another strong year," Pearce said. "We have a good, solid core that is back and will be here most of the year. We have all the kinks worked out. We'll be going on all cylinders. We want a championship and I know the fans want it, too."
Vitucci said the organization is expecting big things out of Pearce.
"No worries at all with Jordan,"Vitucci said. "Last year he might have had a rough start for his first year. But as it went on he got better and better. He will continue that. It's similar to his time frame at Notre Dame. By the time he rolled around to his junior and senior years, he was one of the best goalies in the country."
But Pearce could be called back up at any time. Call-ups and injuries often are the wild card for success in the ECHL, and Vitucci said about a dozen players on the roster could move up.
Vitucci said he his looking for a back-up goalie after Joe Palmer injured his knee and is expected to be out for about three to four weeks.
Other familiar faces returning include forwards Evan Rankin, Dominic Osman, and Sal Peralta and defensemen Joe Charlebois, Brett Blatchford (Temperance, Mich.), and Kyle Page (Bowling Green State University).
"It's a huge advantage to have a good core group of guys back who are leaders and know what it takes to win games," Osman said. "We'll do the little things. We'll stick together. We'll grind night in and night out."
Rankin is the top returning scorer after leading the team in goals scored with 32. Rankin added 25 assists in 65 games. Of the top 16 point scorers from last season, less than half (seven) are back.
Torquato could make up for the lost production. He had 93 points (31 G, 62 A) in 68 games in the Ontario Hockey League last year. LW Robin Richards adds some toughness with 237 penalty minutes in 58 games in the Central Hockey League.
Vitucci said the team worked on special teams and face offs this week in practice. Breakouts and fore-check systems are in place. A sellout is expected Friday night.
"The crowds were loud and really encouraged us," Stokes said. "Big crowds coming out really motivate you to be a better player."
Vitucci, who also is the team's director of player personnel, said he feels very comfortable that he achieved what he set out to do in the recruiting season.
"Right now I like the team make up. I'm sure there will be tweaks," he said. "We have a core that understands what we're looking for. If you have leadership like that, everyone else will follow."
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