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More than 7,000 amped up fans will pack the Huntington Center today to watch the puck drop on the fourth season of Walleye hockey and this group of Toledo players is determined to end a recent playoff drought.
After struggling to a last-place finish in the ECHL North Division with a 28-36-6 record, coach Nick Vitucci completely altered his roster. Vitucci has a veteran lineup featuring a huge defensive core and proven goal scorers.
“I'm desperate as a coach to have more success,” said Vitucci, who is 236-205-40 in seven seasons at the helm of Toledo teams. “It's the reason why we put together a veteran laden lineup. It allows us to have more consistency. I'm more excited to begin this season than any other since I've been here.”
About 500 tickets remain for the Walleye's opener at 7:05 p.m. against rival Kalamazoo.
“There's excitement this time of year,” Vitucci said. “It has a different feel. It's cool in the morning and at night. It's fall. Leaves are on the ground and it's hockey season.”
Kalamazoo won the North Division for the fourth straight season last year. Toledo finished second-to-last in both goals scored (2.63 per game) and goals against (3.58) and failed to make the playoffs for the second season in a row.
Vitucci hopes his new roster will put an end to a constantly shuffled lineup because of callups. The team now has four players that have been captains on previous teams.
Forward Kyle Rogers returns as Toledo's captain, and is joined by defenseman Wes O'Neill (Kalamazoo's captain last year) and future ECHL hall of famer Randy Rowe. Defenseman Phil Oreskovic, who spent time in the NHL, also has jumped on board along with former University of Michigan captain Luke Glendening. O'Neill said lack of stability leads to a daily learning curve to get to know new teammates.
“It's all about consistency in pro hockey,” O'Neill said.
Forward Joey Martin, who had a productive rookie year in Toledo last season, is back after leading the team in goals scored (22) and points (49).
“Obviously we have to take it from the driving range to the golf course now,” Vitucci said. “There are challenges ahead of us.”
Rogers finished second on the team in scoring with 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists).
Toledo's American Hockey League affiliates in Grand Rapids and Rockford have also bolstered the lineup.
Toledo will begin the season with two 20-year-old rookie goaltenders in Kent Simpson (assigned from Rockford) and Petr Mrazek (Grand Rapids). Mrazek started Toledo’s final preseason game, a 3-2 loss to Kalamazoo, and made 19 saves on 22 shots.
“Both of these guys are young but they are extremely talented,” Vitucci said.
The AHL teams also have assigned five forwards to Toledo, including Andrej Nestrasil and Willie Coetzee. Both have spent time in Toledo.
Glendening was also assigned from Grand Rapids. The forward was Michigan's captain for the last two seasons. He had 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) for the Wolverines last year. “He comes out of a great hockey program,” Vitucci said.
Forwards Byron Froese and Terry Broadhurst come from Rockford. But Vitucci also signed veteran forwards Doug Clarkson, Todd Griffith, Travis Novak, Max Campbell, Jake Trask, and Josh Turnbull. Griffith had 21 points in 24 games last season for Toledo,
“This is as talented a group of forwards as we have had here in Toledo,” said Vitucci. “We have speed, toughness, and scoring punch all throughout this forward group.”
A big physical, defensive core will take care of things behind the blue line. Phil Rauch of Lambertville, and Joey Ryan are both back.
O’Neill (6-4, 224) and Oreskovic (6-3, 245) will join them along with new faces Cody Lampl, 26, Dale Warkentin (6-4, 220) and David Starenky (6-2, 230).
Rowe said he is convinced the team's sound defense will lead to more offense.
“Now I'm one of the smallest guys in the room and that actually adds an extra couple inches to your play,” Rowe said.
One other veteran Vitucci signed was David Walker, who opted to retire for family reasons. That allowed Vitucci to sign Oreskovic as his fourth vet. Oreskovic has played 10 NHL games with Toronto (2008-09).
“You need to defend goals first and foremost,” Vitucci said. “My mind-set is to have a good defense. We haven't had that and because of that our goaltenders have struggled as well. But we've shored that up.”
A sellout is expected tonight; the average crowd was 6,252 last season.
A FinFest pregame party is slated for 4:30 p.m. in The Aquarium. The free event features drink specials and live entertainment. The first 4,000 fans will receive a blue or gold glow wand. Doors open at 6 p.m. Upon exiting, 5,000 fans will receive magnet schedules. The Walleye finished second in overall attendance in the ECHL with 225,060 spectators.
“At this level you would be hard pressed to find a better facility, better organization, and hockey city,” Vitucci said. “This is the real deal.”