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Just as the Walleye maneuvered through the midpoint of the season by moving into first place, a heavy blow to the roster threatens to take the wind out of their sails.
But a second half tailspin for Toledo may have been prevented by preseason preparations aimed at staving off the scenario.
As the Walleye (19-13-4) embark on the second half on Wednesday night in Florida, they will be without the services of six of their top 11 scorers. The recent resolution of the NHL lockout means Toledo’s top prospects have been called up to the American Hockey League.
But coach Nick Vitucci, also director of hockey operations, assembled his roster in the offseason to provide a measure of protection against call ups.
He thought a core group of veterans would provide stability. So Vitucci brought back captain Kyle Rogers. He also signed fellow seasoned forward Randy Rowe and veteran defensemen Wes O’Neill and Phil Oreskovic.
“We were trying to look into the crystal ball and try to get a team of guys that were going to be our ECHL guys,” Vitucci said. “We knew for the most part they would help us have a consistent lineup.”
O’Neill, a former NHL player and Kalamazoo captain, is tied for eighth on the team in scoring with 10 goals and 10 assists. He has the third most goals among ECHL defensemen.
“I haven’t seen anything like this in my career,” O'Neill said of the sudden roster upheaval. “But you have to keep it business as usual. You just have to keep soldiering on.”
Rogers and Rowe have provided leadership and production. Rogers ranks fifth on the team with 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists). Rowe is 10th with 17 points (9 G, 8 A).
“We have a core group of guys here that will be around and it will come down to us being on the same page,” Rowe said. “We’re all happy for those young guys because we’ve all been in that situation having their shot. We wish them the best because they came down here and worked hard for us. We just have to keep playing hard.”
The Walleye, in a tie for first place with Cincinnati in the ECHL North Division, had roster stability during the first half. Vitucci even had the luxury of having healthy scratches on a nightly basis.
But now he must replace his three of his top four scorers. Rookie Terry Broadhurst, who has 12 goals and 19 assists, was called up to Rockford after the NHL deal. Forward Andrej Nestrasil, who has 31 points (10 G, 21 A) in 31 games with Toledo, was promoted to Grand Rapids.
Defenseman Ben Youds, who was picked to represent the Walleye at the ECHL all-star game, takes his 27 points (4 G, 23 A) up to Rockford.
Luke Glendening, Toledo’s other ECHL representative, earned a promotion to Grand Rapids. The rookie had 21 points (14 G, 7 A) in 27 games. Forwards Max Campbell (20 points) and Byron Froese (17 points) also are no longer on the roster.
“[The ECHL] only allows us to carry so many players and when you lose five of them all at once, you have work to do,” Vitucci said.
Vitucci said he expects to sign a few players on Wednesday to fill the gaps.
He said he is fairly certain he will not lose either goaltender, rookie Kent Simpson and veteran Jordan Pearce. Simpson (7-7-3 with a 2.83 goals against average) may get called up to the AHL if the Blackhawks bring in three goalies to their abbreviated training camp.
Pearce (10-5-1) has had a solid first half with a 2.53 goals against average. Pearce, who has two recent shutouts, said he expects the team to reach the playoffs.
“Everyone is kind of holding their breath waiting to see the fall out,” he said. “I think we will still have a competitive team here. And we'll move on.”
Vitucci still has his leading scorer, Willie Coetzee. The forward has 14 goals and 19 assists for 33 points in 34 games.
The Walleye have been a streaky bunch. The team is scoring an average of 3.33 goals per game, ninth best in the ECHL. It has given up 2.83 goals per game, which is seventh overall. Toledo leads the league in shots per game (33.1) and is sixth in shots against (27.1).
Toledo is 9-6-3 at the Huntington Center, where the team has attracted the fourth-highest average attendance (5,975 per game) along with three sellouts. The Walleye are 10-7-1 on the road and 12-9-2 against division opponents.
The Walleye power play is ranked 17th out of 23 teams, but the penalty kill is eighth. The Walleye have the third fewest penalty minutes in the ECHL.
If it was the end of the season, Toledo would have the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The top eight of the 14 teams qualify for the postseason.
The Walleye kick-off a five-game road trip today against the Everblades. Toledo does not return home until Jan. 25 when the Walleye take on Kalamazoo.
“There have only been one or two games where I thought we got beat,” Rowe said. “The other games we kind of beat ourselves. We will keep positive. We have a playoff push in us.”
TRAINER NAMED TO ALL-STAR GAME: Walleye athletic trainer Brad Fredrick of Wayne, Ohio, has been chosen to work the ECHL all-star game on Jan. 23. He was named after voting by each of the league’s trainers and equipment managers.
“It means a lot to me and my family to represent Toledo at the game,” he said about his first all-star appearance.
He is in his fourth season with the Walleye and was trainer for the Toledo Storm.
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.