Nick Vitucci instructs his team at training camp at the Huntington Center. Vitucci enters his fifth season as Walleye coach. He was the Storm's coach for three and a half seasons.
Toledo roared back in its first-round playoff series only to lose in heartbreaking fashion.
“We lost but we went down on a good note,” Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. “We went down scratching and clawing right to the very end and that's the scratching and clawing we want to do to start the season.”
The team has qualified for the playoffs in two of its first four years. But Toledo has yet to win a playoff series.
Last season the team earned a franchise-best 83 points with a 37-26-9 record. But the Walleye quickly fell into a 3-0 hole in their playoff series against Cincinnati. Toledo rallied back with two wins on the road and were on the brink of forcing a Game 7. But the Cyclones stunned the Walleye, scoring with 5.1 seconds left to tie the game and then ended their season 3:05 into overtime.
“To lose in the first round is not a pill you take lightly. We fell behind 3-0 but what a comeback we made to get back into that series,” Vitucci said.
A 19-13-4 to start the season enabled the Walleye to survive some rocky waters.
Veteran defenseman big Phil Oreskovic, who played in 68 games, is among a core group returning. Ten players on the preseason roster played for Toledo last season.
“It's key to get off to a good start,” Oreskovic said. “You don't want to be kicking yourself in the butt late in the season when you are battling for those playoff points. We went through some adversity and [the good start] really helped.”'
Vitucci hopes to avoid a slow start like Toledo had in 2011-12 when the Walleye stumbled to a 1-5-0 beginning and finished 28-38-6, missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
“If you draw that line in the sand early, you can continue it throughout the year,” Vitucci said. “We want to have a mentality here that we are going to go hard every time.”
Last season, Toledo rose above .500 where it has hovered around in four years under Vitucci, who is 133-127-28 behind the bench. As training camp opened in early October, Vitucci believed he had the makings of a competitive roster.
“I think we have a good mix of young and old in our locker room. We have guys that have been in the trenches before,” he said.
None has been in more wars at the downtown arena than captain Kyle Rogers. The face of the franchise returns for a third season as captain. Rogers, who has played in more games than any other player in Walleye history, set new career highs in assists (31) and points with 46 last year.
“The postseason was a great experience, but it is still a bitter taste,” Rogers said.
Rogers has played in 214 straight games for Toledo dating back to the 2010-11 season.
“We want to do better. I will push us to do better this year,” the captain said.
Defenseman Phil Rauch, one of three local players that will suit up for their hometown pro team, was set to retire after last season. But he had a change of heart just before camp opened.
“We want to make a better than we did last year,” Rauch said. “The standings came down to just a few games last year. So in the beginning we have to jump right out there and get as many points as possible. Every point counts.”
Rauch, a native of Lambertville, Mich., has appeared in 143 games for the Walleye over the last two years. The 2005 graduate of St. Francis de Sales High School played his first professional season in 2011-12.
“It’s definitely a positive to have all this leadership in the room with him bringing the core back. We have that base that we can build around,” Rauch said.
Oreskovic (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) was second on the team with 121 penalty minutes. He is an American Hockey League veteran, who also played in 10 NHL games with Toronto in 2008-09. Oreskovic, who had 14 points with 13 assists, said it was easy to come back.
“They treat you well and I enjoyed playing with some of the returning players,” he said. “The fan support is tremendous. When you go out there, the crowd is roaring.”
Vitucci has to fill other gaps after the retirement of three key veterans: defenseman Wes O’Neill, forward Randy Rowe, and goalie Jordan Pearce.
Defensemen Assistant coach Dan Watson, who handles the defensemen, said battles in training camp would determined the final few spots. But he said Oreskovic provides a presence on the ice.
“No one will want to mess with us when he is out on the ice. He brings the physical presence,” Watson said. “He’s very positive and talks a lot. Everyone listens because he has that experience. He’s smart and I will lean on him.”
Oreskovic said the early playoff ouster is motivating.
“We had a good team and showed a lot of pride coming back,” he said. “It’s tough then.
But now we have a new season and we look strong, especially up front. I think we’ve put together a winning team here this year.”
Defenseman Cody Lampl is up in the AHL where he may stay for awhile. Lampl, who became a Walleye fan favorite last year, had 127 penalty minutes in 64 games for Toledo.
Vitucci signed veteran defensemen Jason Lepine and Russ Sinkewich.
Sinkewich is a six-year pro from Westlake, Ohio who played at Bowling Green State University.
In 95 games for the Falcons, he collected five assists and 131 penalty minutes.
The 28-year-old was a member of the 2011 Kelly Cup championship team in Alaska.
Lepine returns after spending the last two years in Europe. He skated in 47 games with the Walleye in 2010-11 and had eight goals with 26 assists.
“He’s a good solid two-way defenseman who adds an offensive element,” Vitucci said.
Defenseman Max Nicastro, who had five points (2 G, 3 A) in nine games for the Walleye last season, was sent down from Grand Rapids. Vitucci said he was impressed with two defensemen who played at Niagara University together, C.J. Chartrain and Dan Weiss.
Forwards Vitucci had to fill the scoring gap left by the trade of Joey Martin to Stockton. He brought back Aaron Bogosian, who played in 11 games with the Walleye last season.
Bogosian, 26, had five points (2 goals, 3 assists).
“He’s a gritty, two way center man,” Vitucci said. “He plays hard, but he has a lot of talent.”
Grand Rapids reassigned forward Trevor Parkes, who racked up 30 points (14 G, 16 A) in just 19 games with the Walleye last season, just prior to training camp. Parkes tied for second on the club with five points (3 G, 2 A) in six playoff contests Vitucci said he is excited about the returning Travis Novak and newcomer Daniel Koger.
Forward Stephon Thorne also is back, while Kevin Lynch was sent to the Walleye from Grand Rapids. Lynch played at the University of Michigan where he had 10 goals and 17 assists in 40 games as a senior.
Scott Arnold, 24, split his first pro season between Gwinnett in the ECHL and Portland of the AHL.
Sylvania natives Alden Hirschfeld and Tyler Pilmore also will be counted to provide scoring.
Both played at Northview High School.
“I’m very excited about the three local guys,” Vitucci said.
Goaltenders Perhaps the biggest benefit of the team’s dual NHL affiliation with Detroit and Chicago over the four years has been the annual presence of a talented netminder sent to the Walleye from the parent clubs.
Goaltender Mac Carruth, who is in the Blackhawks’ system, was assigned to the Walleye from Rockford.
Carruth had a 30-7-2 record with a 2.06 goals-against average for major junior club Portland of the Western Hockey League last season.
Vitucci said he is comfortable with two goalies that started in the team’s camp: Neil Conway and Brooks Ostergard. Conway went 15-8-0 with a 2.65 goals-against average with Quad City of the Central Hockey League last season.
Ostergard played in six games for Trenton of the ECHL last year and went 5-1-0 with a 3.13 GAA.
An injury in the Red Wings’ system meant Toledo would not receive a goalie right away from Grand Rapids. However, former Walleye Thomas McCollum or rookie Jared Coreau could eventually work their way down to Toledo.
The Walleye have yet to win a North Division title and success in frequent contests against division foes Cincinnati, Kalamazoo, and Fort Wayne will be pivotal.
“We have some games against rivals right off the start with Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, and Kalamazoo,” Oreskovic said. “Those division games are four point games. So it’s important to get those wins early.”
Vitucci said the first four seasons at the Huntington Center where 892,689 fans have attended games have flown by quickly.
“I can’t explain how fast it has gone by,” Vitucci said. “It seems like we were just giving tours with hardhats on with three quarters of the arena under a blue tarp.
“We have so many talented players in this year’s camp. It is going to fun to watch and a great way to build up.”