Not much has gone right on the ice for the Toledo Walleye this season.
The team is mired in last place in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference and has surrendered more goals (170) than any other team in the league.
Nick Vitucci, fifth-year coach and director of hockey operations, has constantly tinkered with the lineup of the Walleye, the ECHL affiliate for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. General manager and president Joe Napoli has contemplated the possibility of ending the franchise’s dual affiliation after this season.
As a result, the Walleye have stumbled to a 16-27-3 record entering Saturday’s game against Cincinnati, and with 35 points Toledo is second-to-last in the ECHL overall standings entering Friday’s games. Only Las Vegas has fewer points, with 28. When the San Francisco Bulls folded in January, they had 35 points.
“I don’t think I’ve really given Nick an opportunity to succeed,” Napoli said. “The dual affiliation has pluses and its minuses, but if you’re looking at it from a reflective, unvarnished perspective, there are more minuses than pluses. When you’re winning, you see the pluses much more clearly. When you’re losing, the minuses are just that much more apparent.”
Toledo is one of eight of the league’s 22 teams that is affiliated with two NHL teams, including the Ontario (Calif.) Reign, which leads the ECHL with 67 points. While there are discussions with both organizations about continuing a pipeline with the Blackhawks and the Red Wings, Napoli is unsure of the future of feeding both organizations.
“We’re under contract to both through the end of this season and we’ve started conversations with both of them,” Napoli said. “We have a lot to think about.”
■ Walleye franchise record: 149-154-31 (through Feb. 14)
■ Coach Nick Vitucci's record: 289-258-52 (four seasons with Storm; five seasons with Walleye)
■ 2009-10: 35-30-7 for 77 points (3rd in the ECHL North Division; 8th in American Conference); lost in first round of playoffs to Charlotte (3-1)
■ 2010-11: 33-33-6 for 72 points (4th in North Division; 9th in Eastern Conference); did not make playoffs
■ 2011-12: 28-38-6 for 62 (4th in North Division; 11th in Eastern Conference); did not make playoffs
■ 2012-13: 37-26-9 for 83 points (2nd in North Division, 7th Eastern Confernce); lost in first round of playoffs to Cincinnati (4-2)
■ 2013-14: 16-27-3 (last in the North Division)
A revolving door
Vitucci estimates that since the start of the season, his team has been involved in at least 80 transactions. He illustrated that point by holding his forefinger and thumb about four inches apart to mimic the width of a binder that holds paperwork on every transaction that has involved the Walleye this season.
At this point last season, the Walleye had less than half that number of transactions. When the Storm occupied the Toledo Sports Arena, Vitucci said that in an average season, eight players were recalled by a parent team, and the Storm missed a total 14 man games.
“That’s a week for us,” said Napoli.
A lack of consistency in personnel has kept the Walleye from creating cohesion on the ice and in the locker room, and the constant shuffling of the roster because of call-ups, demotions, injuries, and retirement has shown on the ice.
In fact, one phone call took four players away from the Walleye roster.
“Everybody’s gone,” Vitucci said. “There are three forwards in Grand Rapids who should be here right now. Anybody who’s a hockey fan knows all the injuries the Detroit Red Wings have right now. We’re the bottom of the totem pole. Anytime someone gets called up to Detroit, we lose a guy like Trevor Parkes or we lose Martin Frk or Travis Novak or Alden Hirschfeld, and we lost four of those guys in a phone call a couple weeks ago.”
Even when a rash of players are returned to Toledo, it’s likely not a quick fix.
“I answered a question from a fan once who asked me, ‘well, you got back all these players yesterday, how come you guys didn’t win today?’ ” Vitucci said. “Unfortunately, it’s just not, add water and everything is rosy again. You haven’t had a chance to work on anything, you haven’t had a chance to work on power plays and line changes and whatnot. You need time to do that.”
The Walleye begin a two-game, four-day road trip to South Carolina to face the Greenville Road Warriors and the South Carolina Stingrays with, Vitucci notes, three lines, a 10th forward, three sets of defensemen, and two goalies — and without a fourth line. The ECHL only uses three lines instead of the four used at the college and NHL levels.
Defensemen Max Nicastro and forward Stephon Thorne are injured, and the Walleye lost Phil Rauch to retirement, while recently re-gaining Hirschfeld. The roster is constantly in flux, though Vitucci calls his team’s last two weeks, “the best hockey we’ve played.”
“Our three line combinations have stuck together, and we haven’t had that at any point before,” he said.
A new normal
The dynamic of the ECHL has changed in the last 10 years, as well. It isn’t just a landing spot for aspiring hockey players. It’s a developmental league to produce players for higher levels of professional hockey and a source of feeder teams for AHL and NHL teams. It means that filling rosters in Grand Rapids, Rockford, Chicago, and Detroit comes at the expense of the Walleye.
“What we’re struggling with is that we’re trying to teach and coach our fans that there’s a new normal,” Napoli said. “That doesn’t mean we take it lightly. We want to win. We’re used to winning at everything we do. So this is intensely frustrating for us not to perform well on a regular basis. We’re going to figure the formula out.”
The popularity of the Walleye off the ice has grown since 2009; the Walleye have been among the top 5 franchises in attendance in its first four seasons, averaging 223,172 (about 6,200 per game). This season, the Walleye have an average attendance of 6,025 in its first 20 home games (third in the ECHL). Additionally, a Sports Business Journal report in August named Toledo as the nation’s top minor-league market, given the fan interest and community support of both the Walleye and the Toledo Mud Hens, the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A farm team.
Napoli acknowledges that with the shortcomings of this season, he’s seen and heard the frustration of the Walleye fan base. He admits his franchise is frustrated too.
“That comes with the territory,” Napoli said. “We’re used to it. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. Will we get it right? We’re determined to get it right. We don’t fail very often, but when we struggle, everybody commits, and commits even more so. We’d be the first to say that we’re dissatisfied with the results of the first five years [of the Walleye]. But it’s definitive — we are growing hockey in this community.”