In the wake of his team’s eight-game winless stretch, Nick Vitucci announced Tuesday that he has resigned as the head coach of the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.
Vitucci, 46, resigns after five seasons coaching the Walleye and four seasons coaching the Toledo Storm. The Walleye’s latest slide coincided with Vitucci’s decision to leave the position he has held for the last five seasons in Toledo.
■ Age: 46
■ Birthplace: Welland, Ont.
■ Experience: Vitucci has been a head coach in Toledo dating back to 2003-04 when he took over the job with the Storm at the midpoint of the season. He has a career record of 289-262-53 in seven overall seasons as coach of Toledo teams. The Walleye are 149-156-32 under Vitucci in five seasons. The team has made the playoffs two out of the last four seasons and lost in the first round both times. The ECHL hall of fame goalie has won five ECHL championships (four as a player and one as an assistant coach).
It’s a decision that Vitucci said he has contemplated over the past two weeks, in consultation with Walleye general manager Joe Napoli and Toledo Sports Arena Inc. chairman Mike Miller.
“We’re struggling in finding the right path to get this ship going in the right direction,” Vitucci said inside the Walleye locker room at Huntington Center. “We’ve talked about the dual affiliations [with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks] and just a whole bunch of items that we want to get moving in the right direction.”
The Walleye are 16-31-4 and in last place with 36 points in the ECHL's Eastern Conference, and have been plagued by injuries and roster turnover through the course of this season.
“The players are players. They come to work, they want to get better, they’re professionals, and that’s what you expect out of them, and that’s what you get,” said Vitucci, who is 289-262-52 in nearly nine seasons of coaching the Walleye and the Toledo Storm. “But the frustration level was off the charts. It wears on you consistently.”
Napoli said that Vitucci, who also served as the team’s director of player personnel, will remain with the Walleye in a capacity to be determined.
Coaches in the ECHL are said to earn $45,000-$75,000 per season. There were no financial terms available.
Dan Watson, an assistant coach with the Walleye since 2009, takes over as interim head coach. He will debut Saturday against Greenville at Huntington Center.
“Right now, we’re last in the league in giving up goals  so we’re going to be a defensive team,” said Watson, 34, who was a defenseman for seven seasons in the ECHL, American Hockey League, and the United Hockey League. “But I want to play fast.
“I want to make sure we have good puck control, making sure we have guys driving hard to the net. I want to be a team that when other teams come in here or we’re on the road, that we’re a tough team to play against. And that’s what I’m going to demand out of these 21 guys right here, right now.”
Vitucci, an ECHL hall of fame goalie who played for 13 seasons in the ECHL, International Hockey League, and AHL, said modern players are more difficult to motivate and he had trouble pulling the best out of his rotating roster.
“It’s frustrating. So many of them feel entitled rather than earning what they get,” he said. “There are players in this locker room that I wanted to find the buttons to push, and I failed at that. I’m hoping [Watson] can. It’s a different time and era.”
The Walleye have lost eight straight games, and Monday traded two players, defenseman Russ Sinkewich to the Idaho Steelheads for Tyler Elbrecht and future considerations; and forward Aaron Bogosian to the Florida Everblades for future considerations.
“If you look at the significant number of injuries, the significant number of roster moves, it’s a challenging environment to be successful in,” Napoli said.
“But that’s not to say other franchises don’t overcome that. This is an opportunity for us to do some self-reflection, take a look at our relationships with the Blackhawks and the Red Wings. Nick will shoulder the blame and the fact of the matter is, when you take a look at the body of work, we’ve all contributed to that.”
Walleye captain Kyle Rogers, who has played for Vitucci for four seasons, said it was hard news to hear.
“Nick will take the blame because he sticks up for his players,” Rogers said. “He can’t take all the blame on himself.
“One of the hardest jobs in hockey is being a coach at this level. A lot of things went wrong for him. There are high demands.”
Vitucci said his greatest accomplishment was bringing “professionalism to hockey” in Toledo.
“When I took over 10 or 11 years ago … every day I gave players the chance to be professionals and I treated them like professionals,” Vitucci said. “There have been so many nice individual stories over the years.”
Napoli said neither the Blackhawks nor the Red Wings had any say in Vitucci’s decision to resign from his position, a decision he said he made Monday, two days after the Walleye’s 4-3 loss to Orlando at the Huntington Center.
Mark Monroe contributed to this story.