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Published: Thursday, 10/13/2011

WALLEYE 2011-12 SEASON PREVIEW

Walleye look to contend with blend of physicality, youth

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Walleye coach Nick Vitucci gives instructions to his team during a practice at Huntington Center. Toledo, which missed the playoffs last season, has 13 new players on its 22-man roster Walleye coach Nick Vitucci gives instructions to his team during a practice at Huntington Center. Toledo, which missed the playoffs last season, has 13 new players on its 22-man roster
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Entering their third season, the Toledo Walleye will pursue a playoff spot with a youthful yet experienced team that won't shy away from physicality.

Of the 22 players on the roster, 13 are new faces, while 14 of them are age 23 or younger.

Coach Nick Vitucci said although his roster is full of younger players, he emphasized that most of them have multiple years of pro experience.

"We have guys that have been around the dance floor. They just haven't been there until last call," he said. "They have a year or two under their belt. So it's not a young team from that standpoint."

Toledo's second season ended in disappointment with a 33-33-6 record and fourth place finish in the ECHL North Division. The Walleye barely missed making the playoffs as they fell two points short of qualifying. Toledo finished with 72 points, while Elmira clinched the final spot with 74. The Walleye finished ninth in the 11-team Eastern Conference.

The ECHL was formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League but with expansion changed its name to simply ECHL in 2003.

"I let the players know that this team does not want to fail, and we certainly want to right the ship and make sure we're not in a position where that happens again," Vitucci said.

Walleye 2011-12 Season Preview

The Walleye start their push toward a playoff spot with the season opener Saturday at the Huntington Center against the Chicago Express expansion team.

Vitucci said he believes he has a deep, skilled, quick, and physical team.

"We'll be gritty," he said. "We have a good group of players who will bring a lot to the table. I really like the roster a lot."

Toledo once again is benefiting from its NHL affiliations with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. They've provided about half of the team's players.

Detroit reassigned two forwards, two defensemen and a goalie from its American Hockey League team in Grand Rapids (Mich.). Chicago has provided the Walleye with two forwards, a defenseman, and a goalie from Rockford.

The Walleye's Kyle Rogers, left, battles Greenville's Chris Clackson for the puck. Rogers is the Walleye's second leading returning scorer with 24 assists and 36 points. The Walleye's Kyle Rogers, left, battles Greenville's Chris Clackson for the puck. Rogers is the Walleye's second leading returning scorer with 24 assists and 36 points.
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The biggest boost from the AHL clubs will be in net.

Goalie Thomas McCollum, the Detroit Red Wings' No. 1 draft choice in 2008, will start the season with Toledo.

Carter Hutton, 25, started 22 games last year with Worcester (Mass.) of the AHL. But he spent half of last season as the No. 2 goalie for the NHL's San Jose Sharks. He was in Grand Rapids' training camp.

"I would beg to see if any team has a better duo than we're going to have," Vitucci said. "We'll go with the hot hand."

Four familiar faces that provided valuable minutes return this year. Forwards Evan Rankin and Kyle Rogers are back along with defensemen Scott Fletcher and Kyle Page.

The foursome emphasized that extended summer vacations are overrated.

"It was too long of an offseason," Rogers said. "Six months of just working out can burn you out."

Rogers, who is the team's second leading returning scorer (24 assists and 36 points), said he expects to see better team defense and chemsitry.

Fletcher, a rugged defenseman, returns after a full season in Toledo. He led the team in penalty minutes with 179. He said he believes this team will take the extra stride to make the playoffs.

"It was really disappointing last year," Fletcher said. "I think we'll work that kink out. We should have better team unity."

Rankin is the team's leading returning scorer. The 25-year-old from Portage, Mich., had 23 goals and 31 assists.

Page, who played at Bowling Green State University, said the team dug itself too big of a hole before "figuring things out after Christmas."

"We have a lot of new faces, and I think we'll have a good group of guys," Page said.

Simon Danis-Pepin takes a drink during practice. He was a second-round draft choice by Chicago in 2006. Simon Danis-Pepin takes a drink during practice. He was a second-round draft choice by Chicago in 2006.
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Youth movement

The team has three players that are just 20-years-old, one that is 21, and three that are 22. There also are seven 23-year-olds on the team.

But Vitucci said many of the young players have at least one-year of pro experience.

"They're very skilled players, they're just a little earlier in their careers," he said. "They should bring energy and youthful enthusiasm."

Rogers, a Philadelphia native, is now a veteran on the team at age 26.

"Twenty six is old now huh?," Rogers joked. "It's a different approach than last year. We had a couple older guys, and they did great taking the younger guys under their wings. Now it's definitely my turn."

Rogers said he along with newly acquired veteran forwards Kevin Harvey and Matt Krug will pass along what they've learned in their pro careers.

"Some of these guys come in from college and juniors and what worked for them in those leagues might not work for them here," Rogers said. "As older players we want them to get back to the fundamentals. Hard work pays off."

Harvey is the team's elder statesman at age 27.

"I've been around the block, and I have some pro games under my belt. So I will try to be a leader on and off the ice," Harvey said. "I'll try to set an example by not cutting corners. It keeps a guy like me fresh. It brings a new element in the locker room. The young guys are competing against each other."

Defenseman Michael Pelech, 21, said he is eager to reach the playoffs for the first time in his pro career. Pelech is entering the third year of his career.

"It's fun having a young group of guys," Pelech said.

Left winger Joey Martin, 23, will be making his pro debut with the Walleye after a productive college career at Nebraska-Omaha. Martin tallied 35 points (11 G, 24 A) in 39 games as a senior last season.

"Coming from college, you're rushing to class after practice. So it's nice to stick around and work on some things and get some workouts in," Martin said at training camp last week.

TOLEDO HOCKEY TEAMS

Mercurys: 1947-62 (International Hockey League champions, 1948, 1951, 1952); name changed to Buckeyes in 1949-50 season, played in Eastern Hockey League

Blades: 1963-68 (IHL champions, 1964, 1967)

Hornets: 1970-74 (IHL)

Goaldiggers: 1974-86 (IHL champions 1975, 1978, 1982, 1983)

Storm: 1991-2007 (ECHL champions, 1993, 1994)

Walleye: 2009-present (ECHL)

Martin's 103 points are 11th most in the history of Nebraska-Omaha.

"We have a few young guys but we also have a few good leaders. So I think they will help everyone get comfortable," Martin said. "It seems like we have a good group here, and everyone is going to buy in pretty quick."

Martin said he prides himself on his work ethic.

"I'm a guy who tries to produce and help the team win in any situation," Martin said.

Rookie Paul Zanette was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which is given to the best college player. His senior season at Niagara he finished with 29 goals and 26 assists.

Another intriguing offensive pickup is left winger Aaron Lewicki. The 24-year-old native of Livonia, Mich., amassed 52 points in 62 games in the AHL last season.

Andrei Nestrasil, a 20-year-old right winger from the Czech Republic, averaged more than a point per game in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. Nestrasil, who is under contract with Grand Rapids, had 19 goals and 51 assists in 58 games.

Another young promising forward is David Gilbert, a 20-year-old from Quebec. The center scored 28 goals and had 23 assists for 51 points in the QMJHL last year.

Defenseman Gleason Fournier, who also is a 20-year-old in the Red Wings' system, had 32 assists and 12 goals for 44 points in 57 games in the QMJHL.

Simon Danis-Pepin, a 6-7 and 208 pound defenseman, spent parts of the last two seasons in Toledo.

"It will be a young team, and I still feel like a young guy," Pepin said. "But as a third-year pro, I want to show them the way. There are no days off in pro hockey."

The team will feature a local face as defenseman Phil Rauch, a native of Temperance, makes his pro debut for Toledo. Rauch attended St. Francis de Sales High School but played travel hockey in the Detroit area. Rauch, 24, played the last four years at Canisius College. He had 13 points in 122 career games.

He was the team's captain last year, scoring one goal and dishing out seven assists. In his career, Rauch (6-foot, 190 pounds) had a plus-minus rating of plus-13.

Vitucci said that his team's inexperience could also show at times.

Mike Pelech tries to score on goaltender Carter Hutton during a Walleye practice. Pelech played last season for Ontario in the ECHL where he had 127 penalty minutes. Mike Pelech tries to score on goaltender Carter Hutton during a Walleye practice. Pelech played last season for Ontario in the ECHL where he had 127 penalty minutes.
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Gritty and gutsy

Rogers expects Toledo to be a gritty team. But he also said the team has a couple of snipers that will put the puck in the net with regularity.

"We will be a team that goes out there and battles every night for loose pucks," he said. "We'll make things happen by getting to the gritty areas. We'll cause a ruckus in front of the net so the goalie is screened."

Rogers said in the ECHL, players that have an edge make things happen.

"If you go out there and crash and run people, you open the ice up for everyone," Rogers said. "A lot of d-men will tell you that the first thing they do when they get the puck is look to see if anyone is coming, and if they have a big guy coming they will cough the puck up. That creates opportunities."

Harvey, a tough enforcer who had 194 penalty minutes in 37 games in the Central Hockey League last season, already sported a cut that was stitched up on the sixth day of training camp.

"We have some guys that know what their role is, and they're going to be consistent with that," Harvey said. "I'm looking forward to banging the body. I had a buddy [Chris Blight] that played here, and he gave me a heads up, and he told me if I play the way I can play that it won't be long before the fans appreciate what I'm doing out there."

Martin, who will be making his pro debut, said he is aware of the physical nature of the ECHL.

"You have to be aware out there," said Martin, a 5-foot-10 and 170 pound forward. "You have to play fast and smart."

Pelech, a physical 6-3 and 206 pounder, spent last season playing for Ontario in the ECHL where he racked up 127 penalty minutes.

"We have size, skill and it should be great team. I'm really looking forward to this season," Pelech said. "My role has been as a big power forward. There is a lot of skill on this team. We're looking really good so far. I haven't been in the playoffs the last two years, so I definitely want to get back."

Danis-Pepin was a second-round choice of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2006 and has bounced between Toledo and Rockford over his first two years in the pros. He had four points in four games when the Walleye made the playoffs in 2009-10.

"We have quite a few guys who will want to get involved in the physical play and are not scared to scrap," he said. "In this building with the fans we have, they love that stuff. The crowd will get behind us. I'm really excited about being back in Toledo."

Defenseman Justin Pender, who played for Trenton last season, was a late addition to the roster and is expected to add more physicality.

Walleye goaltender Thomas McCollum stops a shot by Cincinnati's Dan Eaves, left, in a game last season. McCollum was the Detroit Red Wings' No. 1 draft pick in 2008. Walleye goaltender Thomas McCollum stops a shot by Cincinnati's Dan Eaves, left, in a game last season. McCollum was the Detroit Red Wings' No. 1 draft pick in 2008.
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Gifted goalies

Hutton, 25, started 22 games last year with Worcester of the AHL. He posted a record of 11-7-2 with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.

"[Carter] is a heck of a goaltender," Vitucci said. "He spent the first half of last year with the San Jose Sharks. He didn't get in any games. But he was there and that says something about his ability. He has a tremendous work ethic. He's a polite kid."

Hutton, who is entering his second full season of hockey after a four-year career at the University of Mass-Lowell, had a 2.04 goals-against average his senior year in 2009-10.

"The goal is to be successful and win hockey games," Hutton said. "I want to take what I've learned the past year and do what I can to develop and get better. I want to help this team win hockey games."

Hutton, who got into camp last week after being sent down from Rockford, said he felt good energy around the team.

"The guys are upbeat. It seems like a good group," Hutton said.

Hutton said he wants to be consistent night in and night out.

"What you strive for as a goalie is to be the same guy every night," he said. "When the boys are off, you want to try to steal some games."

McCollum, 21, split last season between Grand Rapids and Toledo, appearing in 20 games with the Griffins and 23 with the Walleye. He posted a 6-12-2 record with a 3.33 GAA while in Grand Rapids, and an 11-9-2 record and 2.76 GAA and three shutouts with Toledo. McCollum became the first Walleye player to appear in an NHL game when he played with the Red Wings in March.

Rogers said the goalies sent down from the AHL work hard to get back.

"They don't come down here for a break," Rogers said. "They know what they need to work on."

Divisional rivals

Kalamazoo has emerged as one of the Walleye's fiercest rivals. Coached by Nick Bootland, the K-Wings reached the Kelly Cup finals last year.

Another rivalry expected to develop is with the expansion Chicago Express, a team that is should be instantly physical.

Mat Krug, a defenseman, comes to Toledo after spending last season with Gwinnett in the ECHL. Mat Krug, a defenseman, comes to Toledo after spending last season with Gwinnett in the ECHL.
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Both Kalamazoo and Chicago are members with Toledo in the ECHL North Division. Cincinnati, a rival that goes back to the Storm days, is the fourth member.

"It's going to be a good league again," Vitucci said. "Kalamazoo is always strong and experienced. Chicago has signed some good players."

AHL infusion

When a host of players were sent down from the AHL to Toledo last week, Rogers said the team immediately clicked.

"Everyone was whipping the puck around and had jump," Rogers said. "This is the exciting part. Everyone is trying to figure out how to bond before the season."

Harvey said the intensity kicked up a level when the players from Grand Rapids and Rockford joined the team late last week.

"Guys are pushing each other to get better," Harvey said.

In its inaugural season, the Walleye barely made the playoffs, qualifying for the eighth and final spot with a 35-30-7 record. Toledo then fell to Charlotte in the first round. The Walleye were just one of three teams in the 11-team Eastern Conference that did not make the playoffs last year.

Vitucci said the major unknowns that will factor into any success this season will be the number of injuries and call ups to the AHL.

"The reason why we play hockey is to win championships," Rogers said.

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.



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