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Published: Wednesday, 10/10/2012

WALLEYE SEASON PREVIEW

Walleye aim for playoffs after missing out last 2 years

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Captain Kyle Rogers moves the puck during training camp. Rogers was second on the team with 44 points, including 20 goals.
Captain Kyle Rogers moves the puck during training camp. Rogers was second on the team with 44 points, including 20 goals.
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The stability of experienced veterans is an edge the Walleye hope to use to stay sharp in pursuit of an elusive ECHL championship this season.

After missing the playoffs the last two seasons, Toledo coach Nick Vitucci has assembled a team with a veteran core that he believes will stay intact for the entire season.

A multitude of player call-ups to the higher level American Hockey League led to a 28-38-6 record and last place finish in the North Division last season for the Walleye.

"Our issue is that we haven't been stable," Vitucci said. "It's been a revolving door. It's been wear a name tag to the rink every day for three years now. That's why we've gone out and signed a veteran team."

Forward Kyle Rogers, a 27-year old veteran of five years, returns as the team's captain. He is joined by future ECHL hall of famer Randy Rowe, former Kalamazoo captain Wes O'Neill, and former NHL player Phil Oreskovic.

"It's huge to have the veteran core group," Rogers said. "Last year we didn't have it and we struggled. Having all the older guys means we can handle ourselves every game, every situation."

READ MORE: 2012-13 Walleye Season Preview

The Walleye have posted a 96-101-19 record in three seasons under Vitucci. He said the team has been inconsistent because of the roster instability. Last year he went with a youthful lineup that featured 14 players under the age of 23.

"The other way hasn't worked," Vitucci said. "We're looking for another avenue."

Thirteen of the players on the initial roster are 23 or older. Seven players who are 25 years or older will wear the Walleye sweater when Toledo hosts rival Kalamazoo in the season opener at 7:05 p.m. at the Huntington Center on Saturday.

While the ECHL limits each team to having just four "veterans" on its roster, Vitucci said some of his players have gained experience in other leagues and do not qualify as ECHL vets.

Defenseman Wes O'Neill, who served as Kalamazoo's captain last season, is among a host of veterans on the team this season.

Defenseman Wes O'Neill, who served as Kalamazoo's captain last season, is among a host of veterans on the team this season.
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Forwards Todd Griffith (27 years old) and Adam Hobson (25), who both have played for Toledo, are two of those players. Defenseman Cody Lampl (26) is another example.

Rowe, a 32-year-old vet of 561 ECHL games who played for the Walleye in 2010-11, said he had previously played with Rogers, Griffith, and O'Neill.

"I loved this city and I enjoyed playing here," Rowe said. "They wanted to get a good veteran core and I wanted to be a part of it. Having a core that you know will be here most of the year … will help us win a championship. They are not here for personal goals, we're here for each other."

Griffith, who had 21 points in 24 games last season for Toledo, said realistically players over the age of 26 won't be called up to the AHL.

"Older guys play for championships and for our fans," Griffith said. "We play for those shiny rings."

Griffith said said the team has three former captains.

"It's good to know you won't have guys jumping in and out of the lineup," he said. "This is our home."

Rowe said familiarity with linemates leads to higher offensive production.

"Hockey is chemistry," Rowe said. "You try to gel with different players. When you have guys going up and going down, it's hard to get that chemistry."

O'Neill said any good captain must rely on a close, supporting cast of vets that work as a group.

"Nick said he wanted to bring in an older team. It's good to have those kind of guys around," O'Neill said. "We have a good nucleus. A good heart and soul team. Pro hockey is a grind and if you have consistent guys who have been through the battles and know what it takes to win, it helps. It's fun to be part of this team that's going in a different direction."

Center Joey Martin, who had a breakout rookie year with Toledo last season, is back after leading the team in goals scored (22) and points (49).

Rogers finished second on team in scoring with 44 points (20 G, 24 A).

"He was a fantastic leader last year," Vitucci said. "That letter on his shoulder elevated his play."

Todd Griffith was acquired in a trade with Reading in January last season. He had 21 points with 12 goals and nine assists in 24 games.

Todd Griffith was acquired in a trade with Reading in January last season. He had 21 points with 12 goals and nine assists in 24 games.
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Vitucci also said the team will have layers with five or six players with two or three years of experience as well as five or six rookies.

"They all have to blend in and we think we have the right personnel for that to happen," Vitucci said

Vitucci said the roster won't be completely set until opening day.

The biggest question mark remains in goal. The team's two goaltenders will not be named until just prior to the opener. But four of the candidates have spent time in a Walleye uniform before.

Vitucci is waiting to see who emerges from the battles in the training camps of the team's AHL affiliates in Grand Rapids and Rockford. Three goalies are competing in Grand Rapids and four in Rockford.The Walleye will be sent one from each team.

In Grand Rapids, Thomas McCollum, Jordan Pearce, and rookie Petr Mrazek are competing for the No. 1 spot. McCollum and Pearce, who both enter their third pro seasons, have both spent time in Toledo. Mrazek was one of the top junior goalies in the country last year.

In Rockford, Carter Hutton and Alec Richards are competing with two other rookies (Mac Carruth and Kent Simpson). Hutton and Richards both have played in Toledo. Hutton emerged as Rockford's No. 1 goalie last season.

"We know we will be getting a good goalie from each organization," Vitucci said. "We've always have but we never seem to know how long they will stay here."

Toledo's NHL affiliates in Detroit and Chicago are expected to have less impact on the Walleye's roster. Each organization is expected to send only three players at a time down from the AHL affiliates.

The NHL lockout should provide more stability (and possibly talent) to the roster, which will be unaffected by injuries at the NHL level.

Toledo's defensemen all have good size (five are 6-2 or taller), bringing grit to the team.

"Back on D we have some huge players and we've lacked that in the past," Vitucci said. "I'd like to be a goalie playing behind them."

Rogers said a solid defensive core allows the forwards to create more scoring chances.

"It's a relief because they're so big back there," Rogers said

O'Neill (6-4, 224), Lampl (5-11, 183) and Orekovic (6-3, 245) are joined by David Starkney (6-2, 230), Joey Ryan (6-1, 196), and Lambertville's Phil Rauch (6-2, 200). Oreskovic, an AHL vet, played in 10 games with Toronto (2008-09). O'Neill has appeared in five NHL games with Colorado.

Coach Nick Vitucci enters his fourth season and seventh overall in Toledo. The ECHL hall of fame goalie has a 236-205-40 record. Coach Nick Vitucci enters his fourth season and seventh overall in Toledo. The ECHL hall of fame goalie has a 236-205-40 record.
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Vitucci said he has felt bad for assistant coach Dan Watson, who handles the defense, in past seasons.

"We haven't given him a core of D-men to work with because of all the young players," Vitucci said.

Watson said a comfort level develops between defensive partners.

"They will be able to know each other's tendencies," Watson said. "They will look to take of their own end first but they'll also contribute. They're big and take up a lot of space and they all can move."

Hobson, who is out with a knee injury but will be with the team early on, had 44 points (18 G) for the Walleye in their first season (2009-10).

The Walleye went 35-30-7 that first season and qualified for the postseason before losing in the first round. The next season the team posted a 33-33-6 record and then became the first Toledo team to miss the playoffs in back to back years since the Hornets in 1971 and 1972.

Rogers, who was on both teams, said it has weighed on him.

"You get sick of it because you've trained so hard," Rogers said. "This is a new team. Six months of summer gets a little old. We have to make that next stride to get to the postseason."

Forwards Travis Novak, Max Campbell, Joshua Turnbull, and Jake Trask, who all spent the preseason in AHL camps, look to be promising players that will join the team.

Only three players that were on the team's opening day roster last season are back.

"This is the most excitement I have had here," Vitucci said. "It's taken us a while to get this core in place but we are there now. It's not a good feeling to be a part of a team that doesn't succeed and we are looking to erase the last two years."

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



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