WICHITA, Kan. – The confetti, champagne, and streamers have been cleaned up, Kelly Cup skated, and the Fort Wayne Komets have been crowned champions for the first time in their ECHL stint. Thus ends one of the oddest and yet, most remarkable seasons, in league history.
As we prepare for a dizzying offseason full of player signings – the 13 teams who sat out last season are coming back online – here are five things we learned about the recently completed season.
1. Regardless of a 50-game season, the Komets really are champs
Late into the season and throughout the playoffs, we kept seeing the same tired, obnoxious, and uninformed take about how the Komets weren’t “true” champions or that they needed an asterisk next to their name because they played 20 fewer games than the rest of the league.
The league afforded every team a chance to play this season. By playing, the Komets, plus their 13 other competitors, took a pretty significant hit financially to do so. Each team’s ownership and staff had to carefully work with local health officials when and how many fans might be allowed into arenas, putting a team together, getting equipment, putting additional COVID protocol into place, and do so much more that we’ll never fully realize. That 14 teams were able to successfully complete a season should tell you all you need to know about the league’s and each team’s determination to bring much needed entertainment to people who needed it so badly.
On the ice, the Komets went through the same ups and downs the other 13 teams did, only they did it in a much more compressed state and against the best talent pool the league has seen to date. There were injury issues, COVID issues on the other side, and travel by planes, trains, and automobiles.
This Kelly Cup was always going to be the toughest to win, in my opinion, and the Komets’ did it. Congratulations to everyone in the Komets organization…only 105 days left to enjoy it before the title defense begins.
2. The perennially good teams, stayed good.
While we saw a couple of teams come out of the woodwork to stand out – Wichita and Greenville – overall, the teams who have generally been good in previous years, stayed good this season.
Florida was hot from the start, had their slump, yet still managed to finish with the Brabham Cup. Indy started off strong, but faded in the back half of the season and in the playoffs. South Carolina was stacked without help from Hershey, but when those players returned, it made that roster much deeper…so a run to the Kelly Cup Finals wasn’t a stretch as some might have thought.
In the west, Allen was solid and had a roster built to win it all. Fort Wayne was a deeper team than they were in recent years and cashed in on their affiliation with the Chicago Wolves. Utah struggled without help from Colorado, but was buoyed by trade deadline acquisitions and help from Colorado down the stretch.
What this season proved, more than anything, is that a coach having contacts throughout all of hockey is essential to building a team at this level.
Notice I didn’t mention Wichita and Greenville. I talk about them below.
3. Greenville & Wichita have the makings of good teams for some time to come, while KC & Jacksonville are still searching
Two teams who had been mired in mediocrity for the last several seasons, the Wichita Thunder and Greenville Swamp Rabbits, jumped out from the pack and made a splash this season.
For Wichita, they have the ECHL’s Coach of the Year in Bruce Ramsay, are coming off a 40-plus win campaign, made the playoffs for the first time since 2018, and pushed the eventual Kelly Cup champs to five games in their playoff series. Greenville, meanwhile, has the runner-up for Coach of the Year, Andrew Lord, finished the season red-hot, and went eight games deep into the playoffs before being eliminated by the South Carolina Stingrays.
Both the Thunder and Swamp Rabbits’ rosters were pretty deep, with both clubs tapping into secondary player development agreements to bring players in. The challenge for both Ramsay and Lord this offseason will be to identify the core group they want to move forward with, and supplement their rosters with higher-end talent, something that will be much tougher to do this season with Europe re-opening.
On the other side, two teams continued to struggle during the recently completed season; the Kansas City Mavericks and Jacksonville Icemen.
The Mavericks just never seemed to put it together in the defensive part of their game, allowing an average of 3.14 goals per game, most of which came at even strength. The offensive talent was clearly there with Tad O’Had‘s club, with the likes of Brodie Reid, Giorgio Estephan, Lane Scheidl, Rob Bordson, and Darik Angeli all collecting over 45 points up front. The Mavs will need to trade some offensive for more shutdown defensemen in the offseason if they want to take the next step.
Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Icemen had a collection of proven ECHL talent on their roster and put a charge into the playoff race in the final six weeks of the season, but were victims of their early season demise. The Icemen will have some tough roster decisions to make this offseason if they hope to crack the Eastern Conference’s elite next season.
4. The AHL’s version of taxi squads played a role in ECHL rosters
While it is true the caliber of play and talent pool in the ECHL this season was the highest in league history, it is scary to think it could have been even higher, if it weren’t for AHL clubs hoarding their players for much of the season. It’s completely understandable why the AHL had to do it that way; NHL taxi squad movement, battling COVID outbreaks, issues with crossing the US/Canadian border, etc.
Still, across the league, there was a noticeable dip in the caliber of play from when the contracted players were on rosters to when they were largely gone. Each team was affected by this in one degree or another.
On another note, one has to wonder how the players who likely would have been on ECHL rosters “developed” their games by merely being healthy scratches in the AHL unless someone got hurt? Player development is the one thing that was hurt some by the advent of the taxi squads last season; the impact, hopefully, should be minimal.
The converse of that is it forced teams who might not have worked together in the past, to do so. It will be interesting to see if those teams who went and sought out “player development partners” will continue those relationships this season, especially with colleges honoring an extra year of eligibility and some in the rookie pool seeking other opportunities in Europe.
5. Playing a full 72-game season wasn’t the pipe dream some thought it would be
Oh, waiter?!?! An order of crow, please!
Consider me one of those naysayers who said a 72-game season wouldn’t happen and that the league would have to shut down at some point due to COVID outbreaks.
The ECHL played the most games (regular season & playoffs) of any league in North America and this was no small feat. The protocol developed by the league and enforced by teams was second-to-none. Everyone deserves credit for making this season happen; Commissioner Ryan Crelin for his leadership to corral all the moving parts and put a plan together that led to the season happening; players for agreeing to the protocol and testing; and to you, the fan, for your patience while health officials worked to assess the situation in a timely manner and open things up as needed.
The two Kelly Cup Finals games in Fort Wayne were just a snapshot of what we expect to see in October when the hockey family reunites and everyone gives their full-throated endorsements to their teams. COVID will still be around, but hopefully this coming season, we’ll see fewer and fewer cases.
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