Luca Caputi may have played for the Komets this season anyway.
The move to the ECHL increased the chances that NHL talent would play in Fort Wayne this season, and the odds of that happening only increased as the labor strife between the NHL and its players has continued.
As the lockout hit its 81st day today, ECHL teams have had more players with NHL experience or talent on its rosters.
There have been 30 players with NHL experience to play in the ECHL this season. That includes Caputi, a forward who was assigned to Fort Wayne by the Norfolk Admirals of the higher-level American Hockey League on Nov. 26. The parent club of the Komets and Admirals, the NHL's Anaheim Ducks, sent highly touted prospect Ryan Lasch to Fort Wayne the same day.
Caputi is the first player with NHL experience to play for the Komets since P.C. Drouin in 2011. Caputi has played 35 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring three goals and nine points.
Caputi playing in the ECHL is part of a trickle-down effect as NHL-caliber players are taking spots on AHL teams. In some instances, NHL players have decided to stay home instead of playing in Europe, which is how NHL standouts Scott Gomez and Brandon Dubinsky ended up on the Alaska Aces' roster.
"Our expectations for (Caputi and Lasch) are high, but they have to play, we need them to play," said Bob Ferguson, the assistant general manager with Norfolk.
"I'm sure there are 29 other NHL organizations that feel the same way about their players. You are seeing it at our level, too, that every night we're running into teams that have five, six, seven bonafide NHL regulars. And that's trickling down to the ECHL, where they have bonafide AHL players."
There were 21 players with NHL experience in the ECHL last season, and the season before that there were only 15.
When the entire NHL season was lost in 2004-05, the ECHL got 38 former NHL players. With only 14.2 percent of this season's games played, that number should be surpassed.
"Yeah, you?ve got some NHL guys who are playing in the league," Komets general manager David Franke said. "But it's in select areas, like Scott Gomez up in Alaska, that's where he's from. Caputi and Lasch, they are borderline NHL players, and they should be able to help a team like us out."
The ECHL is averaging 4,440 fans per game – up from last season's 4,281 – but that may not just be because the lockout has driven fans to minor-league gates. The league has its most teams since 25 in 2008, and the addition of the Komets and their league-leading 8,002 fans per game has helped the overall average.
Caputi, 24, and Lasch, 25, aren't slated to play at Memorial Coliseum until Dec. 12, after this weekend's three games at Orlando, Fla.
"They're going to have to get their conditioning up to better speed, and they will realize that the ECHL is a pretty good brand of hockey this year," Franke said. "I think they learned last week that the ECHL is a better league than they thought it would be. We need them to come to the forefront for us and that way they can get themselves back to the AHL."
Not since they were in the AAA-level IHL in 1999 have the Komets had this ability to bring in NHL veterans and prospects.
In the last 10 seasons, the Komets had only seven players with NHL experience – Drouin, Konstantin Shafranov, Parris Duffus, Mario Larocque, Daniel Goneau, Gregg Naumenko and Pokey Reddick – and only Goneau (53 games) and Reddick (132) had significant NHL time.
No player since Steve Gainey, who played one game with Fort Wayne in 1999-2000, has gone on to make his NHL debut. But Fort Wayne has Anaheim prospects Josh Brittain, Marco Cousineau and Matt Kennedy, and other affiliated players like Ryan Hegarty, so that could change when the lockout ends.
Until then, minor-league hockey fans will reap the rewards of the higher talent.