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The Journal Gazette

  • John Schultz | Quad-City Times Komets forward Kyle Thomas, right, is a player who uses his speed to best opponents, like the Quad City's Kevin Gibson. Fort Wayne hopes to add more speed this offseason.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Mike Cazzola, who was selected MVP by his teammates this season, is the type of young, fast player the Komets will need more of next season in the ECHL. 

Monday, May 08, 2017 1:00 am

Komets focusing on speed, youth

Coach tells plans for next year, in contract talks with team

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

TOLEDO – If Gary Graham is back as coach of the Komets – and it certainly sounds as if he will be – then he knows what his priorities will be in building next season's team: Bringing in younger, faster players.

“I really think we need an influx of youth and speed into the organization,” Graham said. “That's a big thing, especially if you look at how some teams retool during the season. It's a speed game and we're going to have to find a way, in order to compete with Toledo in this division, of getting faster. Team speed is going to be something that I'm really going to stress during the summertime and it's going to be a big part of what we do.”

With the same nucleus that had reached the Western Conference finals in 2016, the Komets had the fourth-best record (45-19-8) of the ECHL's 27 teams during the regular season, eliminated the Quad City Mallards in a five-game series and then lost to top-seeded Toledo 4-1 in the Central Division finals.

A 5-0 season-ending loss Saturday night at the Huntington Center stung plenty, especially since it came to a Toledo team that ousted the Komets in a 2015 Game 7 and has won nine of the last 11 meetings between the teams.

“Obviously, every player in here has to learn from it and grow,” captain Jamie Schaafsma said. “It's mostly the pain of losing that reminds us all how much it hurts. The pain of losing is awful. You work together for seven months with guys and you grow close and grow that bond. You want to do something special, and it's very disappointing when that doesn't happen.”

While the Walleye praised the Komets – the first three games of the series, all Toledo victories, were decided by one goal – the last three years have seen Toledo go 14-5-3 against Fort Wayne in the regular season and 8-4 in the postseason.

“Hopefully we learned a few things from them in this playoff series,” Komets general manager David Franke said. “I'm not worried or nervous or anything. They were just better this time than we were. We will just keep trying to get better over the summer.”

Graham has a regular-season record of 169-84-35, a playoff record of 27-22 and has won five of nine series, and it seems as if Franke wants him back for the Komets' 66th season.

“Gary's contract is up now and we're in discussions with him. We're talking to him and if we can work it all out, then I'm sure that's what will happen, yeah,” Franke said.

Personnel decisions would be affected by an affiliation with an NHL team, something the Komets ­haven't had since divorcing the Colorado Avalanche last summer. The Avalanche's new ECHL partners, the Colorado Eagles, are still playing.

“If the affiliation comes around and it's the right deal, then fine. If not, then I think we've proved that we can compete really well as an independent,” Franke said. “It's not always the easiest to be the independent but that's how it worked out this year and I think it worked out well for us.”

One of the challenges about being independent is convincing free agents they will have a pipeline to move up to the American Hockey League. Fort Wayne proved this season that isn't a problem, as Shawn Szydlowski, Trevor Cheek, Kyle Thomas, Bobby Shea, Garrett Bartus and Brady Vail all got called up, yet the Komets had their full roster for the postseason.

Toledo, however, bested the Komets through superior special-teams play, the goaltending of Jeff Lerg and by capitalizing on the Komets' turnovers and penalties. Komets MVP Mike Cazzola had one assist in the five-game series, as did Mike Embach, while Szydlowski had one goal and Garrett Thompson had one goal and two points.

“You've got to keep evolving,” Graham said.

Note: The Komets' annual end-of-season party and jersey auction will be Tuesday at the Appleseed Room in Memorial Coliseum. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the auction starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5. Season-ticket holders and kids under 12 get in free.

jcohn@jg.net