The Komets are entering their sixth ECHL season – they play host to the Toledo Walleye at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Coliseum – and they are trying to win their first championship since 2012 in the now-defunct Central Hockey League.
But, as usual, the competition will be stiff among the 27 teams spread across the ECHL, which is entering its 30th season and is in 21 U.S. states and has one Canadian team, the Colin Chaulk-coached Brampton (Ontario) Beast.
Here are 10 things to know about the ECHL:
1. The Colorado Eagles are moving to the higher-level American Hockey League after this season, so the NHL's Colorado Avalanche can have their top minor-league affiliate down the road. Coming off a championship, the Eagles again have a solid roster that includes Matt Register, who is the reigning Playoff MVP and Defenseman of the Year, along with Jesse Mychan and Matt Garbowsky.
2. Hockey is back in Jacksonville, Florida, where the circuitous path of the IceMen came to rest. The IceMen played in Evansville in the CHL and ECHL, qualifying for the playoffs only once between 2010 and 2016, but a rotten lease with the Ford Center forced them to look for a new home. They went dormant last season with the intention of moving to Owensboro, Kentucky, but the cost of building or refurbishing a venue there was problematic. The IceMen have a proven coach in Jason Christie, the ECHL's all-time leader with 547 victories.
3. The always-tough Allen Americans have, yet again, a roster to be reckoned with. Goaltender Riley Gill, the league's all-time leader with 53 playoff victories, has 21 career shutouts and is only four shy of tying the ECHL record held by Marc Magliarditi, a former Fort Wayne player. Allen coach Steve Martinson is tied for eighth in ECHL history with 338 career victories.
4. As Komets fans know all too well, Kalamazoo Wings goalie Joel Martin is one of the best. He comes into the season with 345 games played, the fifth most in league history, and is only 21 back of Magliarditi for third all time. Martin has 177 ECHL victories and is 23 shy of becoming the fourth in league history to hit the 200-win plateau.
5. Worcester, Massachusetts, has a solid history of AHL hockey but the shifting landscape of minor-league hockey made this an ECHL market for the Railers. Coach Jamie Russell has had more than a year since he was hired to get the Railers ready and has some dynamic players such as Barry Almeida and T.J. Syner.
6. Formerly the Missouri Mavericks, they're now known as the Kansas City Mavericks and they will play Fort Wayne six times. Coming off an uncharacteristically bad season in which they missed the playoffs, the Mavericks have a stronger-looking roster and are now in the Central Division with Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, Indy, Kalamazoo, Quad City and Toledo.
7. The Cincinnati Cyclones had an even more drastic change because they were in the Eastern Conference last season, which didn't make much sense because so many of their rivals were in the Western Conference. Their reshaped roster includes the likes of Winston Day Chief and Jesse Schultz.
8. Pat Nagle, one of the better goalies in the Komets' history, is now with their rivals – the Toledo Walleye – and could be in net Saturday at the Coliseum. Toledo, again, looks like a team that will give opponents fits with the return of players such as Shane Berschbach, Alden Hirshfeld, A.J. Jenks and Kyle Bonis.
9. Wichita has to be better than last season, when it was 21-44-7 and worse than every team in the league except the departed Elmira Jackals. The Thunder – yes, Adirondack is the Thunder, too – has former Komets Travis Ewanyk and Justin Hamonic, goalie Joel Rumpel, forward Dyson Stevenson and a coach, Malcolm Cameron, who is tied for seventh in ECHL history with 338 victories.
10. The Atlanta Gladiators' coach, Chuck Weber, hasn't coached in the ECHL since 2010, when he led Cincinnati to its second Kelly Cup in three seasons. He has since coached in the AHL with Rochester and San Antonio, as well as overseas in Russia and the United Kingdom, and was an assistant last season with Rochester. The Gladiators can use the help after they were 27-37-8 last season.
Predictions: Look for division titles to be won by Toledo, Colorado, Adirondack and Orlando, while playoff spots will also be clinched by Fort Wayne, Quad City, Kalamazoo, Allen, Idaho, Rapid City, Brampton, Wheeling, Worcester, Greenville, South Carolina and Florida.
The conference finals will pit Fort Wayne vs. Allen and Brampton vs. Orlando.
Our Kelly Cup pick is the Orlando Solar Bears, who have Mike Vaskivuo, Joe Perry, Darryl Bootland, Mike Monfredo, Alex Gudbranson and Matt Hackett.
We think the Solar Bears will beat the Komets in six games.