The first thing the Komets are going to have to do this offseason is decide whether or not to retain coach Gary Graham, who has one year left on his contract.
For most teams, it would be a no-brainer.
He’s made the playoffs all six seasons as Fort Wayne’s coach. His regular-season record is an impressive 251-130-51, despite playing in probably the ECHL’s toughest division that entire time. His playoff record is 40-33 with victories in 7 of 13 series.
But, as we all know, this season was tumultuous, frustrating to watch and one in which the Komets clearly took a big step back from 2017-18, when they reached the Western Conference finals.
I’ve thought long and hard about this, as I know the Komets’ owners have, and I would bring Graham back.
Frankly, he’s earned it. Secondly, making a change just for the sake of making change isn’t a good way to go about it; you have to know you’re going to be able to upgrade the position. While Fort Wayne is a premier destination to coach at the Double-A level, I’m not convinced the Komets could do better than Graham.
Granted, a large share of the blame for what transpired this season falls on his shoulders, but he’s still young, learning and it could really be motivation for him moving forward.
Graham is a very confident person – so much so it often rubs his players the wrong way – but it should be noted that many of those players have returned to play for him multiple seasons. It also should be noted that Graham knows he has to do better in the future.
“You always, as a coach, look in the mirror,” he said. “I need to see what went right and what went wrong. When you have the highest scoring team in the league by about 50 goals last year, and then you go to (being) the lowest scoring team in your division, that’s a big difference.”
Recruiting last summer was where things started to go awry. What you need to consider is that it was a seller’s market, since so many flagship franchises in the league, including Toledo and Florida, were having to replace so many players. That being said, the Komets overestimated the amount of talent they had at the beginning of the season, whether they thought their affiliation would help more or not. And I didn’t understand then why the Komets deviated from what had made them successful in 2017-18, going smaller and faster. Toledo built its roster more like Fort Wayne’s was last season and look what happened.
Some of the recruiting does fall on general manager David Franke, too, but Graham is the guy in charge of most of that these days.
But if Graham takes the blame for the recruiting, he should also get a ton of credit for rebuilding the Komets on the fly. With an unreal 11 trades, and 48 players used, the Komets still made the playoffs and gave Toledo some real nerve-wracking moments.
He also should be lauded for a lot of coaching decisions that were, well, questioned when he’d made them. Benching Shawn Szydlowski and Mason Baptista during the regular season lit fires under them. Benching Justin Hodgman, Ryan Lowney and Craig Cescon before Game 5 extended the series when few – myself included – thought they had a chance of winning on the road.
Of course the biggest thing that will make or break Graham in meetings with the owners is how the inconsistent play, repeated bad penalties, turnovers and special teams hiccups are accounted for by the coach.
I’ve said this many times: Graham’s job is to install the game plans and put his team in position to win, but he can’t lace up the players’ skates and make them actually do these things. I’m not saying he’s absolved of all things, but a lack of energy by the players in key moments – coming out flat for Game 6? – isn’t always on the coach.
And I don’t care what anyone says, having someone from Fort Wayne, who has such a good understanding of the franchise’s history, does count for something.
“I can be a very demanding guy at times. And I’m not afraid to be that guy; it’s not a popularity contest,” Graham said. “This year, the group needed challenged a lot to get them where they needed to be some nights. It was frustrating for me because I didn’t want to be that coach as much as I was this year. That’s something where, as a coach, I’ve got to continue to learn the newer generation player and what motivates them. I can tell you I’m going to study sports psychology a lot this summer. That’s one area, other than Xs and Os.”
Will I be surprised if the Komets opt to make a change? No. Either way, Graham will be fine. I know of at least one other ECHL team that is itching to at least interview him and, well, there would likely be more.
Were they to make a change, here are some possible directions they could go:
-- Assistant coach Ben Boudreau would be an obvious candidate. But it’s important to note he’s never been a head coach and the Frankes usually want that. Also, the aforementioned recruiting problems fall on Boudreau a bit, too, as does the power play. That said, he would bring a very different style to the table, probably being more of a players’ coach. I don’t know how good his Xs and Os are, but I know his father is only a phone call away.
-- If I owned the Komets and I needed a coach, my first call would be to Brampton to try and get permission to talk to Colin Chaulk (I don’t know what his contract situation is). While a large segment of the Fort Wayne fans dream for the day this reunion comes, it may not ever because of bad blood that remains from the way Chaulk and the franchise parted ways, and that goes both directions. However, the Komets did finally retire his number, which is some sign of an olive branch being extended. And while the Frankes have a history of not always parting ways well with beloved players – see Steve Fletcher or P.C. Drouin or Bruce Boudreau – time usually heals those wounds. Could you imagine what Chaulk could do with the infrastructure in Fort Wayne?
-- Here’s a wildcard name: John Anderson. While he’s 62, the former Komets player has been a head coach in the NHL, won five championships (four with Chicago of the American Hockey League), and has ties with lots of people in and around the Komets’ organization, including the Boudreaus. He was an assistant under Bruce Boudreau with the Minnesota Wild from 2016 to 2018. However, it’s a little tough to picture him coaching at this level again, especially since I’ve heard he was the highest paid coach in the AHL.
-- This may be out of left field, but what about Toledo assistant Andy Delmore? One can’t help but be impressed with what Walleye head coach Dan Watson does. And the adjustments made between Games 5 and 6 were remarkable. Delmore has been an assistant for three seasons, after being an assistant in the Ontario Hockey League, and I’d be interested to know what he’s all about. Hey, if Ohio State can get coaches from Michigan, why can’t the Komets look to Toledo?
-- Jean-Guy Trudel’s Peoria Rivermen tore up the Southern Professional Hockey League in the regular season, going 40-7-0, though they bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. He’s been the SPHL’s Coach of the Year three times. He played for two former Komets coaches – John Torchetti and Dave Farrish. If he’s willing to leave Peoria, he’d be interesting to speak with.
-- Another SPHL name is Jamey Hicks, who was Coach of the Year this season for the Birmingham Bulls and is in the finals. Hicks, who played one game for the Komets, has built the Bulls up in just two seasons.
-- I doubt you could get him, but Aaron Schneekloth led the Colorado Eagles to the ECHL championship in 2017 and 2018 but had to take an assistant coaching role this season when they moved up to the AHL.
-- If the Komets’ affiliation with the Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Wolves continues, the Wolves have two interesting assistants: Chris Dennis and Bob Nardella. Dennis was the head coach at York University and did very well.