The Komets' 70th season ended in heartbreaking fashion – a 3-2 loss in overtime of Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs on home ice – but it was memorable for all the resiliency the team showed in the face of call-ups, injuries and illnesses.
“The heart was always there,” coach Ben Boudreau said. “The disappointment and the way that we lost is going to be there for a little bit, but the unwavering energy and effort that everybody gave was something that we know we did a good job of this year.”
The Komets had the league's leading scorer and MVP, Will Graber, sensational goaltender Samuel Harvey, a bevy of third-period comebacks, and a compelling playoff series with the underdog Wheeling Nailers that included three overtime games.
“I don't think it really sets in that it's over until all the guys leave town,” forward Shawn Szydlowski said. “Then one day you wake up and there's no practice, none of the guys are around and you don't see any of them. You're kind of like, ‘OK, this sucks.' That'll set in pretty shortly here.”
But it's not too soon to start thinking about next season, and here's a look at the major issues the Komets will have to address, what they should do and what we think will actually happen.
The issue: Despite the solid 40-25-7 regular-season record, the Komets lost in the first round of the playoffs. That's never satisfactory, and they'll have to decide if they blow up the roster.
What they should do: This team really had something, especially when it came to resiliency, with some solid young players. They didn't often make excuses, even when officiating or luck seemed stacked against them. The Komets should try to bring as back as many players as possible.
What will happen: Realistically, they're going to lose a lot and can't do much about it. They don't have the rights to those on NHL or AHL contracts, such as Graber, Lynden McCallum or Adam Brubacher. Harvey, Mark Rassell and Matthew Boudens are expected to get AHL deals. Willie Corrin, Oliver Cooper and Szydlowski are among those who could retire. Graber is slated to play in Europe, and Connor and Kellen Jones are sure to get lucrative offers there, too. Expect the Komets to target Anthony Petruzzelli, Matt Alvaro, Jordan Martel, Blake Siebenaler, Marcus McIvor and Zach Tolkinen.
The issue: We're four years into the Komets being affiliated with the Vegas Golden Knights and the returns have been mediocre at best. Some good players have come through – such as Dylan Ferguson, Corcoran and Jiri Patera – but never as many as expected. Meanwhile, the AHL's Henderson Silver Knights have pilfered guys like Boudens with little regard for the impact here.
What they should do: With the affiliation deal up, the Komets should walk. It's too early to determine which, if any, other NHL teams would be interested in Fort Wayne, but chances are there will be at least one. And that one couldn't be stingier than Vegas. The Komets have recruited exceptionally well the last two seasons, in spite of holding spots for Vegas/Henderson players who never arrived. The Golden Knights have bigger worries right now than Fort Wayne and it shows.
What will happen: They'll renew. The Komets still feel Vegas is a young enough franchise that its minor-league system is growing and learning. The Komets have long wanted a long-term partner, and they still seem to think Vegas could be it. There are financial benefits to having an affiliation – the ECHL team gets top-tier players without paying the salaries – and the specter of bolting from Vegas and ending up without one will scare the Komets off.
The issue: Boudreau's contract is up. He and general manager David Franke are saying they want to reunite, but it's probably a little more complicated than that. Boudreau could get interest from AHL teams. If Boudreau's father, Bruce, returns as coach of the Vancouver Canucks, that would perhaps open a door for Ben to take a position in that organization. Last year's contract renewal dragged throughout the summer, and the Komets aren't going to want that again.
What they should do: The Komets must try and re-sign Boudreau, no question. He's done a fantastic job amid unprecedented obstacles, won the Kelly Cup in 2021, and gets a lot out of the players, most of whom give him positive reviews. And Boudreau is a good ambassador for Komets hockey. Were Boudreau, 37, to get an opportunity to be a head coach in the AHL, he couldn't pass that up, of course. But he could benefit from another year or two as a head coach in the ECHL, rather than being an AHL assistant, depending on the pay.
What will happen: Ben's back behind the bench. They've built something over the last three seasons, and if Boudreau has a deep run in the playoffs next season, he'll become a major candidate for jobs.
The issue: Szydlowski is mulling retirement after another trying season that saw him out until December because of back surgery, then miss 23 of 54 games because of other injuries and illnesses. In the playoffs, he had two assists. Even if he decides to play, there's no guarantee the Komets will want him.
What they should do: Reunite. Because of the surgery, Szydlowski didn't get to condition his body as he would have last year, perhaps explaining the struggles to stay in the lineup. Yet he still notched almost a point per game. If he'll accept a reasonable salary, Szydlowski as a third-line forward and power-play specialist makes sense. And a one-year farewell for a guy whose number will likely be retired sounds like fun.
What will happen: Szydlowski plays somewhere else. A first-round exit will compel the Komets to go all out building their roster, meaning they'll spend big on their four veteran spots and want guys who are available every night. Then the Allen Americans or Toledo Walleye will make Szydlowski an offer he can't refuse.