Soon, the Indy Fuel will begin camp, play exhibition games and eventually be ready for the Oct. 17 opener at the Coliseum against the Fort Wayne Komets.
Much work has been done behind the scenes to put the team together that will wear the black, yellow, red and white Fuel sweaters and take the rink in the newly-renovated (and spectacular) Coliseum. The roster has 10 announced players, with about 6-8 expected to come from the Chicago Blackhawks & Rockford IceHogs, the Fuel’s affiliates in the NHL and AHL.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to chat with Coach Hillman and get an update on the team’s summer progress.This is the second half of our conversation, and focuses on the team being put together. The first half is here.
Looking at the roster so far, you’ve got three players with at least a year of professional experience — Garrett Klotz, Kenton Miller and Anders Franzon. All are players you’re familiar with, having coached or coached against them. Are those three going to be important in laying the foundation?
It’s certainly a start. I think we’ve be naive and think we could ice 18 first-year pros on opening night, so we’re glad we’re getting a few guys with some experience. I think these three guys in particular bring three very different aspects to the game. Klotz has a lot of size and physicality. That’s something that’s necessary. He brings a level of confidence to his temmates. Kenton Miller is a guy that we have a lot of confidence in. I’ve seen him in our own locker room score 30 goals. I believe he can bounce back and have a comeback type of year. He’s so young and very talented. Franzon is a very steady D-man. He has a knack to get up and play offensively. He was one of the top couple of socirng defensemen in the CHL as a rookie. He’s a guy we believe can play at a high level.
Looking ahead, what are you looking toward to build the roster, especially in potentially filling the three remaining veteran slots?
We are in conversations with a couple of real veteran guys who we believe can help anchor this team. There are more guys on the horizon we’re targeting and in negotiations with.
How important is it to have players who are veterans on a team with a lot of younger players?
I think, no matter what level you’re moving to, whether it’s a perceived, even if it’s considered a similar level. Anytime you’re changing leagues or changing levels, I expect some adjustments. Guys moving from the NCAA to the ECHL, or from the CHL to the ECHL, there’s adjustments in the style of play. There’s always some adjustments. To have a few veteran guys that maybe played consistently at the AHL level or guys that have been extremely successful at the ECHL, that’s a target of ours, to have a few guys like that who can act as stable ponies, to see what it’s like at the professional level, taking long trips, how to tell your body that it’s not in pain when it’s the 65th game of a long season. It’s a learning process. There’s a lot to be said to have a few of those guys.
In May, you said you wanted a hard-working team. Looking at the signings, it looks like it’s a team with a lot of players who are strong on the forecheck, players who embody that idea. So far, do you see these players as fitting that vision?
We believe we’re getting there. The compete factor has to be at the top of the list. Sometimes, it takes some competition in training camp to evaluate guys. As we look at these guys individually, each one of them has a lot to prove or high aspirations for themselves and the desire to play at the highest level. Those are the guys we’re looking for, guys we believe, through our scouting, have the potential to play at the AHL level. It will be an energy focus, a commitment focus, and a team buy-in focus.
One thing Pete Massar told me after he was signed was that he was a skill guy, but played on a checking line at Vermont. Given the ECHL is a three-line league, is that going to be an important type of player to have — players who are versatile and can play a lot of different roles?
I certainly believe so. That’s been a real focus as we’ve put this roster together. We are planning for a lot of fluctuation in our roster due to guys being called up to the American Hockey League. We need guys that can step into various roles. We have a guy who’s on the third line one night, he’s on the top line the next night because of one player moving on, or the way injuries creep up in a physical sport in a short season. The more of that we can have, the better. Right now, we’re targeting maybe a couple of guys who have the ability and experience who can play on the front and back end to give us a lot of flexibility.
This is your second time building an expansion team. How is your experience this year different from that in Missouri? (Hillman was the first coach in CHL Missouri Mavericks’ history)
It feels not so overwhelming. It’s been a lot more methodical in the approach than I probably took going back six years. We’re cautious on the types of players we’re signing, but also, we’re playing with a lot of confidence in these young players. A lot of our focus is on trying to win the race to win the best young players out there. We feel confident in our selection of first-year pros. That’s going to be a tall order to step into this league which has a lot of veteran players. That goes with our focus in developing young players and developing guys who can play at higher levels. We’re excited where we are. We’ve got a ton of work to do in preparation for training camp. We’re not quite halfway there in terms of numbers, and we’ll have the direct impact of players Chicago is signing. We want to have a super-competitive training camp, guys who are hungry to earn a full-time spot here, in Rockford or in Chicago.