Fuel building for now & future

The Indy Fuel are heading into the final weekend of their first calendar year of action looking forward – both in the short-term and the long-term.

Of the next eight games, seven are against division foes – teams the Fuel are battling with for position in the standings, and eventually, for postseason berths. These “four-point” games allow teams to make up important ground in the battle for playoff position. Of the 46 remaining games, 28 are against division foes, including six each against Cincinnati and Evansville and five each against Fort Wayne and Kalamazoo. The Fuel currently stand nine points back of third-place Wheeling and Cincinnati with a lot of hockey left, starting this weekend with Friday and Saturday games at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum against Cincinnati.

The Fuel’s short-term goal is to make the playoffs in their inaugural season, the first step in competing for the Kelly Cup.

But the way the Fuel are going about building their roster is not just looking to short-term success, but also to a long-term vision of building a core that can be a contender in the ECHL over several years.

The Fuel are currently the youngest team in the ECHL – 11 of the 18 players on the active roster are in their first full professional seasons and meet the league’s definition of a rookie (<25 professional games prior to this year), and three more are in their second full professional season.

The learning curve for a young team can be sharp, and since Thanksgiving, we’ve seen a team that has shown signs of turning the corner, even if the record hasn’t reflected the results. They won two of three coming out of Thankgsiving against Cincinnati and Evansville, then had two razor-close losses to Florida, the first-place team in the ECHL’s East Division.

There’s also a long-term strategy at play – starting the franchise with a of players that can compete for championships. Fuel coach Scott Hillman spoke this summer of building a roster of the best first-year players available. And he’s got a track record of success both with established and new franchises. As a coach, Hillman won two championships in two years with an established team in the SPHL, and he’s now is in his second tour of building a franchise from the start. In five years, Hillman’s Missouri Mavericks team went from expansion franchise to being the Central Hockey League’s best team.

“We know what our vision is, to have a lot of young guys, so that long-term, we can build a core, even heading into next year,” Hillman said. “Let’s say we brought eight of these first-year players back. Next year, they’re second-year players. Our goal is to test a lot of guys, but it’s also to make the playoffs,” Hillman said after last Friday’s game against Toledo.

“We knew it would be very tough, but we also think we’re going about it the right way. We’re teaching a lot, and trying to find a lot of young players that will help us build into the future, but we need the future to be right away.”

ECHL rules allow for teams to protect eight players each summer (in addition to players signed before the protected lists come out), and also allow teams to carry four veteran players. Currently, the Fuel have three vets on the roster in Garett Bembridge, Garrett Klotz and Mike Duco. The roster, as presently constructed, would still have fewer than the maximum number of veterans allowed for next year.

“By rules sake, we’re not going to lose anybody,” Hillman said. “That’s part of the plan.”

That allows the Fuel to keep that core of players together, while also fulfilling the goal of preparing players for the AHL and NHL levels. So far, Indy has had six different players called up to the AHL this season. The team’s affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the deep prospect pool the team has, will likely also bring forth a number of young, talented players as those players join the professional ranks, who will join that core and develop into a consistent winner.

It also allows fans to see a team build an identity with a number of familiar faces that we identify with. The core of the great Checkers teams of the 1980s stayed intact for several years, and the names MacGuigan, Laurence, Holland, Hrudey, Lockridge and Devine still bring smiles to our faces … same with the core of the early 1990s Ice teams with Jim Waite, Mike Stapleton, Mike Eagles, Bruce Cassidy and Sean Willams, or the early 2000s Ice core with Bernie John and Jamie Morris both wearing the sweater for several seasons.

The Fuel developing an identity – a team that builds a transition game and relies on a blue-collar work ethic – and are doing it while also having a number of players getting their first taste of professional hockey. Virtually every game has been a close one. Factoring out empty-netters, the team is 2-10-5 in one-goal games in a 5-16-5 start. In October and November, the team battled a number of injuries that made it difficult to generate the vital chemistry and consistency necessary for a young team. In December, the team has been getting healthy and as a result, has been able to develop consistent line combinations and defense pairings. But the Fuel has also been battling during a run through the schedule featuring several of the ECHL’s top teams – six of the last eight games have been against the top three teams in the league standings.

A lot of good things are happening. The Fuel have been red-hot on the power play in December, and currently rank third in the ECHL with the man advantage. They have several of the league’s leaders in shorthanded points, led by Matt White and Patrick Cullen. Nick Bruneteau, Dillon Fournier and Justin Holl are beginning to produce a number of assists from the blueline, and the Fuel are rolling with consistent lines that are filling their roles well. Robert Czarnik and Garett Bembridge are meshing well with Kirill Gotovets (or Jamie Wise) on a line that’s producing a lot of offense.

They’re putting themselves in position to win. Last weekend, a 4-0 loss to Toledo saw the Fuel generate several 10-bell scoring chances but run into a stellar goaltending performance, and a 3-1 loss to Fort Wayne saw the Fuel play even with the Komets at even strength on the road and produce a solid 60-minute effort. That should bode well for a run in 2015.

“I believe in the group we have right now,” captain Mike Duco said after Toledo game. “I believe in the guys in this room. We’ve got a young team, first-year guys that maybe aren’t used to this schedule, maybe aren’t used to the caliber of hockey we’re playing right now. But if we all pull together that night, I believe in the guys in this room.”

There’s a lot to look forward to in 2015 – an Indy Fuel team ready to turn the corner and make a drive for one of the four playoff spots in the ECHL’s North Division, but also the beginnings of a franchise that’s building to win for the long term.