The Indy Fuel open their preseason competition schedule tonight with a closed-door exhibition against Fort Wayne at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, and have a public unveiling with Fuel Family Fun Day at 3:05 p.m. Sunday against the Quad City Mallards. But while the Fuel are preparing for the Oct. 16 opener with Toledo at the Coliseum, the two preseason games are also vitally important. For some, it’s an opportunity shake off rust and get ready. For others, it’s a chance to develop chemistry and work with new linemates. For others, it’s a chance to impress the coaches and make the team. It’s a chance to check out different power play and penalty kill combinations, and see what mix of 21 players will be on the opening-night roster, and which 18 will be in the opening-night lineup.
A lot can – and will – change between now and Opening Night next Friday, but these two preseason games are an excellent window into what we’ll see in Year 2 of the Indy Fuel.
Building off momentum: The Fuel finished last season 25-9-5, and gained a substantial amount of momentum in the second half of the season. Riding a strong defense and goaltending, as well as new chemistry found on offense, the Fuel got on a roll and were one of the ECHL’s top teams from mid-January on. That carried not just on the ice, but in the stands, where the passion and intensity of the crowds grew as the fans embraced the team. That carries the team into 2015-16, providing a strong base and heightened expectations as the Fuel look for one of the playoff spots in the very tough Western Conference.
Early chemistry: A year ago, the Fuel were a brand-new team coming together for the first time. Last year’s team was intentionally built with a young core of players that the team could keep together and build with. This year, 1o players enter camp having played together with the Fuel last season – forwards Garett Bembridge, Rhett Bly, Pete Massar, Johnny McGuire, Kyle Stroh and Matt White all were key parts of the Fuel, and Peter Schneider joined the team late in the year. Bembridge and Stroh were the team’s top two scorers, Massar developed into a two-way player who could chip in some key goals, Bly and White were checking and penalty killing aces, and McGuire provided physicality when needed. Defenseman Anders Franzon is also back after playing a lot last season. Those two, plus goaltenders Mac Carruth and Shane Owen, give the Fuel nine players in camp who finished the year with the team in 2014-15.
Competition for jobs: The Fuel have 30 players in training camp – with 26 on pro contracts and four more on tryout offers. By the time the puck drops on Oct. 16, that number has to be down to 21 – plus two players on reserve (and has to be cut down one player further a month into the season). So, several players will be battling for spots on the team, making the two preseason games very interesting in seeing who will be on that opening night roster. Keep an eye on who is producing and who fits well together. Not only will coach Scott Hillman be deciding who to keep and who to cut, but also line combinations, special teams units and more. The two preseason games may not mean anything in the standings, but they mean everything to players competing for jobs. Also of note, the Fuel have five veterans in camp (Garett Bembridge, Josh Brittain, Zach Miskovic, Dave Pszenyczny, Kevin Quick), one more than the ECHL limit of four players with 260+ games of pro experience at the start of the year. They can keep all five, as long as no more than four are active at any given time.
Affiliated players: The Fuel have four players from their AHL affiliate in Rockford – forward Daniel Ciampini, defensemen Nick Mattson and Sam Jardine, and goaltender Mac Carruth. Last season, eight players under AHL contract played for the Fuel, and all were big contributors. Ciampini posted back-to-back 20-goal seasons and was an NCAA champion at Union College. Mattson was a four-year defenseman at North Dakota, and is a former USHL Defenseman of the Year. Jardine was a late-round Blackhawks pick who came to the organization after three years of college hockey. They’ll likely be on the way up and down from Rockford, but they will be a key piece.
A familiar goaltending tandem: Last season, the Fuel struggled out of the gate, but the first two months of the year featured Mac Carruth going up and down between Rockford and Indy – and spending much of that time in Rockford – and the Fuel trying to stabilize their goaltending situation. After Carruth came down for good and Shane Owen was acquired in a trade with Stockton, the Fuel had the league’s best goalie tandem the second half of the season. Carruth was the league’s Goaltender of the Month in January, and the duo combined for three shutouts. The team is starting with those two goaltenders this season.
Scoring depth: Last year, the Fuel spent much of the season getting scoring from the top line, but now look to be a team that can get secondary and tertiary scoring and be very difficult to play against. Of the seven returning forwards coming back, Kyle Stroh and Garett Bembridge were 20-goal scorers, and Peter Schneider had eight points in 10 games. The Fuel have added a handful of players who came over from other ECHL or pro teams. Veteran Josh Brittain had 22 goals for three teams last year. Dylan Clarke had 45 points for Rapid City last year, and tallied 25 goals in his last prior full season. Alex Lavoie was a 22-goal, 57-point player for the Florida Everblades last season and played for CHL champion Allen the year before that. Pete Massar showed flashes of scoring touch last year while turning into a dependable two-way forward. That gives the Fuel significant scoring depth. Among the rookies, newly-assigned Daniel Ciampini scored 26 goals in 39 games for Union College last season, and Walker Wintoneak was a point-a-game scorer both in Major Junior and at the University of Alberta, in addition to being 6-3, 210.
Depth up front: Coach Hillman’s teams have prided themselves on taking a hard-working attitude to the rink, and this year’s team will be no exception. A number of players can score, but also are difficult to play against in the corners and tough areas of the ice. Among the forward group, Rhett Bly and Matt White are penalty-killing aces who can chip in on offense with a year of pro experience under their belt. Cody Sharib and Terrence Wallin bring a lot of size, while Reed Seckel and Casey Thrush will also be vying for spots.
A veteran blueline: A year ago, the Fuel had one non-rookie defenseman – Anders Franzon, who had played one year of pro hockey coming into the season. This year, Franzon returns, but now is fourth among blue liners with pro experience. Kevin Quick, Dave Pszenyczny and Zach Miskovic all are veterans. Combine that quartet with the two players sent down from Rockford and the other offseason signings, and the Fuel should have a solid blueline to start the year. Quick is entering his ninth pro season and has played six games in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Pszenyczny is in his ninth pro season and tallied 32 points for Tulsa last year. Miskovic is in his seventh year, having played nearly all of the previous six in the AHL. Rookies Patrick Koudys and Ben Marshall also have pretty strong pedigrees. Koudys captained Penn State last season, and Marshall had 61 points in four years at Minnesota.
Tryout players: The four tryout players – three forwards and goaltender Alex Fotinos – are looking to impress the coaches and make the roster. While it’s a longshot for a player on a tryout offer to make the team given the limited number of roster spots, it also can be an audition for a later callup or a spot on a Southern Professional Hockey League roster.
So, there’s a lot of things to look for in the two preseason games, and in the days that the Fuel will spend getting ready for the season.