The job of an ECHL coach isn’t just daily Xs and Os, but in putting together a winning roster day-in and day-out.
That’s often easier said than done.
Players go to, and come from, the AHL. An injury two levels up in Chicago can impact the roster here in Indy. Players deal with injuries during the year – and the Indy Fuel have had four players on injured reserve simultaneously this season. Players in Europe begin looking for opportunities in North America, and vice-versa.
Indy Fuel coach Scott Hillman has been continually working to juggle all of those things and build a roster to compete for a playoff spot in the ECHL – a 28-team league where the margin between the Brabham Cup champion and the teams that miss the playoffs is razor-thin.
A year ago, the roster underwent a significant overhaul in early January. This year, consistent tweaks have led to several players joining the team. Forward Derek Roehl joined the team in mid-December after starting the year in Europe. Michael Colantone came a few days later, joining after playing the start of the year at UMass-Lowell. The team dealt veteran defenseman Kevin Quick for center Andrew Johnston, and signed skilled veteran Slovakian forward Adam Lapsansky in January.
On the blueline, veteran Nick Petrecki came via trade with Elmira and has quickly teamed with captain Zach Miskovic to form a shutdown pairing.
Petrecki has made an immediate impact, and had one of the big plays in Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Fort Wayne Komets, rifling a shot from the point that deflected off Rhett Bly’s body and into the net to break a tie just 18 seconds into the third period.
But his biggest asset is on the defensive end, where he and Miskovic have logged heavy minutes, and played a heavy game, on the blueline. Likely his biggest early moment came on Jan. 17, when the Fuel had to kill a 6-on-4 power play in the final two minutes, and the duo was on the ice for nearly the entire final minutes, preserving the 3-2 victory.
“Nick’s a big piece, adding that physical part to our back end which we’ve never had on this club,” Hillman said. “We like our group, we’ve liked it before, but Nick makes us a tougher team to play against.”
A former first-round NHL draft pick – 28th overall to the San Jose Sharks in 2007 – Petrecki brings a heavy, straight-ahead game. Like his defense partner, Petrecki came to the ECHL this season after a long career in the AHL. He had played six seasons in that league – and one game in the NHL.
“What you see is what you’re going to get,” Petrecki said. “Simplicity in the game, block shots, get the puck going the other way on simple, crisp breakouts, find the guys in front for some tips, and keep everything in the outside, keeping guys away from second and third opportunities in the D zone. I play mostly a simple, physical game.”
He’s one of two veterans the Fuel have picked up since the calendar flipped to 2016. The other is Adam Lapsansky, a dynamic and speedy winger who can fire the puck. He has four goals and three assists in 10 games.
“He has tremendous speed, tremendous puck skills,” Hillman said after his first game with the Fuel. “I really think he has the ability to raise the level of the game and the players. He likes to play a fast pace.”
What’s been key is the moves have stabilized the forward group that has been in flux due to a number of injuries. Lapsansky has slotted in on Fuel leading scorer Alex Lavoie’s left wing since joining the team, creating a dynamic scoring line, especially with the addition of Daniel Ciampini on the right side.
Colantone has found himself centering Cody Sharib and Rhett Bly on an energy line that has become a high-scoring one. Sharib had a four-game scoring streak going before Wednesday’s game, and Bly has scored in three straight games. Colantone has four goals in 15 games with the Fuel. He brings speed and a quick release.
Hillman said the Fuel have been scouting Colantone for quite some time, but he became available when he decided to leave UMass-Lowell midway through his senior season and turn pro.
“It’s been awesome. It’s a lot different than college,” Colantone said after a game in January. “The play is definitely a lot quicker. Guys are bigger and stronger. Everything has been awesome here – the fans, the organization, everything has been great.”
Roehl and Johnston have both given the Fuel forward depth. Roehl had played two seasons in Britain and started the year in Italy before joining the Fuel on Dec. 19. He’s given the team some big minutes, with two goals in the Jan. 9 win over Evansville. Johnston came in a trade to give the Fuel center depth after an injury to Kyle Stroh – one of four players who have been on the 21-day injured reserve list simultaneously this season, joining Josh Brittain, Dylan Clarke and Dillon Fournier, taxing the team’s depth.
Johnston is a solid two-way forward who had 20 points and was +16 in 42 games for Reading last season, and was +2 in 14 games with South Carolina before coming to the Fuel.
The new additions have come to Indy from college, from Europe and from trades with other ECHL teams, but the end goal is to build the best possible team for the playoff push.
“What’s really big is we have our team together,” Hillman said after that Wheeling game Jan. 17, looking ahead to a week of practice and seeing the team chemistry develop. But in the bigger picture, the “team being together” is a strong, structured team with solid depth, and a team that’s constantly seeing tweaks and improvements to push for the playoffs in the final 28 games of the ECHL season.