Offseason a time to build

Soon after the Indy Fuel skated off the ice Saturday night at the conclusion of their second season, the work on the third year began.

It actually began sooner – when Bernie John had the “interim” tag removed and was named the Fuel’s head coach for 2016-17. But the work of building a hockey team is a 365-day-a-year job, as shown by the Fuel this season, when they were signing players down to the last week of the season. But the summer is when substantial changes take place, as John tries to craft a roster that will not just be the 22 most talented players, but the 22 who best fit the system and the style of play.

The roster’s composition comes from a couple of different places – players assigned by the NHL and AHL affiliates, and of course, players signed to ECHL contracts by the Fuel. While coach Bernie John will be working closely with the Chicago Blackhawks and Rockford IceHogs, participate in development camp and will likely have an idea who the organization plans to assign, that’s still a bit away.

This past season, the Blackhawks/IceHogs organization assigned defensemen Nick Mattson, Sam Jardine and Dillon Fournier to the Fuel, as well as forwards Chris DeSousa and Daniel Ciampini and goaltender Mac Carruth. DeSousa didn’t last long in Indy – playing one weekend and then getting permanently called up to Rockford. Fournier suffered a season-ending injury shortly after being assigned to the Fuel, while Mattson, Jardine, Ciampini and Carruth all spent most of the season in Indy.

In general, the Blackhawks/IceHogs have usually have one forward, two defenders and a goaltender in Indy at any given time. It is yet to be seen who might be coming, as there are no recent Chicago draftees “aging out” of junior or finishing their senior years, but players can come out early or sign as free agents – as 2013 draft pick Tyler Motte recently did after finishing his junior year at Michigan. Motte was assigned to Rockford. Both DeSousa and Ciampini were undrafted players who signed AHL deals with Rockford in the offseason. Jardine turned pro after his junior season at Ohio State.

On the ECHL calendar, the current season continues until June 15, when teams will submit their end-of-season rosters – which will likely, for the Fuel, be the final roster from this year’s regular season. Teams will submit “protected lists” on June 1, but those will only retain rights until June 15.

The 2016-17 season begins June 16, and two things may begin that day. Teams can begin signing players to contracts for next season, and they can extend qualifying offers to up to eight players on the end-of-season roster before June 30 (beyond those who sign prior to that date) and reserve their ECHL rights. The Fuel will retain the ECHL rights to any non-veteran with a qualifying offer for one year, and the rights to veterans (players with more than 260 pro games) until Aug. 1, after which he becomes a free agent. Any player who is unsigned and not on the eight-man protected list becomes a free agent.

For comparison, last summer, the Fuel re-signed eight players from the end-of-season roster, including three players who were extended qualifying offers – Peter Schneider, Pete Massar and Kyle Stroh. While the Fuel can retain the ECHL rights to a player on the eight-man protected list, that player can sign with other leagues.

The qualifying offer system allows a team to retain a player’s rights, but a team also has to be mindful of the $12,600 weekly salary cap, which both helps teams maintain costs and keeps competitive balance in the league. All ECHL contracts are for one year.

The Fuel finished the season with two veterans on the active roster – Nick Petrecki and Brandon Wong. A third, captain Zach Miskovic, finished the year on a loan to the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. A fourth player, Dylan Clarke, is set to become a veteran, but announced before the final game he plans to retire from playing. The remainder of the players are under ECHL contract – nine forwards, five defensemen and both goaltenders Keegan Asmundson and Terry Shafer.

Also to look ahead, the ECHL often announces the next season’s schedule in late April or early May, so that is something to begin looking forward to in the coming weeks. Then, in June, start looking for announcements of players – both returnees and players coming out of the college and junior ranks.

The offseason is a fun and interesting time, so enjoy watching the 2016-17 Indy Fuel come together.