Finishing stretch bodes well for Fuel’s future

This is the first in a series of stories that will look back on the Indy Fuel’s 2016-17 season and look ahead to next year. 

A team with a first-year head coach possesses a largely new roster. A number of players move through as that coach learns the league, learns players and builds relationships, but the team steadily improves as the roster stabilizes and the pieces fit together to form a cohesive team.

That was the Indy Fuel’s reality this season. But there’s a good model to draw from – one the Fuel saw often this year. Because a year ago, that team was the Brampton Beast.

The Beast were a team in transition with first-year head coach Colin Chaulk. Their roster turned over often at midseason due to injuries, callups and opportunities to upgrade at different positions. They struggled throughout much of the season. By the end of the year, they were competitive. And this year, the Beast were one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams and are now looking to make a run in the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

Their 2015-16 had a number of similarities to the Fuel’s 2016-17. And, if the end of the season is any indication, the Fuel are in a good position to start out their fourth season as a contender. Playing teams who were either in the playoffs or in contention every night for the last month and a half of the season, the Fuel’s run to the finish included an 8-4-2 stretch. That stretch included wins over all four Central Division playoff teams – Toledo, Fort Wayne, Kalamazoo and Quad City.

The Fuel used 61 players throughout the year and continually were improving the roster. But at the end of the season, they had three solid lines, three solid defense pairings and enough depth to replace players lost to injury or a callup to Rockford. Much of that season-ending stretch was played with at least one key player out via injury.

For the team’s first-year head coach Bernie John, it was year of transition, but one that created a good foundation for the future.

“When I look at the big picture, for myself the first year, I’ve been learning a lot of things, learning the salary cap. Everybody looks at our roster and says ‘you went through so many (players).’ I’m not a guy who wants to do that. You want to keep it close and tight. There has to be change at times due to callups and injuries. It was so unfortunate this year with some of those things,” John said after the season’s final home game, reflecting on the year.

“We found some of those key guys this year, guys that buy into what we’re trying to preach in the room. Even when we’ve lost a guy like (Michael) Neal who can do some damage, it’s been fine. Our guys have been competing, they’ve been playing hard. The young guys have created depth and have been playing hard.”

John is a veteran of the sport – having been a top player in the minor pro ranks throughout his career, which included five years with the Indianapolis Ice. He won championships as a player – leading the Ice to the 2000 Central Hockey League title – and as a coach, where he was an assistant on the Indiana Ice’s 2014 United States Hockey League title team. The ECHL is a balanced league that can be difficult to navigate with the tight salary cap and veteran limit, the number of callups both to the AHL and from the SPHL, players coming and going from Europe as well as the collegiate and junior ranks and the natural roster fluidity that the league’s 22-man roster limit creates. This past year has been invaluable in developing an understanding of the ECHL and building a team to compete in the league.

Throughout the year, John looked to improve at different places, taking opportunities when they presented themselves. Some came via trade – such as bringing in Kenny Ryan, Josh Shalla, Paul Zanette and Nick Bligh at different points during the season. Some became came via the waiver wire – Troy Vance and Brandon Martell were both critical pieces of the Fuel blueline down the stretch after being claimed off waivers. Michael Neal joined the team late in the season and played at a point-a-game pace down the stretch. College free agents, including hard-hitting Woody Hudson, helped create depth.

By the end of the season, the had became a difficult team to play.  That was especially so with the two goaltenders who had been in Indy throughout the season – Jake Hildebrand and Eric Levine, both of whom won ECHL Goaltender of the Week honors at different points – at the top of their games.

Even as the team was eliminated from the playoffs, it had much to play for. That can build a lot of momentum going forward.

“As a group, we met together and with the help of Bernie, we set some team goals,” Fuel captain Zach Miskovic said. “We created a system that rewarded us for playing the right way, doing the right things out there. It’s easy when you’re out of the picture to pack it in. That’s not the group of guys we have. We kept battling, we wanted to fight and show teams we’re a team to be reckoned with. We wanted to give everything we have and close out the season on a positive note.”

Miskovic was one of three holdovers from last season – the others Nick Mattson and Cody Sharib, the latter of which was lost early to an injury in training camp that was re-injured in November and kept him out for the season.

A six-game winning streak in November gave the Fuel momentum, but injuries and callups led to a long skid in December that pushed the team out of playoff contention, and put John to work continually upgrading the roster. One by one, new pieces came in that would be key as the puzzle came together at season’s end. Chris Williams came via trade and Martell via the waiver wire. Shalla was acquired in mid-December and became a 30-goal scorer for the season – and a 20-goal scorer with the Fuel. The new year saw Zanette and Adam Phillips added in one flurry of deals, and Bligh, Ryan and Neal all joining the Fuel in a 10-day span in February.

One by one, the roster came together. Those players bolstered the core that had been with the Fuel all season – Alex Wideman and his team-record 55 points, 21-goal scorer Matt Rupert, along with Miskovic and Mattson.

Now, the attention turns to 2017-18. An ECHL roster is often built starting with a core of players and then filling in with free agents and rookies from college and the junior ranks during the summer. Last summer saw much of the core go to Europe or to other teams. But a year in the seat means John has much more of a feel for how to build a roster to win in the ECHL. It also means more and deeper relationships with player agents, players themselves and those who can assist in both retaining and recruiting players.

“This group has really come together as of late,” Miskovic said at the season’s end. “Bernie’s done a great job bringing in some great guys, key players, some older guys to help take control of the room. That was key. Hopefully, we can keep growing the franchise and the team as we move forward in the upcoming season.”