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Toledo at Komets
Face-off: 8 p.m.
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM
After the Fort Wayne Komets were smoked by the Wheeling Nailers 6-2 on Nov. 8, General Manager David Franke and coach Gary Graham met with the team the next morning before the bus ride for that night's game in Cincinnati.
"We explained to them as a group what was expected out of them as a member of the Fort Wayne Komets,'' Franke said. "We told them in that meeting if they didn't jump on the bandwagon, then they wouldn't be playing here.''
Still, the Komets couldn't find any consistency. After 20 games and an 8-8-4 record, the Komets completed a rebuilding project two weeks ago by trading Rob Kwiet, Bobby Hughes and the rights to Brett Lyon to Gwinnett for Mike Embach and Nathan Martine.
Since the start of the season, the Komets have turned over almost half their roster. Nine players have moved into the Memorial Coliseum locker room.
"After 20 games, you can kind of start seeing if it's a good fit or not,'' Graham said. "It's got to be a good fit for the player as well as the organization ... I'm not saying it's fixed, but it's a progress. It's a slow, steady climb, but you want to make it in the right direction.''
It was also important to make moves because Graham said he would. Over the recent past, playing in very different leagues, the Komets could afford to wait and see how things developed. Not in the ECHL.
"The top eight teams make the playoffs in each conference,'' Franke said. "We don't want to be looking at this at the end of February, early March saying we're 10th in the league and we have to really make a climb. We're playing against a lot of teams in this Eastern Conference, especially. We want to be four or five or six, in that range. If we're not going to get it out of certain guys, then why wait? Let's move them and hope to bring in guys who will buy into the program.''
The problem, as Graham said night after night, was how to get the players to play with some urgency. That was a huge situation last year until it was simply too late. This time, management wanted the message to get across earlier.
There's been a definite change in atmosphere in the locker room. Before all the moves, most players were quick to dress and vacate after practices or games. Now there's much more conversation going on in the room, and players seem to be enjoying each other's company more.
"That's not to say that the guys who left were bad or not good people or anything like that, but it was a fact that they hadn't bought into the program here,'' Franke said. "The program here is practicing hard, playing hard, winning at home and being a good road team, too. If that's too much pressure, then maybe you ought to play somewhere else.''
Should management have made these moves earlier? Should it have figured out if certain players weren't going to fit?
"No, because you always hope it works out, and you have to give guys time,'' Graham said. "This season has been one to where we've been around .500 and we've been in so many games, that as a coach you say we aren't far away. We've been in so many one-goal games and losing games in overtime or playing with the lead. You feel like we are close and we just have to get over that hump there. It was finally to the point where I had seen enough body of work to where we weren't moving in the right direction with handling those lows.''
There's also the fundamental question the Komets are facing as an organization of whether it's better to be an independent team or to be affiliated with one or two American Hockey League teams. The Komets believe they will have more control over their roster with more familiarity for their fans and stability as an independent.
"Some of the affiliated teams got off to a real good start, but as the injuries mount in the NHL and the AHL, some of these teams that are heavily affiliated are losing players, where we're actually gaining players and keeping a cohesive unit here,'' Franke said. "That's the benefit right now. We have a group of guys who are a team. They are all fine with playing here and then finding out if they get a call.''
Graham said both options have their challenges. The Komets may lose fewer players but have a harder time replacing them when someone does get called up. Affiliated teams don't know from day to day who is going to show up for practice.
"The one thing we have, because we have a young group and myself as a young coach who is trying to get better each and every day, if we can keep the same type of group in tact that we like and really build them and mold them over the next 50 games, I like that,'' Graham said. "I like doing that. I like knowing the guys I'm going to have and those guys are going to know me and each other and how things work.''
But are the Komets done making moves? It's doubtful, but they hope they won't have to make any more massive overhauls.
"If we're done, that's good,'' Franke said. "The players will determine if we're done or not. It won't be me making these decisions, it won't be Gary, it will be by their performance. We didn't make the playoffs last year, and we're not going to let that happen again. Rather than wait and let everything fester, we're going to make the moves we have to make so we're headed in the right direction. We need to start playing good hockey.''