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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Offering Up Some Insight

Thursday, July 2nd
BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Offering Up Some Insight

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: Offering Up Some Insight

Blog #17 – July 2, 2020

by John Peterson

The 2020 off-season will already be longer than usual, with no way of knowing exactly how long just yet.

So to keep us hockey-crazed fans sane, any bit of news is a welcome reprieve from our adjusted summer routines. In my case, that summer routine consists of working from my basement, binge-watching shows, mowing my lawn in excruciating heat and playing the occasional round of golf.

As uneventful as some of our annual roster deadline announcements may seem, I figured we could make it more entertaining with a bit of speculation to fuel your hockey aspirations for the 2020-21 K-Wings team.

A few weeks ago, we revealed our Season-Ending Roster, composed of the maximum 20 players, not including players who were on NHL or AHL contracts last season.

Following a two-week “signing period”, where coaches work to secure as many of the players on that list as possible, we released the list of seven players who received qualifying offers yesterday.

Teams are able to issue qualifying offers to up to eight players, essentially keeping those players’ rights for an entire season, with the exception of veteran players. We’ll get into that as we work our way down the list, but it really only affects Ben Wilson in this case.

For a good explanation of how this process works, here’s a video of Head Coach Nick Bootland talking about it on Episode 12 of our web series “Just Wingin’ It”.

Before we get to the fun, let me clarify that I have had no discussions with our coaching staff about any individual players this summer. I do know that we’ve signed at least a handful from last year’s team, but that’s the extent of my knowledge up to this point. When it comes to roster decisions, I stay in my lane and let the experts do what they do best.

This blog is purely for the fun of speculating the possibilities from a fan’s perspective, because ultimately, broadcasters are just like fans. So when it comes to the following roster insight, please keep an open-mind, take what I say with a grain of salt and enjoy!Side note: I know there have been a few questions about when we’ll start announcing player signings. Rather than rush these announcements out all at once, we spread them out for a reason so there’s something to talk about during the long summer months. This is especially the case this summer, while we stay informed and wait on an official timetable for the start of the 2020-21 season.

Sometime in the coming weeks, I’ll sit down with the coaching staff and go over a plan to announce some of the players we’ve signed.

Let’s get started.

FORWARD THINKING

Four of the seven players Kalamazoo sent a qualifying offer to are forwards, including one center and three wingers. Here’s a look at who they are and some of the other forwards included on the 20-man season-ending roster.

Kyle Blaney: Four seasons into his pro career, Blaney has shown improvement and was on pace to set career highs in 2019-20 for goals and points. The Burlington, Ontario native had back-to-back 40-plus point season entering last season and played 45 of 61 games due to an injury in January/February that limited him. Not only was he a reliable face-off specialist, but Blaney logged significant minutes on the power play, was one goal away from his career best, and his 37 points were second on the team. I have to think he’ll be a priority to sign given his ability to add depth up the middle of the ice. At worst, he brings trade value, should the two sides choose to go a different direction for whatever reason.

Austin Farley: Kalamazoo’s coaching staff made a big mid-season splash in January with the acquisition of Farley, who started his pro career in Sweden, playing in the top Swedish Hockey League before returning to North America. The former University of Minnesota Duluth standout averaged nearly a point per game for the K-Wings, notching 22 points in 27 contests. He has a high ceiling and would be a nice addition for Kalamazoo should the two sides agree to terms, and his 5-foot-8 frame wasn’t a negative factor in his ability to produce against the big boys in the Central Division.

Boston Leier: We’ve talked at length about the type of leader Leier is to a locker room and he provides a fiery style of play that is valuable at this level. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native could earn another AHL opportunity, as he signed a late-season tryout with the Charlotte Checkers before the season ended and is right on the threshold of earning a full-time opportunity. But in the event he plays ECHL hockey next season, Leier is exactly the type of player coaches look for and has future captain written all over him. By extending a qualifying offer to him, Kalamazoo keeps his rights in the event he does get an AHL offer and gets sent down at some point.

Spencer Naas: It was clear late in 2019-20 that Naas has the tools to be a really solid piece to the puzzle if he can pull it all together. He has speed, an impressive skillset and gets quality scoring chances consistently. Kalamazoo originally acquired Naas’ rights in a trade with Idaho for the rights to Yannick Veilleux at the deadline. I’d be curious to see how Naas could contribute with a full season in the K-Wings system and a chance to settle into his role.

Remaining Forwards: Players listed on Kalamazoo’s season-ending roster who did not receive offers include Justin Taylor, Matti Iacopelli, Justin Kovacs and Garret Ross, who have significant professional experience. My gut tells me at least two of them have already resigned, thus not warranting using a qualifying offer. Taylor and Ross are veterans, and with the four-veteran limit the ECHL enforces, that creates a more cutthroat nature to the free agency and training camp decisions coaches have to make. A perfect example of that was Kyle Bushee last off-season.

If I had to make an educated guess, Taylor, given his successful tenth season in Kalamazoo and ties to the area make him a likely signee early in the process. I also think Iacopelli was coming on strong and finding his stride with the K-Wings before his late-season injury last year. He could be well-suited to come back and put together a strong second season in Kalamazoo to springboard his career. Ross and Kovacs are Michigan natives advanced in their careers where this could be an attractive location to keep playing hockey at a high level.

Additionally, Zach Diamantoni won the team’s Most Improved award last season, and Brennan Sanford proved late in the season when healthy he could be a really solid pro. My gut tells me these two will be in the fold entering camp. Logan Lambdin, a rookie out of Michigan State who played one game before the season got cancelled, would be a nice addition given the small sample size we saw where he fit in right away, and Bryan Basilico never got a chance to make his pro debut in 2019-20. The Lake Superior State alum signed with Kalamazoo hours before the final game and should at least get a tryout.

GETTING DEFENSIVE

The other three qualifying offers sent out by the K-Wings went to defensemen, including the lone veteran player on the list. It’s worth noting the team had one more offer it could have used to get to the maximum eight allotted, but we didn’t use it. That tells me the coaching staff was confident in the players they’ve already signed or the ones they don’t intend to sign, thus not needing the eighth offer.

Tyler Ganly: The former NHL draft pick suffered another tough break in 2019-20, when a lower body injury forced him to miss 26 games during the heart of the season. But the K-Wings extended a qualifying offer to Ganly, the Mississauga, Ontario native, to see if he wants to give a third season in Kalamazoo a shot. Ganly is a high-character, big defenseman, who can be a top-six defenseman when healthy and playing confidently, and is a terrific representative of the organization in the community.

Will Petschenig: This is the biggest wildcard of the off-season process for Kalamazoo. Petschenig is a low-risk, high-reward defenseman who can bring size and grit to the blue line if he chooses to play hockey this year. As a rookie in 2019-20 with the Fort Wayne Komets, Petschenig was buried on the depth chart, partly due to an injury, leading to a public break-up. But I can assure you, the K-Wings coaches liked what they saw in his ability and jumped at the opportunity to claim him off of waivers in March. I think he’d bring a valuable skillset to the K-Wings’ defensive corps if he chooses to sign.

Ben Wilson: The captain just finished his seventh season in Kalamazoo and ninth as a pro in 2019-20. Head Coach Nick Bootland has said Wilson played his best season as a pro last year, which is high praise for the team’s Defenseman of the Year. The 29-year-old has an interesting decision to make at this point in his career. He’s expressed how much he loves playing in Kalamazoo, but also has a tight window to sign overseas if that’s an option. If he returns, Wilson would be welcomed back with open arms, as he’s the unquestioned leader of the locker room. I can’t imagine he’d want to sign with another ECHL club other than Kalamazoo, but who knows. By rule, if he’s unsigned by August 1, Wilson would become an unrestricted free agent because of his veteran status.

Remaining Defensemen: Let me be the first to publicly assume that Ian Edmondson has already signed. I have no idea and don’t want to spoil any surprises, but the K-Wings’ Rookie of the Year has the ability to earn an AHL opportunity if he has another season like he did in 2019-20. He would have received a qualifying offer if there was any doubt. My two cents. If I’m wrong, I’ll take the heat. I also think Matt VanVoorhis and Cory Dunn showed enough improvement as rookies to earn an opportunity to compete for a job this fall/winter, and both are tremendous teammates to have around.

Eric Kattelus just finished his ninth season with the K-Wings and his skillsets are hard to find for the position. He can flex up to forward, depending on the team’s needs and would likely sign in a heartbeat if an opportunity was on the table, as he bleeds Kalamazoo red and blue. The only question mark would be the veteran situation overall with only four spots available. As I’ve made clear up to this point, I have no clue what those discussions have looked like so far, so this could all be a moot point.

STARTING IN GOAL

The only goaltender on Kalamazoo’s 20-man season-ending roster was Jake Hildebrand, as his counterpart in 2019-20, Jake Kielly was on an NHL contract with Vancouver. Hildebrand did not receive a qualifying offer, which to me implies he either re-signed for a third season in a K-Wings uniform or intends to.

On Episode 9 of “Just Wingin’ It”, Hildebrand shared how much he loves it here in Kalamazoo and that he has no intention of retiring anytime soon. The 27-year-old Michigan State alum was a finalist for the team’s Most Valuable Player award and was playing his best hockey of the season in February and March.

I’d imagine Coach Bootland and Coach Martin have been in contact with Vancouver about the likelihood of a Canucks or Utica Comets prospect developing in Kalamazoo, similar to Kielly or Ivan Kulbakov the year prior. If Kielly stays with the Canucks organization, he could also return to the K-Wings for a second year of professional development.

The other possibility, which I’m sure is occurring regardless of what happens with Vancouver and Utica’s depth chart, is Kalamazoo looks for another reliable ECHL goalie to provide competition heading into training camp. You can never have too many options at this point.

RECRUITING TRAIL

Stepping outside the box, teams are always looking at the pool of free agents to see who could help their team. I know for a fact this is an area the K-Wings coaches have explored for quite some time, as they are some of the hardest-working individuals I’ve been around in my career.

Last summer, three examples of what I call “blue chip free agents” that Kalamazoo signed included Iacopelli, who was coming off an NHL contract with Chicago, Leier, who had a strong first pro season in Brampton and Belleville before coming to the K-Wings, and Veilleux, who was a late steal with over 300 AHL games of experience entering 2019-20.

In talking with Bootland, Martin and Video Coach Kyle Forte on three different “Just Wingin’ It” episodes, they’ve been paying close attention to the pool of college seniors coming out of Canadian and American universities to find players who can contribute right away. They’ve also stayed up to date on expiring NHL and AHL contracts, who are looking for ice time and an opportunity to succeed.

Stay tuned as we begin to announce player signings as soon as we see fit, given the circumstances and uncertainty behind when the 2020-21 campaign begins.

In the meantime, let’s do another Mailbag blog. Send me your questions via Facebook, Twitter or email, and I’ll do my best to answer them soon. Until then, take care. Thanks for reading.

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Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to jpeterson@kwings.com. Enjoy!

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