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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Keeping up with the K-Wings

Thursday, January 28th
BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Keeping up with the K-Wings

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW:  Keeping Up with the K-Wings

Blog #30 – January 28, 2020

by John Peterson

There is nothing normal about the 2020-21 hockey season. Let’s just get that out of the way right off the top.

After all, the Kalamazoo Wings and 11 other teams opted out of the ECHL season, exercising the league’s COVID-19 voluntary suspension option. If it weren’t for Fort Wayne’s recent decision to join in on the festivities two months late, half the league would be watching from the couch this year.

Even Toledo, consistently near the top of the league in average attendance, chose to sit this one out. Needless to say, this hockey season is a strange one and will continue to be.

One of the biggest adjustments fans have had to make is seeing some of their favorite players wearing different colors. Players who signed ECHL contracts with teams who eventually decided to opt out of the 2020-21 season immediately became free agents.

That means every player we announced this summer who had intended to suit up for the K-Wings (and the handful of players we never got to) were eligible to sign elsewhere, as soon as Kalamazoo declared the voluntary suspension.

We don’t need to rehash the reason the K-Wings made the difficult decision to sit out this season. As leadership has been transparent about, the safety of our hockey community was always the top priority, especially during a worldwide pandemic.

Bringing things back to the task at hand, we’ve received several inquiries about how some of our players are doing in their new locations. We always want to see players go on to have success, wherever that may be. Whether a player moves up the ladder to the AHL or NHL, continues his career with a different team, or retires and starts a new chapter outside the game, we always wish them the best.

It still isn’t clear what happens heading into the 2021-22 season when it comes to teams’ rights to players (we’ll get to that later), but those conversations will likely be had in league circles from now until October.

Let’s take a glance around the league to see how our former players are doing. Try to keep up.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Immediately following the K-Wings’ opt-out announcement, Nick Bootland met with his team. The coaching staff dedicated countless hours putting this team together, so I’m sure the conversation was tough for everyone. After the meeting, Bootland called each of the players individually to hear their thoughts and see if there was anything he could do to help.

The players were suddenly free agents in a market that only included 14 out of 26 teams. The AHL still didn’t have a return to play plan at the time. Most European teams had already started play, or at least had their rosters locked in. Half of the SPHL’s 10 teams also opted to suspend operations. Jobs were few and far between.

Within days, the first positive news came in. Ian Edmondson found a home. The K-Wings 2019-20 Rookie of the Year and a bright young defenseman signed a contract to join the Rapid City Rush.

Since arriving in the Black Hills two games into the season, Edmondson has played in all 13 games for the Rush. He has three assists and a plus-one rating for a team that has taken some bumps and bruises through the first month of the season.

Three youngsters quickly found spots in SPHL training camps. Raymond Brice, a rookie out of Michigan Tech who was Kalamazoo’s first announced player signing during the summer, latched on with the Macon Mayhem. The former Huskies captain has four games under his belt down in Georgia.

Another rookie originally slated for Kalamazoo was defenseman Clark Kuster. The St. Cloud State University alum signed down in Pensacola, Florida. Kuster is off to a nice start with the Ice Flyers, notching a goal and an assist through his first five games.

A player signing we hadn’t announced yet was Kyle Rhodes. The offensively-gifted right shot defenseman scored 11 goals as a rookie with the Tulsa Oilers in 2018-19, before an injury set him back. He started the 2019-20 year in Cincinnati’s ECHL training camp, but ended up taking the year off. A spot in the K-Wings training camp was going to be a chance to reboot his career.

Rhodes quickly signed an SPHL contract with the Huntsville Havoc and has thrived. The 23-year-old has two goals and four assists with a plus-six rating in his first nine games. Look for him to find an ECHL home in the near future.

The K-Wings’ top scoring defenseman from 2019-20, Aaron Thow, explored his options after playing on an AHL contract throughout his rookie season. The Wheeling Nailers courted and signed Thow shortly after Kalamazoo opted out. The second-year pro has two assists so far in seven games, but Wheeling hasn’t played a game since Jan. 9 due to pandemic-related postponements.

The big splash came January 4. Kalamazoo’s franchise record holder for games played, Justin Taylor, signed with the Tulsa Oilers. The veteran forward was set for his 11th season in a K-Wings jersey. He calls Kalamazoo home year round, and will likely be on the K-Wings’ short list of veterans to bring back in 2021-22. The ECHL’s rules allow veterans to become unrestricted free agents every summer if they choose not to sign with their previous club by a certain date.

So far in Tulsa, Taylor is still looking for his first points of the season as the Oilers navigate through some adversity. He has played in six games, but missed the last four contests while on the league’s Commissioner’s Exempt List.

Goaltender Jake Hildebrand was ready to return to Wings Event Center for a third season in Kalamazoo’s crease. After the holidays, the Florida Everblades summoned the 27-year-old down to the Sunshine State. Hildebrand is 2-0-0 so far in three appearances with a 2.99 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.

The K-Wings’ all-star representative, Dylan Sadowy, went unsigned throughout the summer while he recovered from an upper body injury that ended his 2019-20 season. Eventually the Orlando Solar Bears made him an offer earlier this month. Sadowy returned to the ice for the first time in over a year and scored the shootout winner in his Orlando debut. He has two goals and two assists in his first three games.

The most recent player to sign from last year’s K-Wings team was Boston Leier. The third-year pro finished last season on a tryout with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the rest of the 2019-20 season. Leier joined the Kansas City Mavericks two weeks ago and has appeared in three games so far.

Speaking of the Mavericks: this past summer Kalamazoo acquired Greg Betzold in exchange for Austin Farley and the rights to Spencer Naas. Farley was already signed at the time of the trade and reported to Kansas City, where he has three assists in 12 games. Naas never signed with the Mavericks. He went overseas instead to play the 2020-21 season in Sweden, where he has three assists in seven games for Tranas AIF.

Finally, I found one more update involving a player from Kalamazoo’s 2019-20 roster who went across the pond to play in Europe this season. Zach Frye, the hard-hitting defenseman who spent all of last season with the K-Wings, signed a contract over in the Czech Republic. He has 14 points (five goals, nine assists) and 46 penalty minutes in 18 games for Rytiri Kladno.

ROMANIAN CHAMPION

Oh, wait. There’s one last player we can’t forget about. The captain. Ben Wilson.

Following his departure to continue his playing career overseas, the biggest storyline entering the 2020-21 K-Wings season was “who replaces Ben Wilson as captain?”

Whoever assumed that responsibility would have big shoes to fill. We even did our fair share of projecting in a blog post, based on the roster the K-Wings put together throughout the off-season. After all, Wilson spent seven seasons in the winged-K sweater and served as captain for four of them.

His legacy as a leader can be defined by the praise this summer from Nick Bootland, Joel Martin, Kyle Forte and some of his former teammates, not by any measured statistic (blocked shots and community appearances are not officially-tracked statistics, if you’re wondering). So we caught up with Wilson when he arrived in Romania to begin the new chapter in his career.

The 29-year-old signed with ASC Corona Brasov in the Erste League, where he had four assists in 22 games and helped the club win its third Romanian Cup championship.

When we last spoke to Wilson, he didn’t close the book on a potential return to Kalamazoo someday, but he also didn’t promise anything. Wherever he plays next season, I’m sure he’ll bring leadership, humor and the never-ending will to win, whether that’s in practice or in the games.

And for the sake of this story, we can still call him “captain” until somebody else gets the letter ‘C’ stitched onto their winged-K jersey.

CLIMBING THE LADDER

This may be a moot point this season, but the Vancouver Canucks and Utica Comets are still the Kalamazoo Wings’ NHL and AHL affiliates, respectively. In fact, the 2020-21 season still counts as the second year of the teams’ two-year affiliation agreement signed during the summer of 2019.

Affiliations change all the time in minor league hockey, but I do know the relationship is strong between the K-Wings’ leadership and the Canucks’ group. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the teams agree to extend the agreement another year or two, but that’s neither here nor there. We’ll be able to talk about affiliations in more detail at some point leading up to October.

With that being said, three Canucks prospects who spent time in Kalamazoo last season are gearing up for the start of the AHL campaign. After participating in Vancouver’s training camp, Jake Kielly, Mitch Eliot and Josh Teves are all in Utica preparing to open up the season with the Comets.

Kielly spent most of last season in Kalamazoo, and we recently caught up with the goaltender for an episode of Just Wingin’ It. If you haven’t had a chance to watch yet, here it is. He shares how he found out he was getting called up to the NHL’s bubble during the playoffs last summer, and had some other great stories I think you’ll enjoy.

The K-Wings’ Sportsmanship Award winner went 7-11-4 in 24 appearances as a rookie, posting a 3.97 goals-against average and .887 save percentage. Kielly was called up to Utica late last season and won his first career AHL start.

Eliot played most of the 2019-20 season in Utica, appearing in 27 games for the Comets. On multiple occasions, the Canucks reassigned the 22-year-old to Kalamazoo for a weekend at a time to get quality ice time. Eliot skated in seven games for the K-Wings, notching one goal and two assists.

Teves entered his first full pro season with one NHL game under his belt. The 25-year-old Princeton University alum suited up in a game for the Canucks right out of college at the end of the 2018-19 season. He skated in 29 games for Utica last season and served a couple different stints in Kalamazoo, posting two goals and two assists in four games.

All three should get valuable experience in the AHL this season, with fewer players competing for roster spots. Due to the pandemic and its effects on the business of pro sports, as well as travel between the United States and Canada, I can’t imagine there being too much movement between Vancouver and Utica during the shortened season.

But hopefully these three make the most of their opportunity and have great seasons. Who knows? Maybe someday soon we’ll see another K-Wings alum living out his dream of playing at the highest level.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Here is what I know: not a whole lot.

Okay, save the jokes. I’ll try to explain.

The question I’ve seen the most often since the K-Wings chose to sit out the season and focus on starting back up in 2021-22 is this: “What happens to our players who signed elsewhere? Do we get the negotiating rights back this coming off-season?”

The short answer is this: I don’t know. Nobody knows, as of this moment.

There isn’t a rule in place stating what happens in the event of a pandemic causing half the league’s teams to suspend operations, forcing hundreds of players to find new teams.

This is going to be a point of contention and the topic of conversation for weeks to come leading up to the ECHL’s off-season. What is fair? How does the league keep everybody happy, while maintaining the importance of competitive balance?

I’m not sure that’s possible, for starters. It’s going to take conversations that include league officials, the Pro Hockey Players’ Association, the ECHL’s Board of Governors and the opinions of 26 coaches to decide what the best option is.

Three new markets will have ECHL teams in the coming years: Trois Rivieres, Quebec; Coralville, Iowa and Savannah, Georgia (the league announced Wednesday). These expansion teams will have to build rosters from scratch. That’s just how it works. But what about teams in established markets who were forced to temporarily suspend operations during a pandemic for a myriad of reasons?

Does it make sense to force these 12 franchises to start over during the recruiting process?

Keep in mind that in a normal off-season, most coaches re-sign as many players as they can right away for the upcoming season. The reason they do this is to narrow down the list of players they could potentially lose in free agency before the deadline arrives to extend eight qualifying offers to unsigned players.

Once the maximum of eight offers go out, anyone else left unsigned is a free agent. Turnover is typically high every year in the ECHL, in part due to one-year playing contracts.

And let’s not forget, Newfoundland won the Kelly Cup during its inaugural season after building a team from scratch. You could make the strong case the Growlers wouldn’t have been that competitive that quick if it weren’t for the dozen Toronto Maple Leafs prospects on the roster most of the season and playoffs. But the point needs to be made.

The competitive balance can reset every year in a league that only allows one-year contracts and requires teams to stay under a salary cap. That’s good news, however you put it.

The only extra advantage the 14 competing teams will have heading into the off-season if nothing changes is this: they’ll be able to sign as many players as they want right away when the season ends, at least verbally, heading into the summer. But those 14 teams will still have to stay under the salary cap in 2021-22. Many of the players currently playing would be wise to see what offers are out there from other teams.

Recruiting will likely be more challenging for the 12 coaching staffs whose teams aren’t playing this year. But opportunities will be there to build a winner. This is where relationships come into play. Who do players trust? Who do they want to play for? Given the repertoire of the K-Wings coaches, a great location here in Kalamazoo and excellent ownership, I have to think this will be an attractive place to sign in 2021-22.

Now let’s all take a deep breath and wait to see what happens.

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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. 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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