Komets general manager David Franke reflects on the season and the road ahead for the franchise in an interview with The News-Sentinel.
Would you have put this team together differently knowing what you know now?
We built the team based on our knowledge of how we thought the ECHL was going to be. I don't think anybody expected the NHL deal to last as long as it did. In hindsight, yeah, we might have done some things differently, but at the time we put the team together we didn't have a reserve list or anything like that. We were new to the affiliation deal once that happened, and then the NHL deal lasted all the way to January. We thought maybe it would last a month or two, and that was the consensus of a lot of people.
With that said, you look at how we will do it this summer, and there will be labor peace in the NHL for the next eight to 10 years, so that scenario of we have all these players, they are coming back and forth, and what are we going to do with them ... the league should go back to the way it used to be. It's a feeder system to the American League, but the talent level may not be quite at the level it was this year just because it will be a normal process of having training camps, rookie camps and everything working the way it is used to running.
This year, it didn't work that way at all, and for us to come into the league at a time when the NHL sat out for five months, that's a tough bill to fill. You look at it and in the middle of January we were still in the hunt for first place in our division.
Looking back, would I have done things differently? Probably, but I didn't have that luxury. We had to do what we thought was the correct thing to do, and for quite a while it worked for us.
As the season went along, the Komets didn't seem to be big enough, what did you do to try to counter that?
We brought (Matt) Syroczynski in to bring some more size on the club. It just so happened that the players we were bringing in were maybe not the biggest guys in the world, but I think like (John) Dunbar and (Jeremy) Gates ... We tried to bring some bigger bodies in. We had a lot of movement with Norfolk, and we weren't really sure where our roster was going to be from week to week. We brought Syro in and tried to bring some size in. (Jamie) Milam is not a real physical guy, but he's not a small guy. Jeremy Gates is a bigger guy. Dunbar and (Mike) Hoban, when they played, they were very effective for us. Could they play a whole year in the league? I don't know. Could their bodies have held up? I don't know. Nick Wheeler wasn't the biggest guy in the world, but he plays like a big guy. He knocks some guys around better than the big guys.
We tried to address it the best we could at the time based on what we were or weren't getting from Norfolk and the injuries. We have to realize that (Chris) Auger, (Colin) Chaulk ... We lost (Eric) Giosa for almost two months. Then losing (Daniel) Maggio and losing (Kenny) Reiter. We had too many roadblocks thrown at us all season long, that quite frankly maybe we were lucky to be where we were at based on everything that had gone on.
What did you learn this season about being an affiliated team?
I think the affiliation can work, but I think there has to be a total understanding between the NHL team and the AHL team and the ECHL team and how it's going to work and benefit all three parties. I'm not a fan of taking guys out of Fort Wayne and then they don't play. I don't see the point of that, the business-sense, but it has to be a three-pronged agreement between all three teams that respects each other's goals and doesn't try to ... for a better word, take all your best players and leave you with nothing.
A positive relationship with the NHL and the American League and an understanding of how it has to be is vitally important. Look at Florida last year and Cincinnati this week. They both got a bunch of players from their AHL affiliates for the playoffs. It's something we're definitely going to study over and take our time figuring out. I think we have to be affiliated to some degree for the young kids to come here and have a chance to play in the AHL, but the affiliation has to be about all three parties doing what they can to help each other out and making sure the players are being dealt with properly.
Do you have to have two affiliations to be successful?
I don't think so. I don't think I want to (go) with two affiliates and get a call from one on one day and from the other the next day. I don't think that's the route I want to go.
Why did the team struggle so much at home and what do you do about it?
I think we struggled at home because we didn't practice at a high-enough intensity level that we would play the game at. I think the intensity level in our practices is not where it needed to be on a regular basis. Players need to practice at the speed and pace level that they play at, and if they don't ... if you are not practicing at a high level, you are going to start off slow on the weekend and it might take you two or three periods to get back in sync. We can do a better job of preparing our team, we can do a better job with video, that is something we have to upgrade for next year.
How much do you evaluate Al Sims and his performance?
We are in the process of doing that now. The one thing we have is a lot of time now, and we have to use this time wisely. We have to get it right. We're not making any rash decisions. Al Sims is our head coach now. We're going to evaluate all the players and we'll evaluate Al. We'll meet with Al and determine what direction we want to go with that. We've also got to determine what we're going to do with the Colin Chaulk situation. Does he become our full-time assistant coach now? That's what I think is going to happen. I don't think he is going to play anymore. I don't think he needs to play anymore. These are all things we'll deliberate on. We're not going to be rash; we're not going to be quick. We don't play hockey for six more months. We can take this time to rest, evaluate, think about things and formulate a game plan for recruiting.
Is there anything the franchise can do to have more control over the player movement, or is that just the way it is in the ECHL?
I think that's the way it is in the ECHL. Even if you are not affiliated, you are going to have teams calling for your players. There needs to be, for lack of a better term, more of an organizational flow chart between the NHL, the AHL and the ECHL. Right now, a lot of teams get ripped apart during the course of the year with the hope that they'll get help back for the playoffs. Do our fans want to see a revolving door all the time? I don't think so, but it is life in the ECHL.
I really, really feel that with labor peace in the NHL, things will go back more to normal. You'll still have call-ups and player movement, but you have so much movement now because the NHL is playing every other day and guys are getting hurt and sick.
How many players do you think you'd like to bring back next year?
I haven't gotten to that point. We've done a preliminary list of who we'd like to bring back. Now that the season is over and once we get through all of our interviews, we'll probably revisit that list and see who we want to bring back. I don't expect a lot of guys to be back, some by choice on their part and some by choice on our part. When you finish low in the standings and don't make the playoffs, there are obviously going to be changes. That's what we're in the process now of doing, finding out what changes we need to make and then making them.
What can you learn from player exit interviews?
You find out the pulse of the team. Was there a positive message that was sent by the coach to the players that was picked up by the players and understood by the players? There's so much that goes into it; it can be complicated, but the bottom line is there is going to be a total evaluation of everything we do in the hockey operations department, from what we're going to do with our coaching situation, to video to travel to all this stuff. We're going to revisit everything to see where we need to make some changes to make sure we have a positive outcome next year.
What's the plan to build next year's team and how is it different from this year's plan?
Here's what I think, and it's early in the game. I think that we need to have our core group. Right now, if anybody doesn't see it, then they probably aren't that close to us, but our core group is going to get rebuilt over the summer. That's not saying that some of the guys who are on the team who were part of our core group before can't be our core group again, or part of it.
We may need a core group of players who are going to realize that playing at the AA level is where they are going to play. They have accepted that in their career, and they want to come here and win a championship. They aren't looking at the American League anymore. Maybe they are 26 or 27 years old and are in the prime of their careers or reaching that point, but they know because of their age or whatever that they are not going to play in the AHL and they are very happy to play at the AA level and make decent money, get their housing paid and to play two levels below the NHL.
I think we need that core group and that may be eight to 10 guys who you know are going to be here game in and game out. On top of that, you add young kids who want to have tryouts in the AHL and get call-ups, and then you finalize it with your affiliated guys. They key to our success has always been having a core group who understand and get what it's all about to play in Fort Wayne.
I think our core group dwindled some this year with Chaulker being hurt, Auger being hurt and Giosa losing a couple of months, losing (Nick) Boucher. We're going to have to rebuild the core of the team. That doesn't mean that Kaleigh (Schrock) can't be part of that or Brandon Marino or Brett Smith or Eric Giosa can't be part of that. The core group is going to have to be built and paid special attention to. I think we can find 10 solid players out there who want to be Komets who will be very happy to play here and play in the ECHL and be very productive players.
How frustrating was this season for you personally?
The Franke family's body of work with this team over 23 years is well-documented. We are competitive, we want to win and we want to be a big part of the fabric of Fort Wayne. To have a season like this where we don't make the playoffs, and it's frustrating, especially at home for our fans, that is driving us to make sure that we take this time that we have to make the right moves. Are they always going to be the right moves? Who knows? You hope that you have enough information to make the right moves, but we are in a different type of league now. We are in a league with more teams, and also we're in a league where sometimes you lose control of your players. People have to understand that. We made the logical choice to join the ECHL because if we would have stayed in the CHL, our closest opponent would have been Bloomington or Evansville. We wanted to play Toledo, Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, and we wanted our fans to be able to go to those cities, which they did a lot, and see the team play on the road.
We're going to evaluate everything on this hockey club from top to bottom. I would expect a lot of changes, not only in personnel but in how we do things and how we prepare for things and how we set things up. We always work hard in the summer, but we're going to have to work smarter this summer.
I can't do it all by myself, Michael can't do it all by himself on his end of the business. When it comes to recruiting, I need a lot of help from the coach and the assistant coach to make sure we are turning over every rock that we can on every player that we can. If people aren't committed to doing that, then they won't be here. That's what it's going to take, that's the commitment I have. I work hard at this every summer, but this summer I have to work smarter and so does our coaching staff because I don't want a repeat of what we just went through. It's no good, it's no good for our fans, it's no good for business and it's no good for our image, but hopefully everybody will give us a year and give us a chance to renew their faith that we'll put another winner on the ice. That will happen. I'm convinced it will happen. The big thing is the league will be back to more what it was before the NHL labor problems.
I'll tell you one thing, there's going to be a lot of hockey players available just because of contraction and the NHL won't be running in a mad scramble anymore. They will be back to a regular season and regular preparations going into it.
It's disappointing. I'm frustrated and I'm not happy, our family is not happy about this, but we'll do everything we can to make sure we don't repeat a season like we just had.