The Cincinnati Cyclones have figured out there are two ECHL seasons.
There's the regular season when teams basically give up having a stable roster, and there's the playoffs when American Hockey League affiliates stock ECHL rosters for a long playoff run -- as long as they themselves aren't in the playoffs.
As an independent team, the Komets are still trying to have regular-season familiarity and then playoff success with the same roster. That's harder to do, but they think it can be done.
The Cyclones, who knocked the Komets out of the playoffs Tuesday night, had 13 AHL-affiliated players. The Komets had one, Shawn Szydlowski. Still, the Komets pushed the Cyclones to six games, three of which went to overtime.
Like the Cyclones, do the Komets need an affiliation or two contend for an ECHL championship?
"No,'' Komets coach Gary Graham said. "I think what you end up setting yourself up for now, which we didn't have last season, is we have now already some built-in depth on our team because we have a core group of guys who can play at this level and compete at this level. That's the biggest difference you see on the teams in the coast who are successful, they have that core group of guys, and I feel like we have that now in Fort Wayne and I'm looking forward to building around them.''
OK, so the Komets have a core group of guys next year to build with — except those players' first priority will still be moving up to the AHL.
Here's the biggest problem with this league: ECHL fans are not the first priority of the ECHL, serving the AHL is every time and in every situation. Oh, you're paying $25 a ticket? We're still going to make the AHL the priority.
The Komets' owners definitely don't believe that, but they still have to play the ECHL's game, which is the AHL's system.
If any ECHL player had the chance to get a call-up during the playoffs, even if his ECHL team was facing a seventh game, he'd go to the AHL in a heartbeat. To them, Fort Wayne is no different that Reading, Cincinnati, Greenville, Bakersfield or Evansville. It's just another place providing an opportunity to move up.
Yes, it's great to see the talent an affiliation or two can bring in, but Cincinnati had more than 100 transactions this year, and 20 players were called up to the AHL at various times. They used 52 players this year and 77 last year. In a situation like that, the players are not representing the fans of their host city, they are representing themselves.
The Komets think they can be the exception to all that turnover. Because they started this season with only a few players returning and had to rebuild halfway through the season, the Komets used 47 players. Last year they used 41. Both numbers were below the league average, and next year they hope they can provide more stability by bringing back eight to 10 players to start with.
But Cincinnati wins consistently, especially in the postseason where the Cyclones are making their fifth Eastern Conference finals appearance in seven years. They'll freely admit it's because they've been lucky with their affiliations. How do the Komets counter that both in the regular season and the playoffs? The Cyclones' stars, who are mostly AHL players, dominated Game 6, especially early.
"The issue we had early on is we weren't skating and we weren't controlling the neutral zone. Our defense weren't getting up with the play and there was too much space between where they started and where we began, and that's why they were able to play that transition game.
"A lot of guys just weren't sharp. Some guys were on their own page a little bit too much until we really started settling into the game, but by then we had already dug ourselves a hole.''
The Fort Wayne players believed that as well, and the series played out that way as the Komets always fell behind and then rallied frantically at the end.
"We had the players who could compete, there's no doubt about it,'' forward Chris Auger said. "There were a number of self-inflicted wounds we gave ourselves at key times, and every single one of us was guilty of that.''
But there's also little doubt Cincinnati was the more-skilled team. Though Cincinnati didn't force a lot of Fort Wayne mistakes, the talented Cyclones capitalized on every one. The Komets tried to counter by playing harder, but this series was determined when Cincinnati's best players played as hard as they did.
One change the ECHL could consider is increasing the veteran limit from four to five or six. That's not about affiliated or independent teams but about serving the fan base as veterans typically do not get AHL call-ups. Instead, they provide stability for teams with leadership, examples and teaching ability to help younger players.
They also provide familiarity for fans in both seasons. A little more of that might even help in the playoffs where attendance numbers are atrocious.