When the 2016-17 ECHL schedule was released on April 28, the Kalamazoo Wings were set to play their division foes, the Toledo Walleye, Wheeling Nailers and Brampton Beast between 8-10 games each during the season.
While the K-Wings will still be playing those teams and all the others per the schedule, the ECHL announced that divisions and conferences have been realigned for the upcoming season..
Due to this realignment, the K-Wings will be moving from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference. The Central Division in the Western Conference will be made up of the following teams: Fort Wayne Komets, Indy Fuel, K-Wings, Quad City Mallards, Toledo Walleye, Tulsa Oilers and Wichita Thunder,
According to the ECHL the new format will allow most teams to have a better chance of playing traditional rivals in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and to allow for more economical travel. The first two rounds of the Kelly Cup Playoffs will be played entirely within the division, with the division winner playing the fourth-place finisher and the second-place team meeting the third-place team in the Division Semifinals. The winners of each series will meet in the Division Finals, leading to the Conference Finals and Kelly Cup Finals.
K-Wings head coach Nick Bootland said he was not caught off guard with the announcement of the realignment, but was a little surprised about the placement of teams.
“With the way the conferences were set up, we knew they had to make some sort of changes. I felt it caught us off guard a little bit by who was in our conference,” Bootland said.
“We play Tulsa one time and we don’t play Witchita at all and I think we only have 32 division games, which is not typical of this league at all.” The ECHL has a 72-game season.
“There is nothing you can do about it,” Bootland continued. “There will be teams that will have more division games than us than less division games than us, so the importance of not getting too much separation (in the standings) is huge.”
Bootland understands the need to adjust the conferences, however. “I think they are probably looking into the future a little bit with the new franchise coming in next season out east (Worcester). I don’t think they wanted to make an adjustment this year and then have to make another adjustment next year. I think they are just sort of being proactive with that and getting ahead of the curve.”
With three player signings announced so far, Bootland is hard at work putting the pieces together for the upcoming season. With a new affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL and the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, there will surely be players sent to the K-Wings from those two teams, but who and how many is anybody’s guess.
“We have had conversations, and while there is never a definite number, it looks like they are sending us a few defenseman and some forwards and obviously a goaltender,” Bootland said.
“But you have to try and build your team without that in place because you never know how the injuries are going to go for their team and obviously with them being such a great team at the NHL level they have 13 players, I believe, that are on World Cup teams. So there could be lots of changes in the numbers they give us.”
As for returning players, Bootland doesn’t have a number in mind. But he does stress that he likes where the team was at the end of the season when the team was somewhat healthy and went 21-8-1 in their final 30 games.
Bootland said there will be changes this year in the makeup of his team, however.
“Obviously we need more depth than we had last year, because when we were banged up and not healthy we struggled to win hockey games,” Bootland said.
“We have to have more depth and I believe that is probably the biggest thing we are looking for. I feel that we are in a better place now than where we were last year at this time, but depth is an issue.”
With the departure of assistant coach Sam Ftorek this past spring, Bootland said he is in the process of looking for a new assistant.
2016-17 ECHL Conference and Divisional Alignment:
Adirondack Thunder, Brampton Beast, Elmira Jackals, Manchester Monarchs, Reading Royals, Wheeling Nailers
Atlanta Gladiators, Cincinnati Cyclones, Florida Everblades, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Norfolk Admirals, Orlando Solar Bears, South Carolina Stingrays
Fort Wayne Komets, Indy Fuel, Kalamazoo Wings, Quad City Mallards, Toledo Walleye, Tulsa Oilers, Wichita Thunder
Alaska Aces, Allen Americans, Colorado Eagles, Idaho Steelheads, Missouri Mavericks, Rapid City Rush, Utah Grizzlies
By:Mark C. McGlothlen