CINCINNATI, OH – 20 days. That’s the amount of time that has passed since the 2016-2017 campaign came to an end for the Cincinnati Cyclones by way of a 4-3 overtime loss at the hands of the South Carolina Stingrays. This resulted in Cincinnati missing out on the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the second time in three seasons and left many scratching their heads. Writing this was something I have purposely been holding back on the last couple weeks. Instead of rushing something out the day after the season ended, I took time to let it all soak, and now I think it’s time to reflect on the past season and discuss what exactly are the challenges this team faces heading into next fall.
The past season was the dictionary definition of a roller coaster. For the first several months of the season, the team’s trend was “win one, lose one; win two, lose two; win five, lose five” and those first 25-30 games of the season, it just felt like absolutely nothing was going right for the Cyclones. This team really didn’t hit their stride the month of February after an absolutely brutal January, a month in which they went on a skid where they had lost nine games of a ten-game stretch. Before the turn around began, the “we’ve hit rock bottom” moment came during a three-game swing in Missouri against the Mavericks where they just got outplayed, outworked, and everything in between. The Mavs swept that series, outscoring Cincinnati 14-8 at the tail-end of January.
After that road trip to Missouri, the light switch came on and they went on their biggest tear of the season while playing some of their best hockey of the season at what seemed to be the right time by going 18-8-2-1 in their final 29 games. That great stretch put them right back in the playoff hunt for that fourth and final spot in the South Division. However, the Cyclones needed help from other teams around the league and more specifically, needed teams like South Carolina, Orlando, and Greenville to lose in order to get into the postseason. Unfortunately, that did not happen and Cincinnati missed out on the playoffs by thee points, finishing the season with a 36-29-6-1 record which was good for 79 points.
Although it was not the end result they wanted, you have to give credit where it’s due. In January, this team was dead. They very easily could’ve called it a season right there and rolled over. Instead, with their backs against the wall, took it for one hell of a ride that kept them alive until the second-to-last day of the regular season. The fact that playoffs was even a remote possibility after the horrendous start they had is astonishing.
Fans thought this would be the last go-round with Head Coach, Matt Macdonald, while some even wanted him gone mid-season. Fortunately, that isn’t the case as both Macdonald and Patrick Wellar will be returning behind the bench for the 2017-2018 season. Again, they had a team that was on its death bed and instead of calling it in, they stayed the course and were able to bring this team to the next level. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Both of them acknowledged the problems this team had (specifically pointing at their start to the season as why they missed the postseason) and know what corrections they need to make over the summer.
You may remember the Cincinnati defense being an absolute sieve at the beginning of the season. They were giving up four-five goals a night. If you look at the end of the season, the Cyclones actually had one of the best defenses in the league ranking 5th in the ECHL for fewest goals allowed at 209. Credit there goes to Wellar for the remarkable turnaround on the back-end. The likes of Sam Posa, Eric Knodel, Frank Misuraca and Martin Lefebvre were huge contributors to that accomplishment.
The last two years, the Cyclones have finished with 36 wins. The only difference being the 2015-2016 team finished with two more points at 81. You cannot give up on this coaching staff yet. They have earned at least one more year at the helm. If you want to make a better comparison, look at Jarrod Skalde. His first couple years as the Cincinnati bench boss were rough as well, and fans felt the same way about him that they do about Macdonald. Skalde’s tenure in Cincinnati ended with a North Division title, a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, and an AHL call-up in 2013. Making any kind of coaching change now would’ve been foolish.
Now, although the defense finished among tops in the league, the offense on the other hand, not so much. While they were top five in fewest goals allowed, they finished 23rd in goals scored at 200 even. Thus presenting one of their biggest needs over the off-season. They need a proven veteran scorer they can rely on to put up a goal or two every night. They didn’t have that for most of this season. A Jack Downing, a Shawn Szydlowski, a Chad Costello, that’s the type of player they need to find to fill that role.
That’s taking nothing away from players like Jordan Sims, Shawn O’Donnell, and Nick Huard, who basically carried this team offensively down the stretch after the departures of Andrew Yogan and Peter LeBlanc. It’s just having that proven veteran, that you know if you put him on the ice in any situation, a goal has a good chance of happening, makes life easier for everybody. Who knows, maybe “that guy” was sitting in that locker room this year and is still developing or Yogan decides to come back to Cincinnati and play that role full time without the Europe step in the middle. Maybe.
Going back to the veterans point, that’s an area the Cyclones were pretty weak on. At the end of the season, Tommy Mele and Christiaan Minella were the only two veterans on the team, and you’re allowed to roster four. To be considered a vet, you need 260 or more games of pro hockey under your belt at the start of the season. 180 games in the case of goalies, but goalies don’t count towards the limit. At the start of next season, Tyler Elbrecht and Yogan will both be considered veterans. If all four were to come back, that’d be a solid veteran core mixed with toughness and scoring. Although, I wouldn’t be shocked if Mele leans towards retiring from pro hockey after the injury-filled year he had.
Another area to look at is the AHL/NHL contracted players that occupied Cincinnati this past season and their current situation with the Nashville Predators/Milwaukee Admirals and Columbus Blue Jackets/Cleveland Monsters organizations. Only four such players spent any lengthy amount of time with the Cyclones. Goaltenders Michael Houser and Mark Visentin, as well as Defenseman/Forward Jaynen Rissling, and Defenseman Jonathan Diaby. All four of their contracts have now expired and will become free agents this summer. In Diaby’s case, he still had one more year left on his contract with Nashville, however the Predators elected to buy him out of that last year and place him on unconditional waivers. In other words, he was released.
If Diaby intends to continue playing hockey next season, sign him immediately. The Diaby we saw this past year was drastically improved from the one we saw back in the 2015-2016 season. As an ECHL contracted defenseman, he could probably be one of the best d-men in the league at the pace he was going. Visentin is a gigantic question mark. He only played one game in Milwaukee all year. Because of his inability to stay healthy, I believe he’ll be with an ECHL team next season whether it’s with Cincinnati or someone else. He has to prove he can stay healthy to get back to being a full time AHL goaltender.
When the recruiting process begins for this coaching staff, the first step is going through and determining the names of the players they’re going to heavily pursue when ECHL teams are permitted to begin signing players for the 2017-2018 season on June 16th. I guarantee you at the top of their list, Houser and Rissling are going to be written in big bold print.
Rissling was a gigantic piece of that locker room and wore the alternate captain’s “A” during the second half of the season for a reason. He’s the type of player that will literally do anything you ask of him. If you need him to score a goal, play defense, kill a penalty, or any other task you need him to do, he’ll do it. You also can’t say enough about Houser. He is an elite goaltender in this league and gives you a chance to win every single night.
The odd-man out between the pipes is Joel Rumpel, who became a fan favorite despite only getting ice time in nine games. I’m going to upset a lot of fans with this, but I wouldn’t hold your breath to see Rumpel back in a Cyclones jersey next season. If they pursued Houser, he automatically becomes “the guy” in goal. Rumpel needs to play. He needs to be the #1 guy for whatever team he plays for. He’s too good to be sitting like he did for much of the season. That was a case where you see most players either request a trade or bolt for Europe. The fact he stayed is a testament to how much of a trooper he is.
One more question facing the Cyclones over the summer is probably one of the more important keys to having success in the ECHL, the NHL/AHL affiliation. Cincinnati’s current contract with Nashville is up. After ten years of marriage, a divorce between the Cyclones and Predators is possible. The Predators recently signed an affiliation extension with the Admirals in the AHL, however whether Cincinnati will still be part of the family is in question.
This past season, the affiliation with Nashville was… lacking. While the Cyclones were gutted and wounded with injuries, they saw little-to-no help from their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. Down the stretch, they were 100% on their own as the Admirals had just as much injury trouble on their end. Only three Milwaukee/Nashville contracts were sent to the Cyclones, those being Diaby, Visentin and Rissling. Not one AHL contracted forward spent any considerable amount of time in Cincinnati, which can be a big disadvantage.
If the Cincinnati/Nashville split came to fruition, it’s popular belief that the Cyclones will jump on board full time with Columbus, whom they’ve had a working agreement with the past couple years and have received some gems from the Blue Jackets organization such as Brad Thiessen and Houser. The ECHL is expecting a lot of affiliation shuffling this off-season with their teams, and at a time where the trend is reducing travel and expenses within the organizations, jumping on the train to Columbus/Cleveland does make a lot of sense.
Out of all of this, one thing is for certain. The next item of importance that is coming up is next season’s schedule. The Cyclones will soon know their 2017-2018 opponents as the ECHL is expected to release the league-wide schedule in just a couple short weeks in mid-May. Hopefully, they’ll finally give me my Brampton road trip that I’ve been begging for the last three seasons instead of continuously crushing my dreams.