There can only be one champion, but even with that– the accomplishments of the runners-up in the Calder and Kelly Cups aren’t something that should be thrown by the wayside. These teams were able to get that far and be it no fault of their own– just got outplayed, were unlucky, or just ran out of steam during the grind. Yet, even with the loss– the season shouldn’t be overlooked and the progress the teams made shouldn’t be scoffed at in hindsight.
The rise of the Utica Comets was on great display in the playoffs, especially in the Calder Cup Finals, where they were playing in the Finals just two years after they were granted acceptance into the league. The group that Robert Esche put together and Travis Green coached has been solid through the first two season and they should have a solid crop of returnees for next season. With the local business and fans turning out in a big way due to this success; the future looks bright overall in Utica.
Not only that, but this season was a revitalization for the career of Jacob Markstrom. Formerly in San Antonio, the one highly-touted prospect was able to finally display what his hype was all about and get a hang of the AHL game with 23 wins in 32 games and his first 20-win season in North America. Markstrom wasn’t the only one to find solid footing in Utica, as Cal O’Reilly led the team in scoring both in the regular season (10g, 51a) and playoffs (2g, 17a), while Sven Baertschi looks to be gaining a second-wind after being traded to Utica from Adirondack.
With a boost of young talent on the horizon, the future could look bright for the Comets…so long as Vancouver doesn’t do a complete overhaul and deplete the roster of the Comets to a shell of itself. Not only that, but Markstrom will probably be looked at by other teams, as will coach Green. The downside of playing so well and getting a big playoff run is people will notice the valuable assets and stop at no cost in acquiring them.
For the South Carolina Stingrays, this is a team who may not have been in a position like this if not for their incredible mid-season burst. Their 23-game winning streak was a new ECHL record and the play of Jeff Jakaitis was amazingly stellar– enough to get him the ECHL MVP award. This was a team who, if not for that run, may not have even gotten into the playoffs, as they were playing .500 hockey throughout the season leading up to it.
Then you get to the playoffs where this team played almost the max amount of games, as all series except for the division finals went to seven games. Because of that, Wayne Simpson was able to break the ECHL playoff scoring record with 38 (13g, 25a), while captain Andrew Rowe tied the old record at 34 points (15g, 19a), if not for the play of Simpson. Even rookie Derek DeBlois kept his hot regular season going with a solid playoff, leading all rookies in points with 29 (11g, 18a).
Despite the team being in a bit of financial trouble, the fact they were able to have a big run during the season and in the playoffs brought excitement to North Charleston and should keep the buzz there into next season. As one of the last originals in the ECHL, the Stingrays know how to go through the ebbs and flows of life in the ECHL– which means they will be able to counteract any obstacle in their way.
While these things may be of no consolation, they are something to be admired. They outworked the rest of the league in order to get to a spot of winning the championship– which is something that should be commended. Not only that, but because of their runs, these places are now destinations for possible free agents and spots where players may not mind being sent down to rework their game because they know they’ll be in a top-notch organization.