It’s a common theme for most ECHL teams heading into the upcoming season, but more so than most with the Reading Royals, who were primed to erase the bad taste in their mouths with a postseason run before the March shutdown ruined those plans.
In 2018-19, the Royals finished on a 6-0-1 run but missed the playoffs in agonizing fashion, falling just one point shy of getting in. Last year, they’d gotten off to a dazzling 37-17-5-1 start and had already clinched a postseason berth in the North Division before everything came to an abrupt halt.
“It was really frustrating with the group we had,” Reading head coach Kirk MacDonald told FloHockey.
“Things were rolling, and I think over the last 18 games there, we were 14-3-1. A lot of those wins weren’t even close, so we were rolling to say the least. It was a really good group of guys, so it was pretty devastating when everything happened. I’m sure South Carolina, Toledo, Florida, they all felt the same way as us and the same goes for some of the teams in the American (Hockey) League. But, that’s life. It could be worse. We have almost the entire roster coming back next year, and I think the guys are all pretty excited. Hopefully, we do get to play here sooner rather than later. But that’s completely out of all of our control, and we’re just waiting to get released back into the wild.”
The announcement on just when that would be came late last week, when the ECHL announced a split season schedule format, with one set of teams opening up on December 11 for a 72-game slate, with a second group set to begin on January 15 with 62 games on the docket.
All games, regardless of which format the teams are playing in, will be broadcast on FloHockey.
Reading has ended up in the second group of teams, meaning they’ll have a condensed schedule to show what a roster that’s comprised largely of returning players can do to once again attempt to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18.
“Honestly, if you look at our roster, almost our entire forward group is either rookies out of college, or they’re returning guys,” MacDonald said. “Our D core, everybody is coming back that’s on ECHL contracts as a returning guy. Rob Michel and David Drake were on American League contracts, so those were free guys, essentially. They’re ECHL free agents, but technically they’d been with us for three combined years between the two of them. They’re high-end guys at our level, but we didn’t have to work that hard to get them. We’ve got a couple kids, Dominic Cormier out of the University of Ottawa I think can be a real high-end offensive guy at our level, and (Joe) Rutkowski from Ferris State, who I think is going to be a good player at our level. COVID happened and it sucks, but we traded for Aaron Titcomb out of Wheeling, who’s a really good player, but was only with us for 10 days . . . so we got three defensemen who technically weren’t our guys, but now they are.
“And with forwards, we have Corey Mackin, who I think is going to be one of the best centers in the league next year. He was probably a point-per-game and one of the best in the second half last year. Frankie DiChiara is coming back, Brayden Low’s been great, Hayden Hodgson should score 25 or 30 (goals) if he doesn’t get called up . . . Ralph Cuddemi will be on an American League deal, so we don’t know where he’s going to fall, but if we see him for any amount of time, he’s a goal-a-game guy, as he proved last year. We’re looking to add one top-six guy, which we’ve been chasing for four months. But those are the types of guys where once free agency starts in the NHL, that’ll trickle down and guys will start making those decisions. In previous years, it’s been panic mode from July 1 until training camp starts in trying to build your roster, so it’s kind of stinks it’s been such a long off-season because we’ve mostly filled our roster pretty quickly and effortlessly compared to previous years.”
That the group has remained largely intact has many associated with the team excited for the puck to finally drop, including Ronkonkoma, NY’s DiChiara, last year’s leading scorer for Reading at exactly a point-per-game clip over 59 games.
“As soon as the season ended, and it was tough the way it ended once we knew this pandemic was going to be the real deal, we were all talking,” DiChiara told FloHockey.
“We’re a tight group, and we were all talking about what guys' plans were for the following year. A lot was up in the air – some guys didn’t know if they’d be wanted back or would go somewhere else – but I knew right when that season ended, and it’s going to sound pretty cliché, that we had some unfinished business there. We knew we could have done some damage in the playoffs, we knew we were going to be a tough team to beat pretty much every night. We were going to be in your face, we were going to push the pace. In a seven-game series, we would have been tough to beat. But we’re all really excited to get back. A lot of the guys, a lot of us still talk every day in our group chat. We’re all just anxiously awaiting when we can hit the ground running and pick up right where we left off. Guys have had a really long off-season and are really looking forward to wanting to get back on the ice and show that we can build off of last season.”
That is, of course, a build that began with what they did the year prior, their second under MacDonald, who was a key piece in their last Kelly Cup-winning team as a player in 2013.
“We were 7-0-1 down the stretch and lost on the last day, I think we were 9-2-1 over our last 12, and finished that season,” said MacDonald of that 2018-19 that laid the foundation for where his group is now.
“But, we only had three guys who were returning players who were with us for the whole year in ‘18-19: (Steven) Swavely, DiChiara and Low were the only guys who came back. Those guys wanted to do well, but I think it was time for a new group too. We got a lot younger. There was a clean slate, and we got a lot of help from Philly as well. I think the relationship really improved too, that’s a big thing that doesn’t get talked about enough. Our ownership change was huge, and I think that goes in hand with the affiliation strengthening and the depth we got from Philly. You can’t win in our league anymore if you don’t have help from the affiliate. You see that with the teams that are winning now, you look at how those Colorado teams were built and how that Newfoundland team was built, it’s not an accident that they’re winning championships.”
That is, perhaps, the biggest component of the Royals’ turnaround. One that MacDonald himself has called “huge.” The strengthening of their affiliation with the Philadelphia Flyers organization – a very logical one at that given the proximity of the NHL, AHL, and ECHL teams to each other – has produced big results, specifically in stabilizing things between the pipes.
Kirill Ustimenko and Felix Sandstrom, both Flyers draft picks and both considered to have very legitimate chances to reach the NHL level down the road, formed one of the best tandems in the league to help serve as the backbone of the Royals last season; Sandstrom is likely to return to Reading this upcoming season, while Ustimenko earned an opportunity in the AHL with Lehigh Valley, where he’ll likely share the net with Alex Lyon.
“Our goaltending – and Philly went through eight goaltenders two years ago in ‘18-19, and that’s nobody’s fault, injuries happen, but it was a bit of a gong show and that stuff trickles down to our level too – this year, the guys we had, (Kirill Ustimenko) and (Felix Sandstrom) were great for us,” MacDonald said.
“And we had a lot of investment, the development coaches were around a lot this year. Brady Robinson, who is their goalie development coach, was around all the time. It was like having another assistant (coach), which is awesome. John Riley was around a lot with us too, he’s one of the development coaches working with the forwards. That kind of stuff helps, and it helps the guys become better players, but it’s just the message that it sends in the locker room that somebody cares. So, I think the players care a little bit more too. From the top down, it’s been great working with those guys. I think the new ownership group really helped our relationship with Philly. For example, they made that trade with J.F. Berube to clear space for (Ustimenko in the AHL), but they brought back another goalie in that deal, Tom McCollum to help us out. You don’t see that happen at our level where they’re making a trade like that make room for (Ustimenko), who deserved that opportunity, but they also thought about us. It goes a long way.”
Mike Ashmore has 17 years of experience covering professional and college sports. You can follow him on all social media channels at @mashmore98.