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Aces enter playoffs after flourishing in ECHL regular season despite constant roster shuffling

Doyle Woody

By their standards, the Alaska Aces didn't require doors to their dressing rooms at Sullivan Arena this hockey season as much as turnstiles.

The Brabham Cup winners as the ECHL's regular-season champions used 43 players, the most in their 11 seasons on the circuit. That total included eight goaltenders, the most they've employed in a season. And primarily because of injuries that caused Aces players to miss 353 games, and players moving back and forth from the club's American Hockey League affiliate, Aces coach Rob Murray never dressed the same 18-man lineup for three games in a row. Only five times in 71 games did Murray dress the same lineup in consecutive games.

Such is life in a developmental minor league, where rosters are in a near-constant state of flux.

Still, only once did the Aces lose three straight games in regulation. Despite the shifting roster, Alaska racked a league-leading 97 points to seize the Brabham, which gives it home-ice advantage throughout the Kelly Cup playoffs. The Aces open the postseason Friday night against the Las Vegas Wranglers at Sullivan Arena.

"I guess it comes down to the old saying, 'Control what you can control,' " said Aces captain Nick Mazzolini. "We knew that stuff was out of our hands, so we didn't worry about it. Mur and (assistant coach Louis Mass) really did a good job of getting us to keep our heads down and keep working.''

Murray, in his third season as the Aces' bench boss, said managing an evolving roster is part of the gig in the ECHL. He keeps in frequent contact with Alaska's affiliates, the NHL's Calgary Flames and the AHL's Abbotsford Heat, to stay on top of player movement, and also keeps tabs on players who may be available. In a pinch, he plugs in a local like forward Merit Waldrop or defenseman Brad Gorham for the odd home game.

"As a coach at this level, that's your expectation, that there are points in a season when you're going to lose (several) guys,'' Murray said. "Sometimes, you use a Merit Waldrop or Brad Gorham, or you go out and pick up an Alex Belzile when you're short.

"You just have to manage the team here like you have nothing going on outside our little bubble, and whatever happens, happens.''

Murray said having "core'' players like Mazzolini, his first-line center, and first-line winger Peter Sivak, an All-ECHL pick, helps the Aces ride out hard times. Mazzolini, who finished fourth among league scorers, missed just two Aces regular-season games, and one of those was the season finale, when the Brabham was already clinched and Murray decided to rest Mazzolini. Sivak, who finished second in the league in scoring, missed just four games, one because of injuries and three because of a stint with Abbotsford.

Even when the Aces needed to pick up players, Mazzolini said, the club was able to get newcomers who could contribute.

"We're not just plugging holes,'' Mazzolini said. "We're trying to find guys who can fit in and develop chemistry with the team.''

Two such players are veteran center Jordan Morrison and his rookie left wing, Brett Findlay. Those two joined the Aces shortly after their previous ECHL team, the San Francisco Bulls, folded in late January.

Morrison said he and Findlay were determined to fit in.

"You're coming into a great organization, a great team -- they were in first place when we got here -- and (Findlay) and I were trying not to mess up the mojo they had,'' Morrison said.

Morrison said it helped that he and Findlay were welcomed by Aces players, which eased their transition to a new club.

Alaska is the seventh ECHL franchise Morrison has played for, so he knows rosters are regularly altered in the regular season. Told the Aces had used 43 players this season, he said that seemed like a low number for an ECHL team.

Morrison's correct. While 43 players represents the most used by the Aces in their ECHL history, it tied for the sixth-fewest players used on the 21-team circuit, where teams used an average of 46.29 players this regular season. The Gwinnett Gladiators could have used revolving doors for their dressing room -- they used league highs of 57 players, 13 of which were goaltenders.

Now, though, it's the postseason, which brings some degree of roster stability. Each ECHL team submitted a playoff roster of 23 players to the league, and that roster can only be altered in emergency conditions, which the league defines any time injury, illness, recalls or suspensions leave a team with fewer than two goaltenders or 16 skaters.

Shuffling the deck

Murray said veteran Gerald Coleman will start Game 1 Friday night.

Of the 23 players on Alaska's playoff roster, only five have never played a professional playoff game in North America: Rookie defensemen John Ramage, Brad Richard and Zach Davies, second-year defenseman Drew MacKenzie and rookie winger Turner Elson.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

Las Vegas Wranglers

at

Alaska Aces

ECHL Western Conference quarterfinals, best-of-7

Games 1 and 2, Friday and Saturday nights, Sullivan Arena, 7:15

Radio: Live, AM-750 and FM-103.7 KFQD

Numbers game

The Alaska Aces in the ECHL regular season used 43 players, which is the most in the franchise’s 11 seasons on the circuit, yet still below the league average of 46.29 players per team this season.

Here are how many players the Aces have used in each of their ECHL regular seasons, followed by the five league teams that used the most players this season and the five league teams that used the fewest players this season:

Alaska Aces
Regular Season
Players Used

2013-14 43

2012-13 41

2011-12 38

2010-11 36

2009-10 42

2008-09 36

2007-08 35

2006-07 31

2005-06 36

2004-05 24

2003-04 28

Most players used this ECHL regular season:

Team Players Used

1) Gwinnett Gladiators 57

2) Elmira Jackals 55

3) tie, S.C. Stingrays 53

Toledo Walleye 53

5) Ontario Reign 52

Fewest players used this ECHL regular season:

Team Players Used

1) Colorado Eagles 32

2) Las Vegas Wranglers 33

3) Utah Grizzlies 39

4) Reading Royals 40

5) Kalamazoo Wings 42


By DOYLE WOODY
dwoody@adn.com