With another spring Walleye run gone bust, it is hard to know how much — if at all — to criticize the failure of a minor-league team in the dice throw of playoff hockey.
These are not millionaire mercenaries who choked.
They are $500-a-week dreamers playing for the love of a game invented to break your heart.
Consider the bingo-ball-cage vagaries of the postseason, where, even in the NHL, the October-through-April pacesetter has won the Stanley Cup once in the last decade (the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013).
But does that mean the Fish should be blindly let off the hook?
If the Walleye are going to benefit from and celebrate the big-time treatment they receive in our city — and they should — I’d suggest no.
It is OK to appreciate them, and for the franchise to hold a thank you event Thursday night in recognition of what its news release called “another amazing season.” It is also OK to treat them with adult gloves.
Four straight years, the Walleye have finished with the best regular-season record in the conference. Four straight years, they have not so much as reached the Kelly Cup finals.
That’s not bad luck. That’s a fundamental organizational shortcoming.
If this were the higher-level AHL, or another minor league sport, we could pass the buck to their parent club. The Mud Hens, for instance, have as much say over their on-field product as you or me. Like all big-league teams with their affiliates, they pay the Hens’ player salaries and set the roster.
The Walleye, meanwhile, enjoy their affiliation with the Red Wings but call their own shots. For as much as we like to think of the ECHL as a developmental league, Toledo players know in their heart the NHL is but a telescopic dream. The fan-favorite core of minor league lifers are here for one reason: winning.
Whether or not that happens, the puck stops with the Walleye. Bottom line is Dan Watson — for as skillfully as the second-year coach and de facto GM has led this franchise — fell short of building a championship-caliber team.
A year after the league’s highest regular-season achievers got elbowed out of the conference finals by Colorado, the Walleye got a little bigger but no better. Too often in their second-round loss to Fort Wayne they failed to win the 50-50 pucks, fight for position in front of the net, all the things it takes to win in the swallow-the-whistle muck of the postseason.
“We knew we would not outskill them,” Komets coach Gary Graham said. “We knew we had to outwork them.”
What is it they say about those who do not learn from history?
Look, this is not to blister anyone. Watson and the Walleye are a credit to the community, and no matter how many veterans just played their last game, the franchise is in good shape. It remains too attractive of a destination, in no small part because of a fan base that sold out its beautiful downtown arena 28 times this year.
Still, until Toledo builds a team that can win when it matters most, it is fair to wonder what could have — and perhaps should have — been.
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