2019–20 will always go down in the history books all throughout sports for being the season of "what if?" Every league across the world was put into a state of cryostasis due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, the burden proved too much to bear, and the ECHL season was canceled. The Swamp Rabbits ended the season in third place in the South Division, on a collision course with either the South Carolina Stingrays or the Florida Everblades in the first round of the 2020 Kelly Cup playoffs. Just eight games separated the team from the start of that journey.
Year two under head coach Kevin Kerr yielded improvement. The stretch run had promise, full of meaningful games. The Upstate ramped up its excitement about the playoffs, of which there had been a two-year drought prior. Bolstered by an affiliation, and improvement across the board, the Swamp Rabbits were ready to take the game to the next level, and were ready play even more meaningful games throughout April and into May.
The South Division proved certainly top heavy, but parity ridden from third on down. With precious time dwindling down in the season, four teams jockeyed for contention for the final two spots in the division, with Greenville holding the third seed when the season was canceled. Overall, even with eight games to go, the Swamp Rabbits banked seven more standings points than last season.
Improvement was shown across the board. The offensive attack became one of the top-10 goal producing machines in the league. This was no more apparent than at home, where they were one of the first teams to score 100 goals in their home barn. The Swamp Rabbits also improved their position in leading after two periods, scoring eight more wins in that situation over last year, and finished an astounding 21-2-1 in that situation in 2019–20.
Special teams saw a massive improvement, especially on the penalty kill. The PK gave up 29 fewer goals, and provided a threat to score. Greenville's 12 shorthanded goals ranked tied for the third-most in the league.
The team finished with eight players with over 10 goals, and five 40+ point scorers. Michael Pelech once again led the way in scoring for the second-straight season with 53 points. His marks etched him in the Greenville hockey history books in points (7th), goals (11th), assists (7th) and games played (12th). Veterans Nathan Perkovich and Mason Baptista, along with rookies Liam Pecararo and Patrick Bajkov, all finished with 40 or more points.
The aforementionedPecararo, named to the ECHL All-Star Classic, was among the league's most electrifying players all season. His 1.13 points-per-game mark was one of the best in Greenville hockey history. His ECHL merits earned him a few AHL call-ups, and 8 games with the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Familiar face Chad Duchesne also climbed up the games played leaderboard, now in 4th, 15 games behind Marc-Olivier Vallerand. The Ontario native has never played for any other pro team than the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
Offseason acquisitions of Baptista and Perkovich, as well as defensemen like Brien Diffley, combined with in-season moves to bring in experience like Mike Monfredo, or promise in the form of Joe Masonius, Karl El-Mir and Jimmy Lodge, all helped as well. Additionally, a goaltender like Jake Kupsky immediately proved he could stick with the program at the ECHL level.
The team will need to work on its consistency, and its ability to recover from deficits. While the team was very strong leading after one (14-3-2) and two periods (21-2-1), they could only scratch out one win when trailing after two periods of play (1-24-3), unable to break opposing trap-style defenses. The lone win in that situation came on March 1, a tantalizing comeback effort against the Indy Fuel.
While it wasn't a completely perfect season (and what season is?), the Greenville Swamp Rabbits took a massive step forward out of the past and into a future of contention. 16 players who played for the Swamp Rabbits saw time in the American Hockey League. A player like goaltender Ryan Bednard, a seventh-round selection by the Florida Panthers, picked up four wins and his first AHL shutout in his month-plus in Springfield.
Or, a player like Kamerin Nault, on an ECHL contract with Greenville, signed a PTO with the Charlotte Checkers and saw AHL game action for the second time in his career after a wonderful start to his pro career out of the University of Manitoba. Forever and always, the ECHL will be a development league regardless of contract status. It's possible for anyone to take the jump.
The tough decisions as to who will comprise the bulk of next season's roster will have to wait some time until a sense of normalcy is established. A core is in place. The team is one year more experienced playing with one another. Now is the time for the next step—true contention, and for that matter, a complete season.