Saturday, December 19, 2015

Reviewing The First Half

By Lorne Webster | SN Staff

After having a record seven players drafted in the 2015 NHL Draft, two others given NHL training camp invitations and having the first 15-year-old to gain "exceptional status" on their roster, hopes and expectations ran very high among Sea Dogs players, management and fans entering the 2015-16 season. Upon reflection, as we enter the holiday break, those high expectations may have been a tad overly optimistic. 

With an overall record of 20-13-2-0 in 35 games played - including a 9-5-1-0 record against Quebec based teams - the Sea Dogs are comfortably in a playoff position and second in a tough Maritimes Division. However, it's fair to say that the team has been consistently inconsistent, often playing to the level of their competition. And the Sea Dogs have not performed as expected against the rival Moncton Wildcats, especially at home. The Sea Dogs' three heartbreaking losses (2-1 on Sept. 13, 4-2 on Oct. 24 and 4-3 on Dec. 4) and one down right lousy loss (5-0 on Nov. 12) on Harbour Station ice have left a bad taste in the mouths of fans and management. On the flip side, the Dogs have actually played well at the Moncton Coliseum with a 4-3 overtime loss on Oct. 25 and a convincing 6-2 win on Dec. 9.  

The Sea Dogs have been one of the top three teams on the road thus far - but their pedestrian 9-7 record on Harbour Station ice has more than a few of the faithful scratching their heads as well.  

In assessing what has prevented the Sea Dogs from challenging Rouyn-Noranda, Val-d'Or, Shawinigan and Moncton for first overall at this stage, a few theories have emerged:

Theory 1 - NHL Hangovers
To varying degrees, the nine players that were returned to Saint John from NHL camps (i.e. Thomas Chabot, Jakub Zboril, Samuel Dove-McFalls, Mathieu Joseph, Spencer Smallman, Bokondji Imama, Adam Marsh, Nathan Noel and Jason Bell) along with Luke Green (who was cut from Team Canada’s under-17 team for the Ivan Hlinka summer tournament) have struggled to find their way again in the QMJHL. For virtually all of these guys, it is the first time they have been cut from a team. That's tough for just about anyone - but especially for teenagers with big dreams. Besides the negative impact on their confidence, it's likely that they were told by the respective NHL teams' staffs to focus on improving some aspect of their game.  Anyone who has played competitive sports - or is a golfer - can relate to focusing too much time and effort into one part of their game to the detriment of other aspects. The talent is there, and the results should improve as their hard work builds more confidence.

Theory 2 - New Coaches, New Systems
When Danny Flynn and Paul Boutilier joined Jeff Cowan on the coaching staff, many felt that it would only take them a few days to produce a President Cup challenger. The staff's combined experience and resume is truly impressive - but implementing new pro-style systems, including teaching game and clock management, does take time. In the press release on Dec. 10 to announce the acquisition of veteran defenceman Matt Murphy, Sea Dogs general manager Darrell Young said, "we believe (Murphy) can have a really positive influence on our young players who are trying to learn how to win (Ed. note: emphasis added)." There have been several games where the Sea Dogs have played extremely well - chipping pucks out of their zone, making crisp passes and getting lots of pucks and traffic to their opponent's net. However, at other times - even within the same game - the Dogs get too cute with the puck, force passes into tight places, get on the wrong side of the puck and/or miss assignments. Unfortunately, some of those mistakes have resulted in goals against and a few have cost them wins. Also, most coaches know that it takes time to figure out which players need light, direct encouragement - or which ones need a swift kick in the pants - in order to improve and succeed.

Theory 3 - The Power Play
Likely the biggest pet peeve of many fans has been the lack of results with a man advantage. In September, with many guys away to NHL camps, the power play was 4/28 (14.3%). In October, the numbers dropped to 7/60 (11.7%) with a whopping five shorthanded goals allowed, giving the team a net plus two goals with a man advantage during the month. At that point, many fans started to point at a four forward set on the first unit as the primary issue and were calling for a return to a more classic three forward, two defencemen set. But the coaching staff stuck to their guns and kept working hard in practice. In November, the numbers moved up to 7/41 (17.1%) - with no shorthanded goals allowed. And thus far in December the power play has been producing better results as it has clicked to the tune of 10/40 (25%).  

Theory 4 - More Cowbell
With the QMJHL winter trade period officially opening today, some fans are expecting Young to make a few more trades. Young has reportedly completed deals that will see Julien Tessier head to Chicoutimi for a draft choice (to allow the young forward to play closer to home) and Jason Bell go to Bathurst for draft picks (to allow the defenseman to get more ice time). However, there is a risk of upsetting the apple cart by making many more changes. The only players on the roster that ended the 2013-14 season on Saint John’s roster are forwards Matthew Highmore (19), Smallman (19), Noel (18), Dove-McFalls (18), Joseph (18) and defenceman Chabot (18). Therefore, 19 players on the current 25-man active roster have joined the team in the past year and a half. With three 20-year-olds ('95 born), four 19s ('96 born), 11 18s ('97 born), seven 17s ('98 born) and the QMJHL's only 15-year-old, the Sea Dogs are still one of the younger teams in the QMJHL. Also, with what appears to have been an excellent draft last summer coupled with several shrewd trades and free agent signings completed previously, the Sea Dogs' depth chart is brimming with talent.  In goal, Marc-Antoine Turcotte has been outstanding. And, after a rough start, Alex Bishop has shown that he can step in and win when called upon. Prospect Matt Williams is playing very well in the MHL and 2015 first-round draft choice Alex D'Orio is developing nicely in midget AAA. The addition of Matt Murphy to a young, talented defensive core makes that unit one of the league's best. Up front, there are nine guys capable of scoring anywhere from 15-30+ goals each. One more top six forward, especially a "game breaker," may be all that this team needs to be a serious contender. However, finding such a goal scorer could prove to be extremely difficult and expensive (in terms of the number and quality of assets that may cost). Any changes made in the next few weeks need to balance the desire to go deep into the playoffs this year as well as the seasons that follow – particularly next year with the goal of being a Memorial Cup contender.

Overall, the Sea Dogs appear to be very much on the right path and should continue to improve in the second half of the season.

Photo Credits: Marc Henwood/Station Nation

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