Thursday, 20 June 2013

Ramble On

Happy monthly summertime blog post, everyone! Due to the fact that very little hockey is being played right now (although what is being played is outstanding), I feel very little need to post. That, and it's just a busy time of year for me, particularly with work. But it's a quiet night on the couch... there's a refreshing beverage at arm's length, a dog at my feet and the Red Sox just opened up a 1-0 lead over the Tigers. What better time to go over recent and semi-recent doings than right now? So pull up a chair, as I give my thoughts on...


The Memorial Cup Champion Halifax Mooseheads

Last time I added anything to this blog, the Moose were getting ready to open their tournament against Portland. That night, Halifax came from 3-1 down to defeat the Winterhawks, 7-4. They would defeat the WHL champs one more time. That would've been eight days later in the Memorial Cup final. 

Let's get one thing out of the way right off the top... you always want to see a team that you follow win it all, first and foremost. Therefore, I would be lying if I said I was rooting for the Moose all the way. However, no matter what your thoughts towards Dominique Ducharme's crew were, you would be kidding yourself if you didn't consider them the most worthy club to send out west. There comes a time when you simply have to step back and really consider who the biggest winners are. And these guys were winners in every sense. They knew how to overcome adversity (see Game 4 of the Q finals and the previously mentioned round robin game against Portland), they backed each other up in every way and although they probably could've gone very far on pure skill alone, they seldom forgot to augment that with a solid work ethic and professional attitude. Anyone who follows junior hockey closely realizes this is as much a game of mistakes in that those mistakes come more frequently at this level. The so-called "little things" that the pros do don't usually get done at this level. However, this Mooseheads club was as adept at executing those finer aspects of the game (I'm talking positioning and angling, legally taking the stick out of opponent's hands, knowing when to press and when to back off, etc) as any team I've seen in 18 years of watching junior hockey. They were as close to a professional level team as we may ever see in the Q. 

Congrats to the champs... and Robert Irving, take note of that rebuilding plan. Although you disagreed with the sentiment this past season, patience really is a virtue.


2-0 Sox over Detroit, by the way. If it wasn't for Daniel Nava, Jose Iglesias would have to be the most underrated player on the team by a mile.


The Search for a New Head Coach in Moncton

As has been reported, the hunt for a new coach has resulted in the narrowing down to about 325 candidates. I can appreciate the Wildcats exercising patience on this front (again, I hope they carry this theme with them for the next few seasons), but I hope that even at the end of the search, the candidate that's determined to be the best fit (which is to say, not necessarily the biggest name) is the guy who gets the gig.

I'm not going to say who specifically I would like to see behind the bench as I am not familiar enough with all the candidates... in fact, it's not common knowledge at this point who all the candidates are, anyway. Everything is speculation. I do know this much however... I come from the school of thought that there are coaches with certain types of backgrounds that I think would make a more fitting candidate.

For one, I'm not overly struck on the notion of bringing in any longtime university coaches. Junior hockey is a totally different animal than the university level. Coaching young men in the 16-20 age bracket involves a lot more teaching in addition to implementing of systems. University hockey tends to be more of the latter than the former. This is not to say that a coach from the collegiate ranks would be a poor choice. What it does mean however is that a coach coming from that level may have to do some adjusting to their methodology. And frankly, the team they will be taking over in Moncton next year may have a tough enough time grasping the fundamentals as it is.

I'm also not convinced a veteran of the pro coaching ranks would be ideal. The Cats truly lucked out with the rehiring of Danny Flynn back in 2007. Their previous coach (John Torchetti... who had pro coaching experience) had gone back to the NHL after a one year stint following the departure of the previous Cats bench boss (Ted Nolan... who had pro experience... and left to go back to the NHL). Danny Flynn was a rarity in that he had pro experience... and he wanted to come back home! Unless that's the mentality of a guy like Rick Bowness, for example (assuming he'd even want to interview for the job), I can't see most former pros wanting to do anything but use the position to attempt to go pro again. In the world of hockey - much like any business - the majority of people want to move onward and upward and some point... especially if they have been at a higher level before. There are a lot more Ted Nolans out there than Brian Kilreas. That's not a bad thing. But it's also not an entirely good thing as this Wildcats club starts from scratch all over again.

The prime candidate for my money - if one exists - is a guy like Dominique Ducharme. Previous winning history at a lower level. Looking to advance but not looking at the job as a quick fix before getting a pro opportunity. And someone fresh and new in the ranks of the QMJHL coaching fraternity (i.e. someone eager to make a good first impression). That said - although there's been little mentioned of him among other candidates - a guy like Bruce Richardson intrigues me. 

Richardson had been a scrappy, two way center in the Q with Sherbrooke and Chicoutimi in the late 90's. My most lasting impression of him in junior was probably the time he ran JF Damphousse during a playoff series in 1998 (so yeah... he did what he thought he had to do). After trolling around the minors and the British Hockey League for a number of years, Richardson settled down in Chateauguay, coaching the Quebec Midget AAA Grenadiers and taking them to within a game of the league finals. He has expressed an interest in advancing in his coaching career and if his will to win is anything near the level it was as a player, he - or someone of his ilk - would make a very intriguing candidate.

At any rate, I hope whoever lands here is willing to stick around for a few years. Also, bring patience. Lots of patience. Because you see, the Cats had to get a little creative at...


The QMJHL Entry Draft

So does this mean the team will be obliged to offer a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner before home games? Because I'm pretty sure Valmond Bourque won't like that one. There could be as many as eight US born players in the Wildcats' lineup this coming season as seven of the eight selected by the team have reportedly agreed to report to camp. Plus there's Connor Garland, looking to translate his early success of last season into a super cute sophomore season. 

I understand why they did it. When you're in a rebuild this deep, you use all the tools in the toolbox to get yourself out of the hole as quickly as possible. However, the fact that these kids are so willing to make their way north of the border can't help but make me ask something; are some (or most) of these kids so willing to come here because they aren't being courted by NCAA programs? Because that's kind of a big thing among New England born hockey players. As in, it's almost the only thing. As in, the two biggest American players to wear a Wildcats sweater basically made the move here by reported way of academic ineligibility or a fine combination of that plus insufficient playing time. 

I'm not saying these kids are not talented. In fact, the next face of the Wildcats franchise might very well cross the border sometime during the second week of August (and not just because they're named "Will Smith"). I'm just saying that I'm taking the wait and see approach on this one... and will most definitely be taking an even keener interest in training camp this summer.

Tied at 2 in Detroit... dammit.


The Commandos Keep Climbing

Last season, the Commandos did something they hadn't done since their first season in Dieppe - they finished above .500. Plus, with only two 20 year olds on the squad last year, they are turning over very little of their roster. Oh, and that whole dealing their top player last year for future considerations? The best part of that little exercise for Dieppe is coming to fruition. In exchange for Danny Chiasson, the Summerside Western Capitals (give or take a few drafts picks going each way) have sent to the Commandos former Shawinigan Cataractes defenseman Patrick Volpe, as well as impact overage forwards Colton Parsons and Chris Caissy. 

Now the bad news... Caissy is coming to Greater Moncton... he's just going a little further west than the Arthur J Leblanc Center. The veteran forward will suit up for the Moncton Wildcats next season. The Wildcats have very little in the way of a veteran presence on their projected roster. Nor do they have many resources to acquire one through more conventional methods. Therefore, they have decided to go the highly unorthodox route of "20 year old major junior rookie". Although the management in Dieppe has been very diplomatic when approaching this situation (after all, getting to the next level is the name of the game when it comes to this age group), I don't particularly think the Cats will be at the very top of the Commandos' Christmas Card list this year.

That's not to say there isn't good news. Last year I told anyone who would listen (and I appreciate those five people very much) that this Commandos team was young, but quite exciting to watch. Very much worth the (surprisingly low) price of admission most nights. Well, this team is now more of a seasoned veteran team. And still exciting. And very hungry to get back on the ice. 

The feeling I got following last weekend's MHL draft in New Glasgow was that this franchise can't wait to get back on the ice again. The vibe - not to mention the direction this team is headed in - is extremely positive. And already, some knowledgeable followers of the league are pegging the Commandos as a force to be reckoned with in 2013-14. If I was doing more "advertising" for this team than what may have been acceptable on here last season, it's because they were what I considered to be "surprisingly successful". This year I'll be trying to drum up interest because there should be very few surprises.

3-2 Sox... heading to the bottom of the 8th. And I'm about to get a dose of the entity known as "The Uhehara Experience"


The NHL Finals

Let's end this meandering entry with a comment or two on the NHL finals. Simply put, it's series like this that the NHL needs to keep everyone - diehards as well as casual fans - glued to the action. Obviously, you can't control who will make it to this point in the season. However, this series is giving the world's most powerful hockey force all the advertising and positive PR it could ever hope for. After what took place in the fall and early winter, this series was just what the league - and just what the fans - needed.

Personally, I want the Blackhawks to win. As a follower of the Canadiens, it should be no surprise that the Bruins take second place in this decision for me. However, that has surprisingly little to do with my decision (I actually preferred seeing the B's win in 2011 over a super overhyped Vancouver club). Simply put, in all my years of following the Moncton Wildcats, I cannot think of another player more deserving of this ultimate success than one Corey Crawford.

Simply put, Corey is a nice guy. He's quiet. He's humble. He doesn't go out and steal the show in dramatic fashion. He just goes to work, game in and game out. And he's had to fight very long and very hard to get to the place in the game he's at right now. There are very few players in the history of the Wildcats franchise that would make for a better example of all the qualities you'd hope to see in one of your alumni. 

Two things immediately stand out with me when I think of current Chicago netminder during his time in Moncton. One is not actually my own story and can be found here - a submission by my old friend Les Stoodley (who if you are wondering, is probably the biggest reason why this blog exists... it was Les that rekindled a strong interest in all thing sports journalism related with me. He is sorely missed in these parts). 

The other is from April 26, 2004. That was the night the Wildcats defeated the Rimouski Oceanic 2-1 in Game five of their league semi-final series at Le Colisee de Rimouski. That win vaulted the Cats into the QMJHL finals for the very first time. Afterwards, a group of us waited outside the visiting team's exit at the rink, cheering on any member of the team - on or off ice - that would make an appearance (ironically, one of the bigger cheers that night was in fact reserved for the aforementioned Mr. Stoodley). The exit door was propped open and therefore a clear view of the hallway leading to the tiny visitors dressing room at Le Colisee was offered. Down that hall, several players could be seen celebrating with each other, hanging out with friends and girlfriends, holding excited conversations on cell phones and what not. Essentially, a group of teenage boys celebrating after winning one of the biggest games of their lives.

Then there was Corey Crawford. And while all of that circus was playing out around him, Crawford did one thing no one else could be seen doing. He was quietly hugging his mother in that hallway. On a team that certainly embraced the misfit moniker at times that season, their starting goaltender certainly was an island of calm - particularly in that moment.

For me, as much as he played a crucial role in the history of the Wildcats' organization, as successful as he was here and in the years beyond and as much as he helped bring a winning attitude to a franchise that badly needed it at times, it's the two stories above that come to mind when I think "vintage Corey Crawford". He's just a flat out good guy. And he's worked for it. And if he ends the series in favor of the Blackhawks with a clutch glove save, I wouldn't be disappointed.

Neither will his mom...she knows she'll at least get a hug out of it.


4-3 Tigers final... Jhonny Peralta with a two run walkoff homer. Where's that refreshing beverage?

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Running Back To Saskatoon

The trophy that honors our war dead... and forms of payment with ridiculous interest rates!


Oh, the Memorial Cup. Arguably my favorite time of the year as a hockey enthusiast. Which is ironic considering the junior teams I follow has been subjected to two ginormous gut punches at this tournament (for more information on the only two days of my life where the results of a hockey game made me want to be swallowed up by the earth's core or punch a nun respectively, click on the hyperlinked text, please and thank you)

So yeah, some good and not so good times in this tournament. However, on a broader scope, the junior hockey fan in me can't help but be enthralled by the goings on during the last full week of May. Last night's opener - a 3-2 victory by London over the host Saskatoon Blades - seemed to be a microcosm of the Blades season in general. Came out totally flat, rallied to pot the first goal, lose the lead on another wave of less than stellar play before finishing strong - but still coming up short. For a team in which literally noone knew how they would react, the Blades accounted themselves quite well. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough in what could very well have been their most winnable game.

As for tonight, it's Halifax and Portland in the matchup everyone who follows this tournament wants to see oh so badly. Sportsnet will tell you this is a big game because it pits Seth Jones against Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. I will tell you it's a big game because a) every game at the Memorial Cup is pretty freakin huge and b) both teams in general are outstanding. I will guarantee that if you are watching tonight's game, by night's end you will be raving about the play of more than these three players. For my money, I'm predicting that this game is a final Sunday preview.

Oh, and if you were wondering - and god help you if you were - how I see these four teams finishing, here's the Coles Notes version:

Portland - The team with arguably the most balance at all three positions. The defensive pairing of Jones and Tyler Wotherspoon is probably the best in major junior right now... and Ty Rattie proved during his team's last game - a victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Ed Chynoweth Cup clinching Game 6 - that he's as clutch as any forward in this tournament. The only question is will they do the one thing that raised a couple eyebrows this playoff season - namely, lose a game at an unexpected juncture. That's exactly what happened twice in their first round series with Everett. This isn't exactly the time to lose even one game that could conceivably be within a team's grasp.

Halifax - Super explosive and uber-talented (and they have a German on the roster, so the use of the word "uber" is totally legit), they were the only team in the Q this season that could consistently roll three scoring lines - and roll they did, to the tune of 16-1 en route to the President's Cup. From what I've seen during the OHL finals from London as well as the handful of Blades games I've caught this season, these two teams can't quite transition with the puck or cycle as effectively as the Moose (tonight is actually my first chance to watch the Winterhawks for an entire game this season). Will the thinner-than-Portland (and London) defense be their Achilles heel? For as much press as MacKinnon and Drouin get, if something was to happen to Konrad Abeltshauser on the back end, that could prove to be the most devastating blow of all. As well, will this tournament - the biggest test for the Moose this year by a mile, in my humble estimation - result in their undoing?

Say what you will about the Mooseheads, they get serious points in my book for playing this little nugget of gold over the Metro Center PA after clinching the President's Cup:




London - Got to Saskatoon by coming from 3-1 down against Barrie and winning Game 7 at the last possible second (actually, the last possible tenth of a second). Great balance up front and on the backend. As much as everyone is all about MacKinnon and Drouin and Jones, guys like Max Domi and my personal favorite from the Top Prospects game - Nikita Zadorov - probably get overlooked. Make no mistake; the Knights will make this a very interesting tournament. If it was alot of other years, London may very well have been considered tournament favorites. As it is, they bring a ton of Cup experience to the table... but will the fact that they had the hardest road to Saskatchewan play a factor as the tournament moves along? Plus, everyone's favorite person to injure opponents while they celebrate a goal, Dale Hunter, has juggled his goaltending during the OHL playoffs when the tandem of Jake Patterson and Anthony Stolarz faltered at respective points of the post season. In fact, Patterson got the Game 7 win over Barrie while Stolarz got the nod and the "W" against Saskatoon. Will that little issue rear it's ugly head again this week?

Saskatoon - You know, I appreciate the fact that the economics and general fan appeal of this tournament pretty much demands there be a non-champion team. And yes, more often than not, it's the host team. I get it and accept it. However, this is one of those years (and the second year in a row, actually) where going in, you really have to scratch your head at whether or not it would be better for everyone to find another feasible way to handle the logistics of the Memorial Cup. Saskatoon is talented. It's not like they're a horrible team. They won 44 times during the regular season (by comparison, Barrie came within a game of being out there right now with the same number of regular season victories) and had an outrageous 18 game winning streak in there somewhere. But therein lies the problem; all signs point to the fact that you never know what sort of Blades team will hop over the boards any given night. As a person who followed the team he followed this season, I can totally relate.

Oh, and my predicted order of finish? As shown above. You see what I did there?

I also predict a new anthem singer tomorrow night.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Hey Look, A New Post!



Greetings,

Any number of things that are conductive to me not paying full (and by "full", I mean "any") attention to this blog reared their ugly head over the last few weeks. Not to mention the fact that, simply put, it's a long hockey season even from a local point of view, which by and large is what this little spot on the interwebs devotes most of it's time to. Writing every day or every second day is great during that season and really, it's what makes a blog like this work. However, a rest was in order. After the Jr.A season and (highly frustrating) major junior season came to a close, the opportunity presented itself.

But enough about that... let's talk about crap! Some random thoughts du jour...

The Q finals are in full swing and to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Halifax Mooseheads are still alive and thriving, holding a 2-0 series lead over the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. I was in attendance for that second game, a 4-3 Moose victory - their 13th in a row these playoffs - in which the scoreboard did not reflect the flow of the game. Two goals in the final two minutes by the Drakk - the last with three seconds remaining - made this one look more respectable for the visitors than it actually was.

The Drakkar remind me of how the Wildcats looked in the 2004 Q finals against Gatineau. Les Olympiques that year were clearly more talented and were in all likelihood going to fare better between the two potential Memorial Cup representatives (they lost on finals Sunday that year to host Kelowna). However, the Cats were physically solid that season - which is to say, they could goon it up a tad when the spirit came about them. Guys like Thierry Douville, Nathan Saunders, Luke Pelham, Cody Doucette et al made sure the Cats weren't going to get pushed around by pretty much anyone. They tried to use this to make a statement at times during that finals series. And when they did, it didn't exactly work. Gatineau were masters at sucking the Cats into those "feel good" penalties that coaches detest. As a result, the O's won it all in a quick five games and Moncton would go two more years before nailing down their first President's Cup. It was a valuable experience for those who got another crack at it in 2006, but a tough lesson to learn nonetheless. The Cats lost not only because they faced a better team... they lost because they didn't adjust.

Fast forward to this season. The Drakkar are by far the more physically imposing of the two teams in this series. The problem is - just like that Wildcat team from nine years ago - they are trying to use that to their advantage with disastrous results. The Moose aren't getting intimidated... and they're getting their revenge on the scoreboard. Baie-Comeau spent a good fifty minutes of  Game 2 focusing more on taking the body as opposed to taking the puck and the scoresheet attested to this. If the Drakkar play at home (Games 3 and 4 go down tomorrow and Wednesday) the way they did the last five minutes of Sunday's outing, there will be another game at the Halifax Metro Center this year. If not, the Moose could very well run the table all the way to Saskatoon. Either way, this past weekend just brought the entire QMJHL season two steps closer to the inevitable.


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How 'bout those *insert NHL team currently in the playoffs this year here*?

- First off, there's the Canucks. A team that always manages to be a focal point in the NHL's second season, be it for early exits or quick thinking riot squad workers. Looks like this year will be more a tale of the former than the latter. And with that, allow me to rant...

What the hell do people see in the Vancouver Canucks? I've been watching this team for years. Been perusing their lineups for years. Been reading the predictions for years. And every year, I wonder how they manage to garner the amount of attention for potential playoff success that they do. The core of this team - this team that, sooner or later, never fails to disappoint in the second season - stays pretty well the same from year to year. The tweaking that is done to the lineup is seldom one that makes you stop and think "that's the missing piece". When I think "key acquisition", I think of guys like Ray Bourque in Colorado, Marian Hossa in Chicago, Luc Robitaille and Chris Chelios in Detroit or Dr. Mark Recchi in Boston. Either superstars in the prime of their careers or veteran guys who bring their wealth of experience to the table. When is the last time the Canucks pulled off a coup of this magnitude? The closest thing I can think of would probably be Mats Sundin back in 2008. I think that in itself proves my point quite nicely.

Bottom line, the Canucks do not give consistent enough reason for anyone to peg them as front runners... and yet there they are, year in and year out, high atop many a publication's Cup picks. To me, it reminds me of that whole "San Jose are contenders" fad during the latter half of the last decade. People kept predicting it until they essentially got tired of being wrong. Nowadays, people seem to try and avoid talking about the fact that the Sharks are in the postseason altogether. And it seems to be working quite well for them this year. Just ask Alain Vigneault.

- Speaking strictly of on-ice, non-extra curricular activities, the Isles/Pens series is my pick for most surprisingly entertaining series so far. Even if the series ends in five for Pittsburgh (which there's an outstanding chance it will), it's refreshing to see that the Islanders are not going away. I think this is one of those series where alot of people forgot just how close in many aspects #1 and #8 can be nowadays. Even if the Islanders don't win another game in the series, their young, exciting team have won a great deal of respect for their dressing room and their bat s*** crazy owner.

- Watching the crowd in Toronto the first three games of their series vs the Bruins - in particular during tonight's Game 3 - makes me realize how utterly insane people can be. Is that seriously what nine years out of the playoffs can do to you? Or is this exuberance just compounded to nullify the mere thought of the Blue Jays' existence even further? Tonight's intro on Hockey Night in Canada - both the opening montage and the scene outside Air Canada Center - would've given the below average fan the impression that the Leafs were in the Cup final. What happened there tonight simply would not happen in any circumstance in about 80% of the NHL's other markets. In a way, it was riveting and a truly awesome sight... and if it takes another nine year playoff drought to happen again, I'm prepared to watch the Leafs make that sacrifice.

- Habs/Sens... is anyone talking about this? Nothing big happening here, right?

Look... any Montreal fan who thought that maybe the Senators would go away quietly was grossly misinformed. Because the Senators by all rights should've gone away quietly about 40 times since the start of this season and have not as of yet. And, frankly, I expected the Habs to find some way to beat themselves against this "happy scrappy" Sens squad that escape with wins like it's a friggin episode of MacGuyver instead of a hockey game. What I didn't expect was for the Habs to make it this easy of pickings for Ottawa.

After all that took place last night (incidentally, remember a week or so back when all Habs fans loved Jean-Gabriel Pageau?), the question becomes this: can the Canadiens erase Game 3 out of their heads, minus the parts that they need to stay motivated to tie this series? Can Michel Therrien - who, incidentally, reminded me last night why I didn't like him in Granby, Fredericton or Montreal the first time - rally the troops and even more importantly, sustain any momentum earned in the early stages tomorrow night (and trust me, if the Habs are going to pull out the stops required to tie this series up again, it needs to start right away)? Did Montreal learn their lesson (and not just the lesson about bringing a knife to a gun fight)? All of these are key questions that Bob Cole will vaguely decipher for all of us in under 24 hours.

One last point about last night: what is it about the last couple years in hockey and the term "class"? Is it just me or does that term get tossed around way too much by people these days? I'm with Paul MacLean on this when he basically said "Oh, now such and such is classless now?". I'm not saying players should be out there killing and threatening each other. Nor do I feel people should do anything that makes a mockery of the game. However, the rules of what's "classless" nowadays seems to vary from day to day. To me, the word "class" is becoming nothing more than a trendy buzzword in today's game. It's quickly losing it's true meaning.

Bottom line, this is a very fast, physically demanding game played by incredibly strong people who have to make snap decisions numerous times each night. Sometimes, the wrong decisions are made. Sometimes, a decision is made that is neither wrong or right but at the end of the day still manages to raise the ire of certain individuals (see the MacLean timeout). Just because something happens during a game that some armchair coach doesn't agree with doesn't mean it reflects a lack of class. Sometimes, people just have to take one step back and one deep breath. For the sake of their fellow fan, their own greater good and - most importantly - my twitter feed. Because I'm convinced that if one was to go back in time and pick apart everything that could be potentially viewed as "classless", the game of hockey would've been outlawed sometime around 1894 and the only person playing it today would be Teemu Selanne.


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Finally, congrats on the Summerside Western Capitals and Truro Bearcats on making it to the RBC Cup at Credit Union Place later this month. The Caps made it in automatically as hosts while the Bearcats punched their ticket by combining their perfect round robin record in last week's Fred Page Cup (hosted by the Bearcats) with Summerside's OT win over the CCHL's Cornwall Colts in the tournament semi-finals. Although the tournament final on Sunday was a non-factor in determining who would advance to the nationals, the Caps and Cats didn't let that get in the way of a truly thrilling finish. The Bearcats 3-2 OT victory in double overtime allowed the host team to exact a measure of revenge against a Caps team that beat Truro for the MHL championship a couple weeks earlier.

My advice - bite the bullet on bridge fare and make your way to the ultra-modern new barn in Summerside and take in some of the outstanding hockey that will undoubtedly unfold between May 11-19. You will not be disappointed.

 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Oh, Danny Boy!

On Monday, the fallout that was more or less expected after the Wildcats' early exit from the playoffs occurred when Danny Flynn was removed as head coach. He will stay on as Director of Hockey Operations (or as every other team calls it, GM) while the team has already stated they are going to take their time to find a replacement behind the bench.

Before I get too far into this post, I'll preface everything by saying that I am a Danny Flynn fan. There's too much precedence in my life as a follower of junior hockey as well as my life as a (very amateurish) broadcaster to change my mind at this point. The man has been a winner in too many locales to change my mind in that regard. He has proven on more than one occasion to possess that rare gift of great hockey mind combined with great hockey connections. Virtually all assessments of the guy come back positive (I'd like to know how many times I've heard John Moore proudly remind people in the Coliseum press box he was once a teammate of Danny's on the Dartmouth Moosehead Mounties) Those type of guys are not exactly a dime a dozen.

As well, there have been a number of times in which I've entered rinks around this province to cover certain events for Rogers TV and, more specifically, gather interviews. If there's one thing I've learned about myself over the years in front of the microphone, it's that interviews are at the bottom of my list of things I'm most comfortable doing. On a couple of occasions, Danny has been in the rink as well. Not only has he always been obliging to give me a few moments of his time during intermissions, he's one guy who flat out answers a question in a concise, intelligent manner. He's a guy you want to talk to, on camera or off. So obviously, this entry has more than a tinge of bias to it. However, given the way things went down with the team this season (and beyond... more on that below), it's perhaps not hard to understand how that slant may be more justified than it appears.

I still have a hard time believing the now former coach was the complete driving force behind this "go for it" year. We've seen how Flynn has built his teams up in past seasons. Usually, it's a fine mix of talent, grit and leadership. When that mix comes together at just the right time, it makes life easier on the people running the show. That's not to say the team can coach itself... but it does mean the team will remain more readily focused on the ultimate goal. As well, the team will almost always display a tremendous amount of consistency. To a degree, they will also exhibit more on-ice discipline in the face of potential avoidable (aka "feel good") penalties. Anyone who was around for 2010 (or even 2009, who did not achieve the ultimate goal but was contentious nonetheless) know that these teams - almost completely built by the hand of Flynn - possessed these traits in spades.

Can the same be said for this year?

Since the beginning of the season, I have seen far too many instances where this team revealed it's notoriously fragile psyche. Be it in-game meltdowns, dumb penalties or numerous suspensions for unnecessary actions, the on-ice mentality of this team went part and parcel with it's inconsistent nature. A number of the players acquired did not have much history in a defined leadership role with their former teams. Being asked to assume roles of that degree with an entirely new team had to be trying. However, the time comes in every player's career in this league where some degree of responsibility has to be elevated. It simply comes with the territory. Or at least it should.

Two moments from this season - one from December, one from the past few days - keep coming to the forefront of my mind when I think about this team and what inevitably occurred in the postseason. The memory from December was the "meltdown" game in Halifax, where the Cats managed to build up a 3-1 lead only to allow both their emotions and, in turn, the game slip away in an eventual 7-3 loss. The in-game event that led to this defeat was an improperly placed faceoff location by an official. Instead of sucking up the bad call, the Cats sooked, whined and trashed their way to defeat. What was arguably a more telling indication of the makeup of this team were the comments made by the head coach afterwards. Flynn - who more often than not plays the role of non-controversial protector of players towards the public - commented about his team to the media in a way I have not seen before or since. He called out his players, referring to them as "spoiled brats". In a way, it was refreshing. It showed me that I wasn't just imagining how this team was playing. And it gave me hope that the situation could be repaired. That hope has obviously long since faded.

The second series of events was not so much what I saw, but what I read. And what I read was updates of Wildcat players - some who's time with the club is now over, some who will probably return - signing pro deals or otherwise leaving for AHL and ECHL teams virtually immediately. So quickly, in fact, that it caught the eye of at least one knowledgeable person from the hockey world. That person questioned the desire of players leaving town so soon after the end of such a sizable playoff upset (some were gone in less than 36 hours). Frankly, I can see his point. I seem to recall a certain Cape Breton squad from - ironically - 2010 of whom some players were reportedly catching up on the doings of their soon to be pro teams from the Eagles' dressing room. The same questions of character that are vaguely being thrown about in Moncton today are the same questions that were asked of that squad. I understand that at this level these kids are looking ahead to the next challenge. I just happen to think it creates a less than favorable image when they all but jump out the window of the bus in a mad dash towards the airport.

Now, this is not to say the players should bear all the blame. That old, well worn adage - you win as a team, you lose as a team - holds as much water today as it did decades ago. And, for better or for worse, Danny Flynn is the man who brought this team together. When still shopping Brandon Gormley to consummate the deal that was going to shape this franchise future, should he have gone for a deal involving youth (assuming the rumors were true that one was offered)? Should he have been hesitant to cut ties with longtime Cat Patrick Downe in October? At Christmas, should he have cut his losses? All of this is now hindsight... but at the same time, it allows for some interesting conversation. At the end of the day, Danny Flynn did what he always does. He did the best he could with what he had. You can argue to what degree he truly wanted to do the thing he did (if you read this blog regularly, you know my opinion), but regardless, he had the biggest hand in assembling the team he sent out on the ice against Victoriaville last week. Just like the rest of this team, Flynn failed.

But as big of a failure as it was, it doesn't erase many of the things that came before it. As I have said before, Flynn is not stupid. He didn't wake up one morning and suddenly forget how to manage and coach a hockey team. He simply was charged with commanding a group of players unlike any other that he's seen in his time with this club. I say this with absolutely no knowledge of the inner workings of this club. That being said, I make these comments knowing full well what I did see on the ice on several nights. And what I saw was living proof that a group of talented individuals doesn't equal a great team. A great team is something you simply can't force... no matter who stands behind the bench.

The now former Wildcat coach has often said he's a much better coach when he has better players. To be more accurate (and to paraphrase Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks in Miracle), he's also a much better coach when he has the right better players.

So Danny, in the unlikely event you manage to read this, I'm saddened to see you leave your post behind the bench. I've appreciated the teams you've paraded onto Coliseum ice more often than not over the course of the last six seasons. I'm also glad the organization is keeping you on board to play a key role in this team's rebuild. I hope to see you affiliated with the franchise for as long as possible. Over the last 18 seasons, no other single individual has done more to expand on the success of this franchise as you have.

Oh, and thanks again for the interviews.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Recapping the Battle

On Tuesday night, the Dieppe Commandos' season came to a heartbreaking end, an OT loss in Game 5 against the Woodstock Slammers in the Meek Division semi-finals. Since then, I've been thinking of how to recap the season of this club, who were not rated among the championship contenders but nonetheless looked to build off their successes of the previous season. The end result? A 27-20-1-4 record, good for 59 points on the season (and an 11 point improvement over 2011-2012) followed by the aforementioned first round defeat to the Slammers.

Despite the quick exit from the postseason, this team set out what it looked to accomplish more often than not. Even in that Game 5 defeat, with a number of variables working against them (series to that point, quality of opponent and, some would argue, officials) they came within a goal of taking the series to a sixth game back at the AJL despite being down three games to none at one point. As the season progressed, this team became more and more comfortable in virtually all game situations. They figured out on more than one occasion how to win... sometimes in conventional fashion, sometimes not. At the end of the day, it was another enjoyable season in the booth with a great group of on ice as well as off ice personalities.

Rather than go into specific details on my general thoughts on the team (read the archives of this blog for a better idea of those), I thought I'd go through a point form version of how I saw things with the Commandos in 2012-2013.

Best streak - From February 1st - March 3rd, Dieppe went 8-3-0-1 and kept themselves in the race for 2nd place in the Meek Division. Included in that span were key victories over Woodstock and Yarmouth at home.

Worst streak - Probably a 10 game span from September 29th - October 18th. During a time when divisional rivals Woodstock and Miramichi were spinning their wheels, the Commandos could not separate themselves from the pack, going 2-7-0-1 and looking particularly sloppy some nights.

Biggest strength - Much of the Commandos improvement can be traced back to their domination over teams lower then them in the standings. The seventh place Commandos went a combined 20-2 over the clubs ranked 8th -11th in the MHL, the Miramichi Timberwolves, Campbellton Tigers, Bridgewater Lumberjacks and Metro Shipbuilders respectively.

Achilles heel - It haunted them all season and right straight through into the playoffs - the inability to win a game in Woodstock. Between the regular season and playoffs, Dieppe went a combined 0-6 at the Carleton County Civic Center. In the regular season, it arguably made the difference between second and third place in the division. In the playoffs, it arguably prevented the series from being extended any further than it was.

Best game - In terms of complete, 60 minute effort, I'll go with their 5-1 victory over Miramichi back on January 6th. With both teams still neck and neck in the division race and the T-Wolves looking for revenge after a 3-2 shootout loss four nights earlier, Dieppe took control of this game early and despite the relatively close shot totals, never allowed Miramichi to gain momentum with most of those Timberwolves shots coming from the perimeter. Honorable mention goes to their 11-1 trouncing of the Lumberjacks in Bridgewater, but the Miramichi game takes precedence due to importance in the standings at the time as well as difficulty of opponent.

Most exciting game - Easy choice here... the comeback. After falling behind 6-3 in the third, Dieppe would rattle off four goals in just over ten minutes (the final three in just over four minutes) to defeat Woodstock 7-6 on January 20th. Matt Bernier's shot from the point on the powerplay - his first MHL goal - proved to be the winner.

Worst game - On December 8th, the Commandos traveled to Truro without then top scorer Danny Chiasson and key defensive dman Mathieu Martin. Suiting up with 16 skaters, the club opted to throw backup Vincent Charest into the fray and promptly got thumped 8-2 in a game in which Halifax prospect Brandon Pye dominated for the Bearcats.

Season turning point - The December 21st trade of Chiasson to the Summerside Western Capitals. It's not often that a club trades it's leading scorer and winds up more successful afterwards but that in fact was the case in Dieppe. From that point forward, the team took on more of a "winning by committee" type feel. The on-ice attitude of the team seemed to change and based solely on the win-loss record, it was a change for the better. With the Edmundston native in the lineup, Dieppe sported a record of 14-15-0-1. After the trade, the Commandos were 12-9-0-1.

Ironically, this trade, which saw Dieppe also send 5th and 7th round picks in the 2013 draft in exchange for the rights to forward Issac Jay and current Saint John Sea Dog Steven Anderson as well as 4th and 6th round picks in 2014, could wind up being the turning point of next season as well with future considerations coming across the Confederation Bridge at the MHL draft in June to finalize the deal.

Best individual performance - Three stand out here:

The first one goes to Zack Cahill and his four goal performance against Bridgewater on October 28th. Among those four goals was a breakaway tally (Cahill seemed to be good for one breakaway every game this season) as well as the game winner in the second period. Amazingly, it was his first of two four goal games against the Lumberjacks this season. The 20 year old wound up tied for the league lead in goals with 37.

Second goes to Robbie Graham. Joining the Commandos a little over six weeks into the season after beginning the year with the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, Graham made his home debut on November 11th against Pictou. He made his presence felt late in that game. With Crushers forward Brandon Parsons sent off on a double minor for high sticking at 18:45 of the third and the Commandos trailing 4-3, Graham would waster little time, tying the game up just 23 seconds into the first half of the minor. Not to be outdone, Graham would stuff a rebound past prone former Commando goalie Brandon Thibeau 39 seconds into the extra frame, sending Dieppe off the ice victorious and Graham on a tear that would see him score at a 2 PPG pace during his first month with the Commandos.

Finally, despite the shortened postseason, Connor Wilkinson hung around long enough to put on the most spectacular goaltending performance at the AJL this season. With Dieppe facing elimination in Game 4, the 19 year old netminder - who had struggled in nets during the first two games of the series - bounced back in incredible fashion, reading the play and tracking the puck with outstanding precision. By night's end, the game extended itself into double overtime, Wilkinson had stopped 51 of 52 drives from Slammer sticks, and Dieppe was still alive in the series, winning 2-1.

Guy I would least like to play against - There were three guys I had in mind here, but Joslin Gallant gets my vote. Obviously, I am not a player. I'm also considerably less in shape than anyone in the league (this includes all coaches and most statisticians... though I might be able to outskate Lyndon Pike). Therefore, it should be understandable why whenever I see Gallant lay someone out on the ice, my first thought is always "thank god that's not me". Plus, he's not exactly shy about answering the bell in the fight department... or ringing it, for that matter. On more than one occasion this season, Gallant has done something on the ice that I swear I felt up in the booth (not including getting hit on the back of the head by Stephane Paquette with a Diet Coke bottle). For the record, the other two players up for consideration here were Mathieu Martin and Alex Snow.

Guy who I can't wait to see back next year - I'll go with Alex Snow. The rookie from Baie-Verte, Newfoundland was sidelined with injury until November. However, once in the lineup he more than made up for lost time. As a 17 year old in a 20 year old's league, Snow more than accounted himself in all three zones, putting up 19 points in 33 games to go with 71 PIMS for the fiesty winger. On more than one occasion, Snow had more the appearance of heat sinking missile than hockey player when out on the ice. Combined with a spectacular release and excellent poise, he'll be a fan favorite in the years to come.

And with that, I thank the Commandos for another inviting season in the press box of the AJL. This is a team on the rise and with any luck, they will turn heads in the MHL in 2013-2014. JF Damphousse, Jeff Leblanc and all the staff should be proud of the results of their hard work so far.

Now to get in a few games at the Levesque (and it's awesome little press box) next season...  




Saturday, 30 March 2013

Exit, Stage Left

Three things to start with before I get too far along with this post.

Firstly, I was hoping to do a season synopsis for the Commandos first. However, I've been taking my time putting that together. There are a few aspects of that team that I would like to discuss and quite frankly, I'm still thinking of ways to put it all together. As for the Cats, I basically had the framework of this post thought out in about 20 minutes. That's not a good thing.

Secondly, congratulations to the Victoriaville Tigres on a well deserved playoff series win. Even though it wasn't the result most people in Moncton - myself included - desired, I do take some sort of strange personal victory out of my pre-series comments that Yannick Jean and Brandon Whitney could surprise a few people. These two individuals - as well as the team they are affiliated with - are winners. Even when Moncton did make it tough on the Tigres (which, incidentally, did not occur nearly enough) they found a way to battle through.

Thirdly, this post might very well rub alot of important people the wrong way (assuming anyoneofimportance reads this little amateur hour disguised as witty banter). To them I apologize and can only say that it's how I saw things. I'm not the only one. And I sincerely hope for better days ahead.

Now that that's over with, let's do some breaking down...

If you think I'm upset over what happened tonight, you're more wrong than right. I don't like the end result of this season. However, I didn't like alot of other results that came out of this team as well. This was a hard team to watch some nights. They were an even harder group to get behind. You always hope that at some point, the teams you follow will put it all together in spite of whatever deficiencies they possess. There have been a number of seasons in which the Cats wrapped up the season and I was sorry to see them go. Those teams gave me reason to feel that way. I can't say the same for this year's edition.

When Philippe Maillet scored 32 seconds into overtime to put this edition of the Wildcats' season to it's miserable, enigmatic end, I didn't feel a thing. I liken it to when Barry Bonds broke the all time home run record. I - like much of humanity - didn't like Bonds. Not because of anything he did or didn't do that involved steroids (as I have stated on here previously, I was - and still am - a Mark McGwire fan), but because he was just an outright vile person from my perspective. However, we all knew he was going to break the record. We didn't have to like it... but inevitably, it was going to happen. And when it did, I had no opinion. I wasn't mad. I wasn't sad. I sure as hell wasn't happy. I just was. I didn't care... just like - sadly - I didn't care all that much when tonight's game in Victoriaville ended so abruptly. This team didn't give me reason enough to feel any differently. And to me, that is the worst aspect of this season.

Why was this team so hard to grow attached to? For me, the main reason was that it seldom bore the common characteristics of a winning team. I like to think that following this franchise since it's inception has given me some insight into what constitutes a truly successful team and what is merely just a bunch of skilled players. Fans in Moncton have had the luxury of watching three great teams over the last decade - the 2004 Presidents Cup Finalists, as well as the 2006 and 2010 championship squads. If you look at the rosters of the three teams noted above and have any sense of history regarding the Q, you'll notice right away that all of those clubs were flat out deeper and more talented on paper. However, it runs deeper than that. With those three clubs, you always knew they had that fine combination of skill as well as leadership to not only succeed, but be very likable in the process. If they hit a difficult patch, they usually tried their best to rectify it. They pulled in the same direction.

This year, I didn't see that nearly as much as I would've liked. Instead, what I saw when the chips were down was alot of sooking. Whining all the way to the bench or penalty box. Needless penalties and costly meltdowns. Looking around to see if a cheap penalty could be drawn. There was no Christian Gaudet or Josh Hepditch. No Scott Brannon or David Savard, to name but a few. There really wasn't anyone with that caliber of leadership to reign in the team and get everybody on the same page.

Tonight's game was simply the last example out of many. As the third period progressed, this Wildcats team showed no particular sense of urgency. There was no full court press in Victoriaville territory. No creativity shown. No anger or intensity. If it was a regular season game, you'd look at them and say "They're playing for a point". For a team that we've heard - from more than one source - is "built for the playoffs", they would've been hard pressed to be any more the opposite.  It seemed like they were simply hoping for that one lucky bounce that never came. As great as Whitney played over four of these five games - for my money, he was the unofficial MVP of the series - there were many times where Moncton made him look even better. It got to the point, particularly in this series, where once the Cats crossed the red line you could almost predict what was about to take place. And you knew it probably wouldn't work. As teenagers, these players sometimes need to hear from someone other than a coach that things as they stand are not acceptable and the pace has to be picked up. Did the Wildcats hear this enough (or at all) this season?

A few people are calling this the biggest postseason upset in recent league history. Obviously it's not from a statistical standpoint, but from a tangent perspective it could be. This year's Cat collapse draws character traits from a number of other high profile postseason misfires. Like the 2004 Cape Breton Screaming Eagles,  a large group of players were brought in from one team and found themselves at the epicenter of sometimes unfavorable actions and incidents at the worst possible times. Like the 2006 Chicoutimi Sagueneens, they were a group with a high skill level that ultimately didn't pay the price required to win at this level at the most important time of the year. Like the 2008 Halifax Mooseheads, their prized acquisition at the trade deadline was not at their disposal for the final game of the year (although it should be noted, Halifax's player was scratched while Moncton's was suspended). And like the 2011 Acadie-Bathurst Titan, they were unable to adapt to a team with less skill that was playing a tough system. Ironically, in the Bathurst example, the team and coach they faced was the same one that just eliminated Moncton.

After tonight's game, Danny Flynn refused to talk to the media. Some have already speculated that this is a possible sign of his impending dismissal. Personally, I hope it's not the case. Although that's not exactly popular opinion at this juncture, I have my reasons for believing that Flynn and his crew had less to do with this failure than meets the eye. I think too many people out there this evening are forgetting that this staff is only three years removed from a Memorial Cup berth. For his part, Flynn has four other Memorial Cup appearances (including one win) as well as a CIS Championship under his belt. This guy didn't just wake up one morning and forget how to build and coach a contending team. He knows what it takes. His teams always have a similar hard working trademark about them, no matter how much or how little talent they possess. This team was the least "Danny Flynn" like team I've ever seen - not just from him, from any coach in this club's history.

For these reasons, I have a hard time believing that the Cats' bench boss is the only person with his fingerprints on this team. I also think Robert Irving has been doing whatever he can to bring this organization to the pinnacle of major junior success in this country (particularly since May 29, 2011). And I also know that he has parted ways with at least one coach in the past for failing to deliver the goods after doing his best to make sure the club had as much talent at it's disposal as possible. Just ask Real Paiement how much fun it is to fall short in a contending year in Moncton.

Mr. Irving stood up in front of a group of people back in November and pledged that the organization was working around the clock to bring a squad together in this city that was capable of capturing a national championship. Perhaps he should've been expressing the need for patience and growth as well.

Where does this leave the Cats? The answer to that is, essentially, wandering the desert. I suspect this off season will bring with it alot of hard searching. Searching for answers as to how this season became unraveled. Searching for new hockey personnel, perhaps. Searching for a plan to try and make what is going to be a lengthy rebuild move along as sensibly as possible. And, once the season begins anew once more, searching for success.

Success is a fleeting thing. It can be hard to grasp. Even harder to hold onto. It can take you on an unforgettable journey, like it did to this team twice before. It can also slip through your fingers like a fist full of sand, like it did over the course of the last seven days. The key is to continue reaching. Finding new ways to grab it and hang on and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

But it's every bit as important to remember what didn't work and to avoid that method by all means necessary in the future. At the end of the day, your biggest mistake is every bit as important as your greatest success.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

We'll Win Tomorrow... Unless We Lose, Of Course


This will definitely happen in Game 5
I really don't have much to say. I think the results so far speak for themselves.

I don't know what to expect Friday night. I know what I'd like to see happen but what I like has been conflicting with reality quite a bit the last couple nights. Actually, there's been issues there since September but I'll wait a while before getting into that spiel.

There are no excuses anymore. This is a sixth place team taking on an eleventh place team. On paper, this series is a mismatch. The Victoriaville Tigres are a team that the Moncton Wildcats can defeat three times in a row. Everyone is in the lineup and therefore healthy enough to play and contribute. Enough with the "weak calls" and the "we ran into a hot goaltender" and "they play a very strong system" and "goaltending let us down" that I've heard from all corners since Friday night. If you are the Cats, here is what you do. You forget the last four games ever took place. Go out there, press them like you can, play to your proven compete level and get a god damned win. No farting around, no wasted time (because if you hadn't noticed, you don't have much of that anymore) no "coulda, shoulda, woulda". Just. Win. The. F***ing. Game!

Or go for option B... lose. Become the poster children for monumental failure in the playoffs. Sit in unison with the likes of the 2004 Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, the 2006 Chicoutimi Sagueneens and the 2008 Halifax Mooseheads. All were powerful teams brought together with one sole purpose in mind - to win championships on both the league and national levels. All had the look of champions on any given night. And all came up embarrassingly short in their ultimate goal, with nothing but dysfunction and finger pointing left in their wakes.

At this point, it's one or the other. And... just like at virtually every other time this season, your guess is as good as mine as to what team will come hopping off the visiting bench in Victoriaville tomorrow night. Again, I know what I want to see. I want to have to clear my schedule on Monday and Tuesday night next week (well, I originally wanted those nights free if only because I wanted this series wrapped up in favor of the Wildcats by the end of Easter weekend but I digress). I can't say I'm confident that I'll get the chance to do that. But I'm also not confident that I won't have to do it, either.

I understand there are alot of unknown variables in sports. However, good teams usually have one thing in common. You can count on them to win and be consistent. There's nothing more frustrating in hockey that a good group of players who play bad as a team (and if that isn't the most frustrating thing, it's a close second behind Glenn Healy). This team has been nothing if not frustrating. All day long I have been asked "What are the Cats going to do tomorrow". My standard answer is "Either win 7-1 or lose 2-0". This is the most skilled unpredictable team I've ever seen.

So, Cats... figure it out. Figure out how to win. Figure out how to capture that consistency that's eluded you all season long. Figure out what you need to do to put it all together. It's either that, or I figure out what day next week I bring my unused tickets back to the Cats office.

Oh, and to update the above, Phillip Danault is suspended for Game 5. If that doesn't scream "foreshadowing", I don't know what does. All I can do is echo Gerry Green's comment: "Serenity now!!!"