Saturday, November 30, 2013

Will the Bears be a Playoff Team?

I said early on in the season that we would know what kind of team these Bears are around Thanksgiving.  Because of the new coach, new players, and infrequent schedule early in the year I expected them to look sluggish for a while.

It would appear that Coach Haviland was kind of expecting something similar.  All season long the Bears have played similar as they did on Wednesday night (poorly if you weren't there) and he hasn't said much about it outside of general coach-speak.

But that changed Wednesday night.  He let his frustration through in his post-game remarks:

“Again, we had way too many passengers tonight,” Haviland said. “Way too many. It's just a common theme right now. I don't know if we need to figure something out here.
“We've moved guys in and out of the lineup. Guys have gone in and have done nothing with it. Guys have gotten taken out and trying to wake up and they've done nothing with it. I don't know what guys are waiting for. The next step, we all know what that is.”

Coach Mike Haviland can see it.  Guys don't seem to want it.  They don't want to to work hard for the puck.  They don't want to get their noses dirty.

The problems in the organization run much deeper than that (more on that later...this might turn into a long post), but the problem with this team is simple...

No energy.  No passion.

On nights where the Bears take the body and hit the opponent often, they play better and actually win.  We saw it last Saturday against Binghamton.  They came out fast, hit guys, and skated away with a huge victory.

Then they came out Sunday and stood around and watched as the Senators moved the puck all around them and took back all of the good feelings from Saturday night.

It really is simple.  Look at the teams Hershey won championships with.

2005-06 had guys like Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich, Graham Mink, Boyd Kane, Dean Arsene, and (possibly most importantly) Louis Robitaille.

I know Louis wasn't a great hockey player by any standard...but he brought an energy with him to the rink.

2008-09 saw Kip Brennan, Minker, Jay Beagle, Arsene, Greg Amadio, and (again, possibly most importlantly) Steve Pinizzotto.

Pinizzotto was (and is) a better player than Louis, but he brought the same kind of energy to the rink every night.  His role was to be the agitator, to hit guys, and to by physical.  He did it well.

2009-10 saw many of those same players take the ice.  Obviously the play of Alexandre Giroux, Keith Aucoin, Andrew Gordon, and Chris Bourque at the offensive end was especially important, but without the energy and physical play the other guys brought, it would have been a different team.

The last few years has seen those physical players dwindle in Hershey.  And this years team is again limited.  They have plenty of guys that can (and want to) score, but no one to clear a path to the net to open up lanes for the puck.

Think about it.  Pinner would come out and hit people for 30 seconds while going 100 miles per hour and then a line with Giroux Aucoin and Mink would come out and score a goal.  Mink would crash the net and disrupt the defense while Giroux and Aucoin dazzled everyone.

Now?  Nothing.

The general belief is that fights get the crowd and players into it.  It gives them a boost of energy.  And that is true.  But you know what else does...a huge (legal) hit in open ice or in the corners.  Or just a guy skating around at 100 mph hitting everyone on the other team.

Hershey has a guy similar to that right now.  And I can't believe I am going to say this, but...

Joel Rechlicz needs to play every single game AND he needs to get regular ice time ALL GAME LONG.  He brings the energy that this team needs.

As soon as he steps on the ice you can feel the vibe change.  Opposing players don't want to hold on to the puck for as long if he is nearby.  The crowd gets into it as he skates as fast as he can in what appears to be no particular pattern.

Is Joel a good hockey player...he obviously is good enough to be on an AHL roster.  The only Joel would need to learn in this new role is that his job IS NOT TO FIGHT.  Fighting isn't a problem necessarily, but what the Bears really need is the energy.

Pinner, Louis, and Amadio could all fight if necessary (although some might question Robitaille's desire), but that wasn't their #1 role or goal when the stepped on the ice.

There are other guys on the Bears that can play this way too.  Dane Byers has been doing a good job of it so far this year.  Garrett Mitchell used to do it, but has seen his play (and ice time...he was actually a healthy scratch recently) drop this year.  Brandon Segal can hit and has at times.  Josh Brittain brought energy to the lineup when he played.  Jeff Taffe can hit and does, some games more than others.

But I don't think any of them (other than Joel and Dane) are in Pinner or Robitaille's class when it comes to hitting and agitating.

Problem is...Dane is also trying to score goals and LEAD the team while Joel rarely gets a sweater to wear.

Maybe that will change now.  Coach Haviland's words seem to indicate that guys will be held more accountable...we will see.

Now for the organizational problems that are causing problems in Hershey (and Washington).

An inability to recognize talent AND an inability to be realistic about expectations.

Tomas Fleischmann.  Cody Eakin.  Filip Forsberg.  Mathieu Perreault.

Right there are 4 players that could be helping the Washington Capitals right now if GM George McPhee hadn't determined they were expendable.

Ok, sometimes you have to trade good players to get better.  I get that.  So let's see...

Flash was traded for defenseman Scott Hannan.  He doesn't play for the Caps anymore and only did for the rest of that one season.  Fleischmann has averaged over .5 point per game over the last three years and isn't even 30 years old yet.

Eakin was traded to Dallas for Mike Ribeiro.  Oh and GMGM also sent a 2nd round pick to Dallas in the deal (more on the picks later).  Ribeiro was a really good player for the Caps....for one (shortened) season.  Then they let him walk for no compensation.  Eakin has 14 points in 24 games for the Stars this season and is 22 years old.

Forsberg was traded to the Nashville Predators for Michael Latta and Martin Erat last season.  The jury is still out on Forsberg as he is only 19, he has 1 goal and 4 assists in 12 NHL games this year as well as on Latta, who doesn't have the same level of expectations.  But Erat was thought to be a key piece of this deal that would make it worth while for the Caps.  Well...apparently not.  He has spent much of 13-14 on the 4th line and has recently requested a trade.

Perry was the odd man out in camp this year so the Caps sent the diminutive pivot to Anaheim for...John Mitchell and a 4th round pick.  Nothing against John Mitchell...but the Caps will have to get a hell of player with the pick to make this even out.  Perry has 5 goals and 10 assists in 26 games with the Ducks.  Oh and he is only 25.

So, let's recap:

Capitals trade four players, Fleischmann, Eakin, Forsberg, and Perreault, who are all STILL under the age of 30 for Erat, Latta, and Mitchell.  Maybe that's short sighted since there were other players involved, but the fact is...each of the 4 could still be in Washington...producing at a young age...but instead the Caps have nothing for them.

OH...and Dmitry Orlov has demanded a trade too.  Funny thing is...I just told my wife the other day that the Caps should probably trade him.  He is no different than the other names on this list.

A talented player that the Caps either can't find a spot for or can't develop.  Might as well trade him for a few pucks and a 7th round pick.

Quite honestly, his value isn't going to up anymore with the Capitals.  They obviously don't want to play him in Washington so he can't prove his worth there.  Maybe that's the right call by Oates, I don't know, but the longer he stays in Hershey the more teams are going to question his abilities and the lower his value will drop.

Ok.  So maybe I cherry-picked some data there.  I am sure McPhee has made some shrewd deals.  The Varlamov deal was pretty good.  But the fact remains the same...he is shipping out young talent and getting very little in return.

I said it last spring when they did the Forsberg deal.  McPhee's goal each year is to make the playoffs.  That's it.  He will sell the future for the present each and every time and is incapable of seeing a teams true potential and/or limitations.

Damn near every person on the planet knew the Capitals weren't a Stanley Cup team last year (could you have imagined them against the Hawks in the finals?  HA).  Except for one, George McPhee.

This year isn't much different.  Despite their high position in the worst division in hockey, the Capitals are NOT a true Stanley Cup contender.

And they aren't one or two players away either.  Yet come trade deadline time you can bet that McPhee will add one or two pieces at the expense of the future because he is seeing this team through rose-colored glasses.

Ok...but what the hell does this have to do with the Bears?  All those trades impacted the Caps mainly and if anything only helped the Bears with depth.

The Bears best years were built on the backs of Capitals prospects.  The last few years have seen very few high-end Capitals prospects in Hershey, outside of the goalies.  That's thanks to 2 reasons:

1.  Trading Draft Picks for Aging Vets.

I couldn't find a complete list of McPhee trades online and wasn't going to create one.  BUT I know he constantly traded picks for players in the 2009-2011 time frame.  One I distinctly remember was the Caps getting Joe Corvo in the 2010-11 season for a 2nd round pick.  Not a good trade.

2.  Consistently Drafting European Players.

Alexander Ovechkin and Nicholas Backstrom are great players.  So are many of the other European born NHLers.  And there are certainly plenty of North American born players that don't pan out.

The problem for the Bears and Caps is that European players don't always even want to play in the US.  And most definitely don't want to play in the AHL.  They figure that they can get enough experience in their home countries.  Sometimes it is true...other times it isn't.

You combine those two things and you see that the Caps have had fewer top end draft picks in recent years AND they continuously draft European born players who will never play in the AHL with the few picks they have.

The pick trading phase slowed in recent years and there are players in the Capitals pipeline that will likely play in Hershey that have talent and will impact the Bears.  And that kind of problem is generally a temporary one anyways as teams organizational depth varies from year to year as draft picks are made and signed.

It helps to explain though why the Bears have been an average AHL team the last few seasons...they just don't have the talent of other teams.  You can look it from any number of angles, but the higher the pick the more talent he has.  Sure guys that are undrafted or late round picks surprise from time to time, but while you hear those stories told a lot, there are more players helping AHL and NHL teams that were 1st and 2nd picks than 6th and 7th rounders.

The next few years will see more and more young talent in Hershey.  But until then the Bears have to find a way to work with what is there.

They have talent, they have speed (some of it anyways), and they have some young guys.  Now what they need is a group of guys that actually wants to win at any cost.

They need guys that will block shots with their face if necessary (although definitely not encouraged).  They need guys that will put opposing players through the glass if given the opportunity.  They need guys that will go to the front of the net and get cross-checked in the back in order to obstruct the goalies view.

They need guys who want to play hockey...not just score goals and make pretty plays.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading.  That was a long post and probably rambled on at times.  I appreciate your commitment to reading my rant.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

More Line Shuffling

This Pennlive article made me mad so I thought I would write a post while in the moment instead of letting it settle down.  Usually not a great idea, let's see how it works out.

Earlier this week I wrote a post commenting that one of the Bears biggest problems is that there are too many guys on the roster and too much roster instability for guys to 'get a feel' for each other and know what each other is going to do on the ice.

Well that is going to get worse before it gets better I fear.
"You've got to look at the results we have now, so maybe a new face, a new something in the lineup," Bears head coach Mike Haviland said.  "He's a big guy that gets around pretty well.  We're still talking about the lineup, obviously, for Saturday.  But, certainly, we may have to give him a chance."
That was coach Haviland talking about forward Josh Brittain who was just cleared to return.  Maybe Brittain is exactly what these Bears have been missing.  I mean he did score 11 goals in 43 games for the Admirals last season [sarcasm intended].

Adding him to the lineup gives the Bears 16 forwards active.  16.  They dress 12 for any given game.  I don't understand.

And if that isn't too many...let's go for 17:
“We talked as a staff that maybe it was a good time for him just to go down and get a little bit more confidence, more touches with the puck, and play a little bit more minutes than what he is up here right now,” Haviland said.  
“I don't see it a long-term thing at all. I think it's going to be a short term. We really like him. We like his energy. We like what he brings to this team, to the room, on and off the ice.”
That is Haviland talking about Tyler Ruegsegger who was just loaned to Reading.

This team doesn't need MORE line/roster shuffling.  It needs continuity and similarity for a while. The players need to be given time to get a feel for what the other guys are going to do on the ice.

I am all for some line shuffling throughout the year to make sure guys can play with other guys, but usually that is initiated due to injuries, recalls, or poor play.

The argument could be made that poor play is the reason for all the constant line shuffling, but at some point I feel like you have to wonder if the 'solution' isn't actually the problem.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Ails our Bears?

The Hershey Bears currently sit in 5th place in the East Division with 7 points.  They are 5 points back of 4th place Binghamton and 10 points back from 1st place Wilkes-Barre.

The Bears currently reside in 12 place in the Eastern Conference, just 2 points from last.

The Bears have won 2 games.  That is more than only the Utica Comets, who haven't won a game.

The Bears have been outscored 12-2 in the 3rd period of games this year.  That is easily the worst in the league.  (They are actually outscoring the opposition 10-7 in the first and 11-7 in the second.)

The Bears rank 22nd in goals scored per game with 2.56.

The Bears are 23rd in goals allowed per game with 3.22.

I might not know a ton, but I know that this is about as bad a start to the season as you can have.  Especially considering the expectations that this team brought with them into the season.

So what gives?  Why is this team "under-performing"?

Well, for one, I figured they would be a slow starting team already.  Lots of new faces and a new coach usually spells a slow start for teams.  The 2006 Calder Cup winning Bears lost 5 of their first 9 games.

So some of this is to be expected.

But even that team won 4 in their first 9.

Now maybe if the referees this past weekend wouldn't have (potentially) blown 2 calls the outcomes would have been different.  If you haven't been paying attention there was a goal waved off in the Wilkes-Barre game on Saturday that sure looked in to everyone but referee Ryan Fraser.  And on Sunday another goal was waved off due to a phantom hand pass.

The thing will sports (and life) is that you can't know what would have happened if those calls go the other way, but we would all love to believe things would have worked out.

Hershey would have tied the game Saturday 3-3 and likely gone to overtime against the Pens.  And Sunday the Bears (theoretically) would have been up 4-2 after one period instead of 3-2.  And (theoretically) it would have ended 4-3.

Obviously that is a short-sighted look at it, but it's my blog and I chose to do that.

If the Bears manage to win those 2 games then they would have 4 wins and 5 losses after 9 games...the same as the 05-06 Bears.

But just because there is a new coach and players doesn't explain it all either.  Yes it will take time, but at some point things have to start going better.

Why hasn't that happened?

My personal belief?  Too many mouths to feed and a lack of consistency in the lineup.

Hershey has not had the same lineup for any 2 games this year.  9 games...different lineup each game.  And that is just the overall lineup.  My guess is you have seen different lines and defensive pairings in each game as well.

The problem with this is that guys can't learn tendencies and adjust to each other on the fly if they aren't playing with each other on a regular basis.

Look at the Caps.  When healthy they generally run the exact same lineup out each night with maybe a slight adjustment on the 4th line.  They don't change the top lines and pairings unless a guy is struggling or there is an injury.

You could make the argument for practice, but you can't accurately simulate game moments during practice.
Now this isn't to say that the Bears will never get it unless Haviland sticks with a certain lineup.  No, they will figure it out, but the longer he toys with lineups and lines the longer it will take.

Some of this is out of Haviland's hands.  When the Caps send Dmitry Orlov down on a Sunday with the express purpose of him dressing and playing, he has to do it.

But the more you can go with a constant lineup the better the Bears will get.

Part of this problem goes beyond Haviland and onto Yingst for signing too many veterans for the 3rd straight year.  I understand wanting to have veteran leadership in the locker room, but to have 6 guys for 5 spots seems like you are just asking for trouble.

Sure, it often times 'works itself out' with injuries, but it is more often an issue.  Right now you have 6 veterans and Strachan is the only defenseman.  He sat out one game.

Derek Whitmore, Jeff Taffe, and Dane Byers are veterans and they have played every game so far.  Rightfully so as they are probably 3 of the best players so far.

But that means that between Jamie Johnson and Brandon Segal, one guy has to sit every night.  Both of those guys can play, but they play different roles.  Segal is a physical guy that can play on the bottom two lines, while Johnson is an offensive-minded player with more skill situated best on the top 2 lines.

So when Johnson is in the top 2 lines see a change and then when he sits someone else moves up.  Segal moving in and out of the lineup is less disruptive as he has mostly played on the 4th line from what I have seen.

Obviously this is all a small sample size look at things and probably an oversimplification of the problem, but until Haviland settles on a lineup, forward lines, and defensive pairings the Bears are going to struggle to string together consistent performances.

What you end up with are periods of solid play followed by stretches of guys looking lost.  This happens because guys don't "know" their teammates yet.

Giroux and Aucoin were so good together because they knew exactly where the other was going when a certain situation presented itself.  But that didn't happen right away, it took them time to get there.

I have faith that these Bears will get there too, but it would behoove Haviland and the Bears to sacrifice guys 'feelings' and roll out the same lineup for a few games.  I suggest something like this:

Whitmore - Taffe - Wellman
Walker - Johnson - Deschamps
Byers - LeBlanc -  Mitchell
Syner - Watkins - Rechlicz

That leaves Segal, Brittain, Mitchell (John), and the largely useless Ryan Stoa watching from the press box most nights.

Defense is a little less important as the roles are more defined and straight forward.  But for the sake of this post I would leave Wellar and Brouillette in suits most games.

And start Grubauer in net 2 out of every 3.  Leggio was phenomenal on Saturday, but I haven't been as impressed in his other games as of yet.

Roll that lineup out for both games this weekend and keep it together for the 3 games next week and lets see where the Bears are then.

Oh By The Way:

The lone two game stretch that saw consistent lineups...the trip to St. John's.  The only change from game 1 to 2 was Orlov for Kundratek.  And how did the Bears do in the 2nd game?  That's right...a 4-0 win.

Why Johnson over Segal as the 5th the 5 games where Johnson played over Segal the Bears have collected both of their wins and 6 of their 7 points.

Tyler Ruegsegger was loaned to Reading earlier today and Orlov was re-called by the Caps yesterday.