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.

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