By: Collin Schuck – IceRays Staff
Nov. 9, 2015
The season is long, and there is a process. At times it can be difficult to be patient and allow this process to complete, but the Corpus Christi IceRays have a plan in place to build for the long-term. The mood is calm and temperatures are cool.
At this stage, panic is not in the team’s vocabulary.
“Panic would allude to the fact that we think we’re playing our very best and we’re at the top of our game and still not winning,” said IceRays head coach John Becanic. “Panicking is not going to help, and our players don’t sense that. They come to the rink enjoying themselves, they’re competitive, and they want to win and understand that we can’t get too far behind in the standings.”
Compared to last season, the IceRays have fallen behind their expectations through the first quarter of the season, now at 5-9-2 with 12 points through their first 16 games. Despite their record, the format of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) benefits the IceRays. The team is only three points behind the Odessa Jackalopes for the fourth and final playoff spot in the South Division. There is only a little ground to be made up with a lot of season remaining.
But the story over the first quarter of the season has been one consistent thread: scoring. Through 16 games, the IceRays have 26 goals and are averaging 1.63 goals-per-game, both of which are the worst in the NAHL. They’ve been held to two goals or less in 12 of 16 games, held under 30 shots in 11 of 16 games, and in their last eight games—they have amassed a 1-5-2 record in that span—the team has scored multiple goals in a game just twice: Oct. 16 against Amarillo (5-2 loss) and Oct. 22 versus Topeka (4-3 win).
It’s the most obvious finger to point, but it’s one of the hardest to deny in relating to wins and points.
“Obviously, we didn’t foresee the scoring being as much of an issue as what it is. Had we scored at a moderate clip, I think our record could easily be 11-5. We’d be right near the top, and we’d all be pretty excited. The reality is we just aren’t scoring.”
The team has also gone in a new direction in terms of building the franchise. One of the unique aspects of the NAHL is the fact that there is such a large turnover of players from year-to-year compared to professional teams, so squads are constantly forced to reload their roster prior to each season. The league has now gravitated to becoming an older league over the past couple years with a much higher average of 19-year-olds (9.14 per team) and 20-year-olds (7.64 per team) compared to 18 years and younger (7.86 per team). That means more short-term results and less long-term development, which is where the phrase of “one-and-done” comes from in college basketball. This has trickled into this season, and in the South Division alone, four of the six teams have 17 or more players with 1995 and 1996 birth years, which is over 70 percent of the 23 roster spots allotted.
Of the 22 teams in the NAHL, the IceRays are tied for the fourth-youngest roster and share the third-most players at 18 years old or younger with eleven players. They only trail the Austin Bruins (15) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights (13) in that category. That correlates to more time for development and a slower start than what the potential of the team can be. That also shows what direction the IceRays are headed: building a long-term franchise. While it wasn’t their intention to get so young, the long-term benefits of this year’s roster far outweighed the trend of having “one-and-done” players every season.
“At some point in this league, you have to decide whether you want to start developing from within your own organization or every year going out and getting 19- and 20-year-olds and hoping that they’re really good. We felt last year that there was a real need for us to go out and get some older players because of the year we had the first year. We wanted to make sure that we were competitive right out of the gates.
“This year, we came in with the premise that we wanted to start developing within our own organization and having more than four or five players return a year. Right now, we have 19 players that could come back, and we would want all 19 players to come back. So, part of this process is taking our lumps right now with guys we feel, come second half of the year or even the second quarter, start to get it done.”
After the franchise’s best season in the NAHL, it can be difficult to stay patient while the taste for wins and strength grows amongst fans. It’s understandable and a good quality to have. The IceRays have gotten off to a slow start, but there is potential for not only long-term growth this season but also into future years. Now it’s a matter of putting the pieces together.
FIRST QUARTER RECAP
The outset of the 2015-16 season showed promise in the opening weekend against Topeka RoadRunners, winning the first game of the season and splitting the weekend. It was the first time the IceRays won their opening game against the RoadRunners or even won one of the first two games against their South Division opponent. From the weekend, forward Any McGlynn earned NAHL South Division Player of the Week for the opening goals in both games, and the IceRays showed high promise.
“I thought both games were really hard-checking games with lots of offensive chances and good goaltending on both ends. They’re 10-10-0, and when’s the last time anybody has seen a Topeka RoadRunners team anywhere near .500? I don’t think it’s because their team isn’t good, but it just goes to show you the depth this year in the South Division.”
The NAHL Showcase was a tale of two sets of games. The momentum from the opening weekend carried into the first two games of the week. The IceRays dropped the first game 2-1 to Johnstown in a very physical contest and surged back late in the third period of Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights thanks to the late-game heroics from forward Carter Johnson to net the game-tying and game-winning goals. However, the back-end of the NAHL Showcase didn’t fall the team’s way. Friday was a 3-1 loss to Springfield, during which the IceRays allowed three goals in the third period, and Saturday tired legs caught up to them in a 5-1 loss to Minot. That ended their week at 1-3-0, one of two losing outputs over the last six seasons.
The IceRays found life heading to the American Bank Center for the first time this season, hosting two games against the Amarillo Bulls to kick off a four-game home stand. They played two tight games, edging out the Bulls 3-2 on Friday night and finishing the weekend with a 2-1 shootout win with the help of a late game-tying goal by forward Jimmy O’Brien and a shootout winner from forward Ryan Cusin. There was optimism, and the team was back to .500 again.
Over their next eight games, play went south.
The next weekend, the IceRays ran into the league’s best team: the Wichita Falls Wildcats. With stellar goaltending and high conversion rates from the opposition, the Wildcats ran through the IceRays, forcing them back under .500 and costing them a weekend sweep while outscoring them 11-2. The following weekend, another sweep, this time in the Texas Panhandle against the Amarillo Bulls. They did earn one point in an overtime loss, but the scoring issues continued despite outshooting the Bulls 83-67. In those four games, chances were plentiful but it came down to scoring and conversions, a trend that was becoming more prevalent.
The IceRays then journeyed back home for their first home weekend set against the RoadRunners in an odd Thursday-Saturday series. Three players scored their first goals of the year as part of a 4-3 win in game one despite being out shot 45-20. The scoring was stifled the next game, dropping 2-1 in overtime. The team did earn three of four points on the weekend, a big find at a critical juncture.
That made it three-straight games with points heading into Wichita Falls, but the Wildcats had other plans for the building momentum of the IceRays. The road side was outscored 6-1 and swept for the second time by Wichita Falls to finish the month of October. It also stretched into the second quarter of the season with the story being, once again, scoring.
“The last weekend was not a good weekend. We played a very good Wichita Falls team that just seemed to have the answer to anything we threw at them. They’re the number one team in the league. We played a good series against Topeka. We played a pretty solid series against Amarillo. And even though the scores didn’t reflect it, we played a really good series against Wichita Falls the weekend before. Up to this past weekend, I thought we were getting better every day, and of course we had a setback.
“We’re in a six-tem division now, and we’re one spot away from making the playoffs, whether that’s Topeka, Odessa, or Lone Star. With playing everybody as much as you do, you control your own destiny a lot more this year than in year’s past.”
FIRST QUARTER REPORT CARD
After the opening section of the season, here is an analysis of each section of the team’s play and grades for their performance:
Despite the offensive potential and talent level up front, it’s hard to overlook the hard numbers and struggles in putting pucks in the net. The IceRays have only one player with double-digit points: forward Drake Lindsay (one goal, nine assists). They’re one of four teams with only one player with 10 points or more (Aberdeen, Coulee Region, Minnesota Magicians), and all four of those teams are in the bottom-seven in the league. There is potential, but the IceRays need to find a way to score.
Coach’s Take: “A lot of it is just the greasiness that you have to score with. You don’t score goals if you don’t play in the ugly areas, and that’s a big part of scoring. I think we work hard, but sometimes we’re not working hard in some of the areas needed. Seventy-five percent of goals come within six feet of the net, and if you don’t have players there you’re eliminating that many scoring opportunities. So that’s been a challenge. Getting your players to understand how hard they have to work to get to that area.”
The defensive core has taken a much different shape compared to last season. They’re younger and more defensive-minded, which means they won’t be putting up high numbers of points, but the intangibles stand out. If blocked shots were a statistic kept by the league, the IceRays would be in the top-five in giving up the body, and the core is a strong reason why more shots haven’t been put up against them thus far. Play along the boards is strong, and as long as the front end picks up, the back end will start to shine brighter.
Coach’s Take: “They’ve gotten better, and that’s the biggest thing. The improvement of them from where we were prior to the NAHL Showcase to where we’re at now. That being said, other teams are also getting better. When you’re putting out a couple of 17-year-olds and Keenan Spillum is one of the old guys in the group at 18, there’s a lot that they’re being asked to do every night against some pretty good older guys who are 20. It’s hard to emphasize the difference between 20 and 18, but it’s massive. Maturation, experience, poise. I think they’ve done a great job, and I think they’re going to be outstanding.”
The big story heading through the off-season was the need for improved goaltending, and the team received what they hoped for in Graham Hunt and Dryden McKay. Both netminders have kept the IceRays alive in most games thus far and even preserved wins. The two have allowed more than three goals in only four games and have played in numerous close games, with 11 of 16 ending in a two-goal or less differential. They’ve done all that they can do to keep the team alive. Now, they just need support.
Coach’s Take: “They had a little bit of a hiccup in the one weekend against Wichita Falls, but again it’s Wichita Falls. Other than that, I feel bad. We haven’t given them the support to get wins, and goalies want to win as bad as anybody. The games we have gotten points in and the games we’ve competed and battled in, they’ve been a big factor in that. They’ve done exactly what we’d hoped to do.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
There are two variables that have factored into the special teams numbers so far, and they must be considered when discussing this aspect of the team’s game. The first is scoring, which has already been addressed and is the sole struggle on the power play. That brings the grade down considerably. The second is whom the IceRays have played, mainly in correlation to penalty killing. In four games against Wichita Falls, the IceRays have allowed seven power play goals. That’s over half of the team’s total allotment when down a player (12). So, excluding those four games, the IceRays gave up five goals on 46 chances (89.13% conversion rate) against all other opponents. That not only brings up their overall average by just less than eight points but also places them fourth in the league instead of 15th. The overall numbers cannot be taken out of consideration, but this must be accounted for and respect must be given to how good the Wildcats are.
Coach’s Take: “We just haven’t matched up well against [Wichita Falls]. We’ve had them four times early in our season, and they’ve been spectacular against us. So our penalty kill I’m not too concerned about. We just have to find a way to not take penalties against Wichita Falls. The power play has been a huge disappointment, and not for a lack of chances. Gosh knows we’ve had the opportunities. Our execution has, at times, been O.K. When we have gotten it in-zone we have done some really good things. Our entire statistical board, whether you look at individual or team statistics, is all because we’re not scoring right now.”
MOST SURPRISING: Mason Krueger (F) & Regen Cavanagh (F)
Two players have taken a large step up from what has been seen since last season. Alternate captain Mason Krueger has quietly been one of the team’s best contributors, earning one goal and seven assists for eight points, placing him tied for third on the team in points. He finished the first quarter of the season on a three-game point streak with four points in that span including the only goal in the team’s overtime loss to Topeka. And in that time he’s been paired with Regen Cavanagh, who affiliated with the team last year and was drafted before this season. He was sidelined for the first month of the year due to a training camp injury, but his impact has been large since his return. He has two goals in four games and was part of one of the most effective lines against Wichita Falls in their last weekend of games.
Coach’s Take: “It’s nice to know that Mason, who wasn’t a major contributor offensively last year, has found a way to get points. That’s a huge bonus. With Regen, he’s only been with us for four games but I don’t think anyone would disagree that he’s been a spark plug. It’s no coincidence that he and Mason have been playing together. Those guys have done a really good job.”
MOST VITAL: Brad LeLievre (F)
It is expected that those that adorn the captain’s “C” must lead the team through thick and thin in all facets of the game. There is no doubt that Brad LeLievre has been the leading source of inspiration for this team. His defining moment could be on Oct. 17 in Amarillo, when the veteran took two hard blocked shots to the leg and stayed poised on the ice in a long shift while hobbling across the ice to contribute defensively. While the team tries to turn around their scoring, they have consistently looked to LeLievre and found one of the hardest working skaters on the team.
Coach’s Take: “I think Brad as a 20-year-old captain has led the team physically, blocked shots and his compete level. To me, he’s a kid that’s sold out, and there’s nothing more we can get from Brad. If we do, that’ll be awesome.”
Despite the lack of scoring and despite the record, the IceRays have a lot of season left and only a small way to go to move them into playoff position. When the team finds their scoring stroke, then the full picture of the team’s potential will start to reveal itself and the season will take an upturn. The reality is that this team is not bad, and their record does not reflect the talent level. It’s been a slow start, yes, but there is still 44 games to go out of 60, and a lot can happen in that span of time. The IceRays just need to finish their chances.
Coach’s Take: “Right now, I think we’re getting better. It’s a matter of finishing it. The ability to get all the way through the alphabet and not say the last letter is where we’re at. You can’t be getting mad at players when they work their hardest and are executing what you’re asking them to execute. The bottom line is you don’t get points for any of those things. You get points for scoring more goals, and right now we don’t score more goals than we give up.”
With the way the NAHL schedule has been laid out, the IceRays will take on the Odessa Jackalopes and the Lone Star Brahmas for the first time this season over the next two weeks after their first off-weekend. Their next 13 games will be against only Amarillo, Lone Star, or Odessa before closing out the 2015 calendar year with 10 of those games against Amarillo and Odessa (fourth and fifth in the division). Only five games will occur in November thanks to a second off-weekend for Thanksgiving.
In games not against Wichita Falls, the IceRays are 5-5-2. With no games against the Wildcats in this next stretch, the schedule can help the IceRays regain ground and, coupled with better scoring and a lot of rest time, vault themselves back into the top-four in the South Division. Is it still too early to be discussing playoffs? Probably. The midway mark of the season will better forecast how much is needed to make up ground, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on in case the team’s scoring struggles continue.
For now, it’s about getting closer to the team’s potential and finding that scoring stroke. Patience is key.
There isn’t a need to panic.
“We have to stay confident in what we’re doing. We can’t worry about what everybody else is doing. We know we have good hockey players, and this time off has been great because their energy has been high, enthusiasm has been high, and they really don’t look at the record right now. They look at getting better everyday.
“We’ve got good players, and we’ve got really good people. We just need to continue to get through this process. Did we think we would have been ahead? Yes. I think we were also optimistic coming out of main camp thinking, ‘Well, look how good these guys are and look how well we skate.’ Then you get on the ice, and things change. We couldn’t predict what everyone else was going to do. We could only predict what we have. I still wouldn’t trade any of these players for previous teams. There are no players I would sooner go through this with than these guys. Hopefully, they feel the same about each other.”
A lot has been discussed concerning the youth of the IceRays and the growing ages of the NAHL without anyone taking a hard look at each team’s roster and league numbers. The average age of a NAHL player right now is 18.89, and there are 10 teams that have an average age under that mark, including the IceRays. In the South Division, only the IceRays and Wildcats rest under that level, both at approximately 18.67 years. However, both teams are at very different sides of the standings. Many people discuss relations between having high ages and better results as a result. So, is there really a correlation between age and on-ice success?
Of the 10 teams under the league average age, half of those teams rest under .500 and four of the remaining five teams are under the .500 mark. Looking at the 12 teams above the league average, seven of those teams are over .500 while only two are resting under .500. Moreover, looking at the top half of the NAHL standings (11 teams), six teams have an average roster age over the league’s average and four are under it. With such a small sample size, numbers are inconclusive to determine if there is a direct relation. However, this is something worth keeping an eye on as the discussion and trend over player ages continues to become a talking point among league officials, team officials, and fans.
Looking at the South Division, the Amarillo Bulls and Lone Star Brahmas share the highest average age (19.17 years) despite also being on opposite ends of the standings. The Odessa Jackalopes rank third at a much larger gap (19.04 years) with the Topeka RoadRunners right behind them (19.00 years). As noted above, the IceRays and Wildcats share the bottom end of the age range.
Further proof that, as of this early point in the season, age is not directly a factor in player performance. That could change as the year goes on and does not factor talent into the equation.
Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Corpus Christi IceRays. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CollinDSchuck.