Thursday, 11 December 2014

Grizzlies Mid-Season Report Card: B

General Overview:
After winning the Island Division Championship last year and only narrowly missing out on advancing to the Fred Page Cup, expectations were high for the Victoria Grizzlies coming into this season.  Yet it starts to become clear that the Grizzlies are a team full of contradictions.  On the one hand the team is 13-10-0-5, good for a .554 winning percentage, and in 4th Place in the Island Division, still in contact with the division leaders, but they have let too many games slip away all year. At first glance you might say that a record like that is one of an underperforming team, especially when you consider where they were last year.  But looks can be deceiving.

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
Remember that the Grizzlies have already completed two road trips into the Interior to play those statistically superior teams, a feat no other Island Division club has done thus far.  Remember also that this team lost not one, not two, but all three of its top point getters from last year. Remember too that the Grizzlies changed almost all defensemen from a year ago and lost both goalies, including LA Kings NHL draft pick, Alec Dillon to the USHL’s Tri City Storm.
So there is the first major contradiction. They may appear  to be underperforming to some degree, but to seasoned BCHL analysts, its pretty clear that the team has faired well considering. Remember this Grizzlies team has faced the BCHL’s runaway favorites, the Penticton Vees twice this season already. Yes they lost both games, but it was with a combined aggregate score of 6-4. And in the second game they went to Double OT and earned a point. With all that in mind, here is how I see the club at the hallway point:
When I speak of offence, I am mostly talking about forwards but not exclusively. A quality attack is usually only as good as the first pass out of the zone, so the defensemen do fall under this heading to a degree.  The Grizzlies boast four players, Gibson, Mackie, Gruber and Forster all of whom are averaging over a single point/game and there are two more players who are very close, Matt Kennedy (0.9pts/gm) and D man, Meirs Moore (0.8pts/gm).
Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
With 100 goals scored in 28 games, the team is averaging 3.57 gls/gm and on track for a goal total in the neighborhood of around 207 goals. In comparison, last year with the Fitzgerald triplets and breakout rookie forward, Jesse Schwartz, the Grizzlies scored 212 times. In 2012-2013, the team only scored 189 times. In other words, one year removed, the Grizzlies offence hasn’t missed a step and in fact is more potent that the 2012/13 squad under then first time Head Coach Bill Bestwick. Both those teams were strong in the BCHL playoffs. In short, the Triplets have been capably replaced and this team spreads scoring around its roster very well.
Statistics aside, the team has two very capable lines who can often score for fun when they want. The third line has changed many times, but recently has featured what I call “The Rookie Kid Line” with 16 year old Spencer Hunter centering Mitch Barker and Ayden MacDonald. The line I am really keen on however is the 4th line. I predict that this recently assembled line of P.J. Conlon, Cole Pickup and Nick Guiney will play a significant role in the playoffs as they have shown great promise so far. They are not a typical grinding 4th line, this group can score and could move up a slot to earn 3rd line duties.
Defensemen Meirs Moore, Zach Dixon, Kevin Massy and newcomer Jake Emilio have all contributed well offensively from the blue line. Moore is silky smooth and Dixon has a cannon.
Grade A- (Trend: Status Quo)
The only defensemen remaining from last year’s squad is Kevin Massy. That depleted group alone should be cause for serious concern. But in September, then GM and Head Coach Brad Knight though different.  He chose to deal Victoria natives Brandon Egli (53-11-24-35) and Mitch Meek (45-1-18-19) to Vernon for 20 year old offensive D-Man Jake Emilio and former Richmond Sockeyes rookie forward, Ayden MacDonald.  It would take weeks to get a look at Emilio who arrived injured in the deal, but in time he has proven to be a capable and confident puck moving defenseman.
The remainder of the players on the blue line have done remarkably well considering how almost none of them really knew one and other before Main Camp in August.  Enter 20 year old Duluth Minn native and BCHL rookie, Meirs Moore, a smooth passing and skating defender who oozes confidence. The talkative, Moore has quickly become one of the key Quarterbacks on the PP along with the more subdued but hard hitting and hard shooting Zach Dixon. Chris Harpur, Cody Van Lierop and Justin Sadler round out the D Corps well, with solid stay at home play. They are all solid.
Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
The knock on the defense though is really an admonishment of the entire team this year, the goals scored against. At 107, it is simply too high for a team this good, a team which only averages 10.86 penalty minutes per game. That GAA is too high and represents the Grizzlies biggest challenge in the stretch run to the playoffs. The GAA has slowly been trending upward all season and this trend must change. Fire Wagon hockey games like the 8-7 OT win over Merritt may please the fans, but it won’t win anything over the long term. The 10-4 road loss to Trail was clearly unacceptable, but so too was the defensive performance they showed when they hosted Trail two weeks later, albeit winning 6-5. 
While goals against are obviously not entirely a function of the defensemen alone, the Grizzlies have a bad habit of scrambling in their own end when fore-check pressure is heavy and sustained.  The new coaching regime of Craig Didmon will no doubt address much of that in the coming weeks, but a holistic team approach to this problem is required.
Grade B (Trend: Improving)
With the departure of 6’6” Alec Dillon in the offseason along with his heir apparent Nick Renyard, the Grizzlies literally had a big hole to fill in net. Returning from the 12/13 Season, the Grizzlies re-acquired Michael Stiliadis and then picked up 19 year-old newcomer, Sean Cleary. Cleary has shown moments of brilliance in 11 starts (3-5), especially his 15 Nov start at West Kelowna where he faced the daunting task of leading the team on the road after the aforementioned 10-4 loss the night before in Trail. In spite of the loss, Cleary was very strong and kept the team in the game late, helping earn the team’s only point during that forgettable Interior swing. Cleary needs more starts and he should get more as the team moves into the stretch run.

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
Stiliadis (10-10) is your prototypical BCHL net minder, quiet, prefers to be out of the lime light, but works hard in practice and can be relied upon night in and night out. He is also capable of making the really big save. But Stiliadis sports a save percentage of .874 and while that is very close to his 12/13 numbers as the Grizzlies #1, his GAA this year (3.90) is almost a full goal higher than that of Cleary (3.15). Stiliadis is much better than those numbers bear and he along with the rest of the team in front of him need to bring those numbers down moving forward.
Grade C+ (Trend: Improving)
Special Teams:
The Grizzlies' PP lead the BCHL in efficiency for nearly the entire first half of the season. It now sits firmly in 3rd position at 25.42%, an excellent number, especially considering the departure of the Triplets who often made PK units look foolish over the last two seasons. This PP unit is simple, it doesn't get too fancy, it moves the puck very well and involves the point appropriately, never holding on to the puck too long before taking an intelligent shot on goal.

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
The Penalty Kill (10th in BCHL) is also a sound unit, even without PK specialist Storm Wahlrab who is sidelined for the next 2-3 weeks. The PK sits at 78.33%, which is OK, but remember this year the PK boasts no less than 7 SHGF and last year the club could only muster 4 SHGF on the whole season. This unit could easily score well over 10 short handed goals before the playoffs start. And remember, when they think of the PK unit, most people forget to subtract those "Shorties" from the totals for Goals Against on the PK. That correction changes the math around significantly and it is what most coaches use to properly assess a team's PK in the pros.
Grade A (Trend: Improving slightly)
Coaching and GM Moves
The elephant in the room which nobody wants to acknowledge is that the Grizzlies, aside from the Vipers's quiet pre-season Head Coaching change, were the first team to change coaches.  The move was a massive shock to many, myself included. I wish Brad Knight well and he spoke well recently to local media in his departure interview, he will be back in this league one day. That said, I wasn't at the Nicola Valley Arena on 19 Oct, 2014 when the Grizzlies lost in the dying seconds in OT. I will never know what really happened after the game, but the team's Head Coach was suspended 3 games by the BCHL after that game and that fact is simply unacceptable for any Head Coach in any league.  A leader must always keep his head.  In summation, clearly things were not all well "down at the Circle K" and a regime change was inevitable.
Now let me preface everything I am about to say by acknowledging the fact that I don't see the team books. But simply from a business model point of view, I wasn't initially a big fan of the trade with Vernon and I am still not. I like Pete Zubersky as a hockey man, but when he came in to take over last December in the wake of Bill Bestwick's sudden departure, the team promised a return to recruiting local island talent and bringing the team closer to the Westshore community.
Then quick as a flash the club did two very strange things. It went out and immediately brought in a large number of off island talent.  But then it made a very strange trade moving two local products away. Those were local players who would not incur billet fees and they were traded for two out of town acquisitions who do indeed cost the club billet funds. True, Zubersky is no longer with the team, and the trade I question was a Brad Knight move. But the effect on the team budget both from new billet fees and a departure of the Egli/Meek family and friends must be felt to some degree.  To sum up, I criticise the move from a business model point of view and also because it sent a mixed message of "Say one thing, do another".

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
Now GM and HC Craig Didmon is back, technically for the third time and already he has brought in Nick Guiney, a local JDF product. Good start. In just two games he has demonstrated an ability to right the ship and has shown the capacity to quickly restore confidence and fun on the bench and I suspect the Dressing Room. That is huge.
Players are smiling again and while it is only a 2-0 record under Coach Didmon, the team has already seen a modest bump in attendance.  And that last statistic, attendance, is really the most important stat of them all in many ways and could tell the tale of how this team does moving forward.
Grade: F (Trend: Improving significantly)
For a change I will be brief. This team has an identity now. The Grizzlies are now officially "that team I sure hope we don't face in the playoffs."  I guarantee every Island Division team, aside from Cowichan (unlikely to make playoffs) now feels that way about the Grizzlies. Nobody wants to run into this team, which is slowly but surely improving in every area of performance and has a restored confidence throughout the entire organization.
If the goals against can drop even just a bit and if the scoring keeps up, the Grizzlies will catch most of the leaders in the Island Division and will likely finish well above 4th spot before the playoffs start.
Overall Team Grade: B (Trend: Improving) -CC

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