Well, its good to be back talking to you all again, but I owe you all a quick explanation about the long delay. I deliberately avoided the temptation to write a post mortem on the 2014/2015 Victoria Grizzlies season until the entire Jr. A season was over. I wanted to wait until the completion of the 2015 RBC Cup, which of course was a goal of the club. Some reading this might scoff at the thought of that goal and think it a bit lofty, but not me and perhaps by the end of this, you might feel the same way.
But before I get into a dissection of the season I want to acknowledge the loss of several players from the roster and wish them all well in the future. At the time of the writing of this blog, we have just recently learned in the last few hours that the Grizzlies will be giving up Forward Ayden McDonald (96) and Defenseman Chris Harpur (96) to the Cowichan Valley Capitals in exchange for the futures in the Thomas Gobeil (94) Jan 10th trade. The acquisition of Gobeil instantly made the Grizzlies better and I still think it was the right move for the club; the deal took guts by both organizations. But I also remember at the time quietly thinking to myself that one day that deal will cost the club and now that day has come. Two weeks ago we saw the leader of The Hands Line, Brett Gruber (96) drafted #2 overall in the USHL Draft by the Green Bay Gamblers. Gruber will move back to his native state of Wisconsin next year and play out his Junior Hockey career as a forward with the Gamblers.
With Shawn McBride (95), Jay Mackie (95), Dane Gibson (94), Meirs Moore (94), Matt Kennedy (95) and Jake Emilio (94) all off to respective 2015/16 NCAA scholarships and with a few more likely on the way for next season, the Grizzlies will no doubt have a few open spots at Training Camp which is just 90 days away if you can believe that. And forget not that Gobeil is off to play Pro Hockey possibly in the ECHL next year. Add to Gobeil, the loss of Team Leader in Plus/Minus, Zach Dixon (94) on defence and suddenly the task of Grizzlies Scouts and Coaches just got even bigger. Last but not the least is #1 net minder Michael Stiliadis who has aged out and suddenly the Grizzlies will face an August Main Training Camp with the task of filling a minimum 12 roster spots. That is a tall order, but not an impossible one for Coach Didmon and his staff.
But before we get to August Training Camp, let’s look back and do a proper post mortem on this past, tumultuous 2014/15 Season.
After losing Game 6 of Round 1 in OT to the Powell River Kings, I think we all felt a sense of profound disappointment, especially considering the manner in which the Grizzlies came back so late in that game and nearly pulled off the miraculous comeback. Had the Grizzlies won that game in OT, a game which saw Zach Dixon hit a post just moments into OT, perhaps the story would have been different. My guess is that the Grizzlies would have gone on a bit of a run in the playoffs, but in the end, we will never know. That’s hockey.
In the meantime, I want to reflect for a moment on what I consider to have been a transformational year for Grizzlies. The pink elephant in the room and the knock on the Victoria Grizzlies for years has been the front office. You only need to go as far as the nearest BCHL Blog site and you will find many vilified comments about the club’s struggles in terms of ownership, management, a litany coaches and multiple behind the scenes dramas. Right or wrong, that has been the narrative of the club for years. The truth is that you will find many of the same issues in most Junior Hockey clubs anywhere.
What I try and remind people when they spout that narrative about the Grizzlies is this: The Victoria Grizzlies were the only team in the BCHL to see a change in Head Coach/GM during the course of the Regular Season and it was a highly successful change in essentially all respects. Next, the Grizzlies took major steps in early December to reset the ownership model and set firmly in place an ownership team which featured the fans, the community, the club and local business/sponsorship all on the same page. The fans responded and a lot less of those burgundy seats at Q Centre were visible on game nights. The team started winning immediately and climbing in the standings. Things were looking up. By January at the trade deadline, the Grizzlies pulled off the biggest player move I have seen the club make since the Steve Sigaty deal way back with the 2000/2001 Salsa. The team acquired the aforementioned QMJHL phenome, Thomas Gobeil from Cowichan and with the undisputed #1 Power Play in the league it started to look like the Grizzlies might be ready to go on a run in the playoffs. The Hands Line was firing on all cylinders with Brett Gruber, Matt Kennedy and Dane Gibson almost unstoppable on certain nights. The team boasted what I have long said was the best defensive core in the history of the organization going back to 1991 when I first started following the Victoria Warriors out at the old JDF Arena. The PK was very solid this year as well. And the goaltending, while not tops in the league, certainly was coming along to the point where you started thinking, maybe…maybe.
In short, by season’s end, in spite of the crippling loss of Matt Kennedy to a season ending shoulder injury, the team went on a 8-0 run down the stretch and many considered the Grizzlies as the most dangerous team in the BCHL heading into the Playoffs. Well it didn’t quite work out that way and in the end the Grizzlies had to shake hands with Powell River at the Q Centre and wish the Kings well on their way the Second Round. So I thought that we would give the team its year end report card in terms of where it ended up. This time I chose six basic team categories to sum it all up: Goal, Forwards, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, Ownership/Management. Here is how I saw it at year’s end:
Goaltending was good, but it never became great as it did under Alec Dillon the year before, which in the end was what it needed in order to be successful in the playoffs. One of my few criticisms of that position was what I saw in terms of a lack of using the backup. I felt down the stretch and even into the playoffs that the Grizzlies never really managed the position as well as they perhaps could have. I would have liked to have seen Sean Cleary (next year’s prospective #1) just a little bit more, if only to take a bit of the pressure of Michael Stiliadis and provide him some rest.
The Hands Line along with Jay Mackie, Garret Forster (95), Shawn McBride (95), Kevin Massy (95), Cole Pickup (96) and Ayden MacDonald were but a few of the names who were key to providing the Grizzlies with one of the highest flying offences (219 goals for) the club has enjoyed in years. Every night the Grizzlies had three lines, each of whom who could score and the 4th Line was never a liability no matter where we played on the road. In short, the forwards were excellent all year.
You might think with me singing the praises of the D Corps being the best in club history, they would be worthy of a grade of A+. Don’t get me wrong, “D Corps” as they liked to call themselves was fantastic all year. If you count Kevin Massy’s goals when he played as a D-man, they scored the most goals as a corps of defensemen in over twenty years at 40. But unfortunately, the one major knock on the squad all year was the high number of goals allowed, (210 goals against). A small part of that was the responsibility of the defensemen. Also, as we saw in the playoffs, the team often skated with just five defensemen with Massy used primarily as a forward with Kennedy out of the lineup. This tells me that the team wasn’t 100% settled in terms of that position, so as great as the D corps was all year, they never fully hit their stride in terms of personnel. While I loved their overall play, that sixth defenseman’s spot was empty at year’s end and I think that fact came back to roost to some degree.
Special Teams: A-
The Grizzlies lead the league almost wire to wire during the season with the top Power Play in the BCHL. The PK was also very good and was consistent all year with players like PJ Conlon (95), Mitch Barker (96) and Jay Mackie as key pieces to playing shorthanded. The Grizzlies scored 12 times shorthanded last year which was double from the 6 shorties in the 2013/14 season.
Under Craig Didmon the Grizzlies were flat out fantastic and fought to win every night. Over 100 more fans came to home games under Didmon as well. In December, the team went from a distant 4th place in the Island Division to 2nd place and managed to finish the year in that spot with a game to spare. Under the old regime which was changed out at the end of November, you simply could not say the same and for only that reason, the coaches get a lower grade. If it had been Didmon and Scott Hawthorne all year long, I can only imagine how well the team might have fared but we will never know. So on the balance of the entire season, which included the team’s former Head Coach receiving a three game suspension after a Merritt Centennials road game, the bench only deserves a B+ in my opinion.
By the end of the season with the new ownership group fully on board and committed to keeping the club not only competitive but remaining in Colwood, the Grizzlies are looking very good going forward. The Grizzlies season and maybe their future was saved in my opinion when John Wilson and the rest of the new owners stepped forward in early December. They made the hard decisions they needed to make in order to be successful. With local businesses back on board and with a firm commitment to supporting the West Shore, I would say that this is by far the most responsible and stable ownership model the club has enjoyed in the club’s history. Time will tell if that can continue, my guess is that yes it will continue. Last week’s scare involving Q Centre tenancy negotiations going temporarily off the tracks was in my opinion an example of a steady hand at the helm and not to be interpreted negatively. These owners mean business and that is good for all Grizzlies fans and players.
To sum up, this past season was indeed a transformative one for the Grizzlies. What lies ahead in terms of replacing the many missing pieces still remains very much to be seen. The loss of the entire Hands Line plus 4 out of 5 key defensemen will no doubt be a challenge moving forward. The good news for the Grizzlies is that recruiting talent to come to the jewel of British Columbia has never been a problem. The next three months of recruiting and Main Camp will no doubt be key. As long as the Grizzlies are competitive, the new business model and ownership group will support this club like it never has before. The Coaching Staff and leadership group is not only solid, it represents a major positive contrast to where the club was just a year ago.
So come on out to the Q Centre and join us this Fall for the 2015/16 Campaign. I know it will be a lot of fun. - CC