Monday, 30 November 2015

Grizzlies Mid-Term Report Card: B

It is hard to believe that we are already at the proverbial halfway mark on this 2015/16 BCHL Regular Season, so it is time once again to provide you with your Grizzlies Mid Term Report Card.  So let’s get straight to it:
The Big Picture: A
Six months ago, the Grizzlies were mired in a quagmire of negotiations with WSPR and spent a summer coming very close to turning the lights out on the entire franchise.  Let’s just not forget that not so insignificant point.  That said, with only 6 returning veterans who played in all 58 regular season games last year, you had to know that this year was going to be a rebuild year.  Remember too that among those returning 6 veterans was a 98’ born forward who saw only limited ice time last year.  So to sum up, I will throw down the challenge to anyone reading this blog: try and find me any team in the BCHL this year who returned this few number of veteran players?  Now try finding a team which falls into that category and which currently enjoys the comfort of sitting in a playoff spot?  In short the Grizzlies current league position and their prospects moving forward is no less that astounding in my view.
Grizzlies Broadcast Banner (not allowed in some arenas)
Yes, the Grizzlies after 30 games are 11-16-0-3, yes they have scored only 80 goals and yes they own the absolute rock bottom Powerplay in the league.  But try and look at this first term by breaking it down into thirds.  In the first ten games of the season, with Cody Van Lierop and Brett Stirling largely out of the lineup, the Grizzlies were 1-9.  Then Coach Didmon started tweaking his lineup with a few moves and the team went 5-5 over the next ten games.  With the short bout of injuries mostly cleared up, the Grizzlies went 5-5 in the last ten games.  What that tells me is that the club is on the rise.  Now let’s break down each position.
Goaltending: A-
You know what I notice most about the Grizzlies goaltending this year?  Gone are those 20’-25’ snap shots or slap shots which somehow found the back of the Grizzlies' net.  How many times last season did the Grizzlies lead a game late or go into OT and end up giving up a goal like that?  Plenty.  In fact the playoffs ended on a OT goal from 25'.  With Matt Galajda and Mitchell Benson, you just aren’t seeing that this year.  These guys are flat out the best pair of 18 year old rookie goalies the league has seen in years.  Forget about the Grizzlies organization, the BCHL rarely sees a pair of young rookie goalies on the same team with this amount of upside.  They each own identical save percentages at just over .900 and rarely do either of them let in that soft goal.  Frankly, I think goaltending has been nothing short of excellent so far this eason and therefore they earn a grade of A-.
#31 Benson has been an excellent backup all season (photo: K. Robinson)
Defencemen: A-
If I had to pick the best D-man on the club in the first half of the year I would say rock steady Cody Van Lierop. But very quickly I would offer Brett Stirling an Honourable Mention as he has become healthy and really found his legs in the last month.  That pair has only to look as far as Kevin Massy's 14 points as the offensive leader on the blue line to see more solid play at that position. And those players are immediately backed up by the D pairing I am starting to call ``Team America World-D``.  The Wisconsin and Illinois born D-pairing of Chuck Bennis and Jake Stevens have been great.  Every night these two punishing defensemen seem to live up to their Hollywood film marionettes personages with their hard hitting and unapologetic style of play.  And much like their marionette doppelgangers, you can almost hear them on the bench after a particularly destructive on ice hit, offer such remarks as:  `Don`t worry everyone, all the terrorists are dead.`` 

"Team America World D" - #4 Jake Stevens (right) and #2 Chuck Bennis (left)
Bennis`s recent maelstrom of flying hay-makers in a 13 Nov fight vs Cowichan Valley`s Ayden MacDonald comes to mind.  The aghast and mouth wide open look of those in attendance in the Q Centre that night after the YouTube busting fight lead one unnamed opposition sports writer to pen: “On what day did God create Chuck Bennis and couldn`t he have rested on that day too?”  The Undertaker has certainly left his mark at the halfway point of the season and with Drayson Pears living up to his billing as perhaps the best rookie #6 D-man in the BCHL, the Grizzlies D Corps easily gets an A-.   And if it were not for a few of the D men earning dubious plus/minus ratings over the first half of the year, the grade may have been higher.
Forwards: C-
The Top Line, aka the CCM Line of Cole Pickup, PJ Conlon and Mitch Barker are at worst a plus/minus "Even" each night and that says a lot when you consider the opposition they face each game.  Can they score more?  Sure, but none of these players has ever been asked to be anything more than medium level scorers in this league, so asking them to suddenly score 30+ goals is in my view asking too much.  The Smoothie Line of Brayden Gelsinger, Dante Hahn and whomever joins that pair with the departure of Colby Livingstone has been uniformly excellent; this line can flat out score.  But the most interesting line on the club in my view is The Shock and Awe Line of Tyler Welsh, Keyvan Mokhtari and Nick Guiney.  These guys just seem to get better every night and if they continue to grow at this rate, they may become by Playoff time the most dangerous 3rd Line in the league. 
Shock and Awe Line's #18 Nick Guiney (photo: K. Robinson)
Then we have a group of forwards who I like to refer to as “The Plumbers” and I don’t mean any reference to Richard Nixon’s incompetent 1972 Watergate Burglars.  The Plumbers are the type of workers who show up with a metal lunch box and a bunch of tools and get down and do all the dirty work, the work nobody else likes to do.  The Plumbers take the necessary penalties, they make the big hit, block a huge shot and they are lead by the young Vermont native, #61, Alex Peck.  Peck’s jersey number alone describes why he is the undisputed leader of The Plumbers as he makes those tiny but oh so significant plays almost every night.  Peck along with other Plumber alumni Joey Visconti, Luc Soares and Spencer Hunter are vital and so long as they do not fall victim to the dreaded giveaway, they will continue to impress.
Nixon's Watergate "Plumbers" in 1972 (not to be confused with the 2015 Grizzlies version of Peck, Soares, Hunter and Visconti)
What has been disappointing however is the lack of finish among the twelve forwards on most nights.  In spite of outshooting their opposition nearly every night, there are just far too many shots which help make opposing goaltenders look better than they really are.  That has to change.  No one is suggesting that this Grizzlies club must score 200 goals on the season.  In fact I will be satisfied if they can hit the 160 mark, but the finish must improve.  More quality shots along with more driving hard into the slot to pay the price is what is needed for these young talented Jr.A forwards to get to the next level in terms of goal scoring.
The X-Factor moving forward may be two fold.  First there is the newest Grizzlie, #28 Jared Virtanen.  The recently acquired 200 lb Centre and former AJHL player may hold the key to adding some size and scoring punch to one of the top two lines.  But the final piece may be the 10 January Trade Deadline and seeing if there is any appetite in adding another 20 year old to the roster which currently features only five.  Watch this space, but if a 95’ born player is added, my guess is that Coach Didmon will want to add a forward. 
Special Teams: C-
It is easy to look at a Powerplay which was #1 last year and view its breathtaking drop to its current 17th Place in the league and ask “what the heck is going on?”  I see other fans at The Q Centre also scratching their heads and pointing to the excellent PK currently 3rd in the BCHL at 86.11% efficiency.  For me, I am neither surprised nor concerned about either statistic nor the reasons for the numbers. 
The struggling Powerplay, even with its league leading 9 SHGA is most easily understood.  Not only did the Grizzlies return only 6 full year vets from last year, but out of that group, not one of them saw even a modest amount of time on either the 1st or 2nd PP units.  Why would anyone imagine that you could suddenly take a group of players who have seen almost no BCHL PP time and suddenly transform them into the top PP unit in the league?  That said, the PP is improving and slowly climbing out of the basement.  Since 28 Nov the PP has gone 6 for 34 and is clipping along at a modest 17.64% during that span.  This latest run, while not fantastic is far better than it has been over the first twenty games.  A key reason for that is that Coach Didmon has moved Dante Hahn to the Left Point on the First Unit.  Hahn moves the puck so well and his presence there has taken a lot of the pressure off Gelsinger who at times was being asked to do too much by himself.  These changes have also given Team America World D an opportunity to watch the PP rather than feeling obliged to directly contribute every night.  In other words, the change in roles are proving effective and hopefully come playoff time the team’s PP can sit closer to mid table.
Improving crowds at the Q Centre are now often +1000 (photo: K. Robinson)
The PK as mentioned is doing well at 3rd in the BCHL and for reasons quite opposite of what is plaguing the PP.  Specifically almost every player who was a key piece to the last year’s PK has returned to the Grizzlies this season.  That’s right, almost every player from that group of returnees saw major time on the PK last year.  Conlon, Barker, Van Lierop and Massy to name a few were a primary PK unit last year and they are clearly being called upon again this season.  When you add the speedy Welsh and Mokhatari to the mix, along with Team America World D, it suddenly means that Coach Didmon has at his disposal two capable PK units equal to the best the league has to offer.
For that reason, in spite of having the league’s worst PK, Special Team gets a mid-term grade of C- and nothing worse.
General Manager & Coaching: A-
Notwithstanding the aforementioned issues with returning veterans, Coach Didmon also lost his Assistant Coach from last year, Scott Hawthorne.  Hawthorne wasn’t only an exceptionally capable A/Coach, he also was one of the best Video Coaches in the league and could easily have been promoted to a HC job at some point in the next three or four seasons.  Coach Didmon now possesses no less than four brand new, part-time Assistant Coaches to train this season, each with full time jobs of their own.  To describe the Grade 6 teacher and Victoria Grizzlies Head Coach as being "busier than a four peckered billy-goat" would be an understatement to say the least.  But Coach Didmon is not the type of coach who makes excuses and that type of integrity lends itself well to a BCHL Dressing Room.
In the booth, Scott Didmon likely wondering: "Does this guy have an off switch?"
In terms of GM duties, Didmon made several small moves and three fairly significant transactions thus far.  With the exception of Livingstone, I agree with all of the moves.  In September, the Grizzlies acquired former USHL veteran, Chuck Bennis.  The Undertakers already detailed value to the organization was felt almost immediately. 

Then in October, Didmon made an even bigger splash, acquiring former Grizzlie Dante Hahn from the Coquitlam Express.  The Victoria native returned to his old club with a bit of a “new lease on life” philosophy in many respects. Remember that Hahn, through no fault of his own found his offensive talents under-utilized under the Bill Bestwick/Fitzgerald Triplets era.  Now as a veteran and true “Offensive Go-To Guy”, it is the twenty year old Hahn who now hears his name barked out by the coach during Powerplay or offensive situations far more than when he last played in Victoria. 

But perhaps the biggest splash is yet to be fully realized and that of course was the previously described addition of Jared Virtanen.  While I was not initially pleased to see the solid Plus/Minus +5 of Colby Livingstone depart the club to the OCN Blizzard, the bigger picture of the Dressing Room always wins the day and hopefully there will be immediate effect with a new 200 lb Centreman in Didmon’s lineup.
The one critique I would make of the coaching is the fact that there are so many talented coaches such as Tyler Matheson and Greg Smith who regrettably are rarely available for on ice practices due to primary workplace responsibilities.  Perhaps a plan moving forward to leverage their talents in keeping with their respective employer’s needs could be somehow managed?  Time will tell.
In summation, for me the Grizzlies as an organization are a B at the halfway mark on the season.  I like the way the club is trending, way up.  Talk to you Tuesday night from The Q Centre - CC

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Flying Under The Radar, Grizzlies Saga Continues

Before we start this BCHL Grizzlies blog I have just one thing to say:  The CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders (I will never call them the Renegades or the Red Blacks or whatever they are supposed to be called these days) are going to the Grey Cup next Sunday!!!  OK, I am done now, back to the Grizzlies.

Could a repeat of the 1981 Grey Cup avenge #77 Tony Gabriel's outrageous, "Triple Offensive Pass Interference" call?
As this Grizzlies Club approaches the halfway mark of the 2015/16 season, if I had to sum up the season in one word I would say: "under the radar".  OK, fine, that's technically three words but you get the idea.

I recently noticed something which may prove my point.  Have you seen the latest Subway Poll on the BCHL Web Site?  The latest poll asks BCHL fans to decide whom they think is the BCHL's fastest skater. I enjoy these polls and I never, ever pass up an opportunity to cast a vote. But Keyvan Mokhtari didn't even make the list for some reason.  That tells me that the Grizzlies are literally flying at tree top level at this point in the 2015/16 season.  Nobody is paying any attention to this team and that suits me just fine. 

So why is that?  Why are the Grizzlies off of everyone's radar?  With all due respect to any Eagles fans reading this blog, if your team starts the year 1-10 and one of your losses is at home vs South Surrey and your "1-10 team" also sports the league worst Powerplay with the most SHGA, chances are that you won't be turning too many heads.

Nope, as we approach the halfway mark on this season, I think it is safe to say that the Victoria Grizzlies may be the least talked about team in the league by BCHL pundits.  And that also suits me just fine.

But here is what is really interesting to me:  the Grizzlies are now 6-3-0-1 in their last ten games, which makes them the hottest team in the Island Division over that period of time.  Remember too that during that stretch, the Grizzlies lost twice to the Trail Smoke Eaters for reasons which still elude even the most knowledgeable BCHL experts.  In short, the Grizzlies are doing just fine for a team which returned only 6 veterans who played for all of last season.

Alleged designer of Grizzlies 2015/16 Schedule
What is also pretty impressive is that due to a Machiavellian designed schedule, the Grizzlies have played no less than two straight 3 game back to back sets in 8 days and five of those six games were on the road.  Its not a season, its more like an ancient saga.  They are accomplishing all of this with a Powerplay which has surrendered a league high 9 SHGA and is running at 7.81% efficiency on the road.   That is pretty unbelievable and when you think about it.

So how is this possible you ask?  here is how:

Nov 10 - Grizzlies 5 at Powell River 2. The Grizzlies, after nearly vomiting their entire way across the Strait of Georgia in one of the worst storms since Hurricane Katrina lead by Alex Peck, (Miley Cyrus's inspiration to the song "Wrecking Ball") and owner of the most sick jersey number in the BCHL, scored a SHG and an assist, an act which single handily doubled his season's offensive totals in one game.  He, along with his billet buddy, Brett Stirling on D, lead the club in breaking the collective spirit of the Kings to see the Grizzlies enjoy the first Regular Season win at The Hap Parker in almost two years.

Nov 13 - Grizzlies 3 at Coquitlam 4 (OT 2). Coming from behind, the Grizzlies force OT at the "Poirier Pin-Ball Palace" lead by the Smoothie Line of Gelsinger, Hahn and Livingstone along with the young and speedy Tyler Welsh and Keyvan Mokhtari, two players who also lead the league in "most hours spent in deep REM sleep" while travelling in a BCHL team bus this season.

Captain PJ Conlon with D-Day Veteran in Coquitlam on 13 Nov
Nov 14 - Grizzlies 3 at Merritt 2.  While playing in the league's smallest ice surface, towering 6'5'' forward Spencer Hunter's 2nd period blistering wrist shot from the top of the circle would find the net. The shot and ensuing goal which would normally have measured at 30' in most arenas but was closer to 10' at the Nicola Valley, would be credited to rookie phenom Welsh.  Welsh who was somehow confused by the referee with the "somewhat taller" Spencer Hunter, was not only on the bench at the time of the goal but was to his credit, like his line mate Mokhtari, wide awake and out of any REM sleep at the time of the go ahead marker by his more vertically endowed team mate. But the club would neither care nor complain about the box score or win and instead travel all night, arriving in Trail like frat house students at 7am the following morning to sleep about 3 hours before playing the Smokies at 3pm.

Grizzlies @0630 posing upon arrival at their Rossland BC chalet on 15 Nov
Nov 15 - Grizzlies 1 at Trail 2.  After team +/- leader, Dante Hahn (+11) would give the Grizz a first period 1-0 lead, the Grizzlies would suddenly realize in the second period that they were playing on about 15 minutes of sleep and fail to hold on, surrendering a crushing SHGA in the second and lose a squeaker at the oldest rink in the BCHL (Cominco Arena 1949).  They would then travel all night and look far worse than anything National Lampoon could ever conjure boarding a BC Ferry the next morning at Tswassen.  All the while knowing that they would be facing the Clippers at The Frank on Wednesday.

Nov 18 - Grizzlies 1 at Nanaimo 5.  Trailing 3-1 with one minute to play, the Grizzlies would give up the puck on  a bit of late high risk play in an effort to come back vs the always offensively powerful Clippers.  The good news was that the Grizzlies PP went 1 for 3 on the night on the strength of Cole Pickup's 8th goal on the season from Conlon and Massy.  The Grizzlies would outshoot the Clippers 31-27 in a game much closer than the score would indicate.

Nov 19 - Trail 3 at Grizzlies 2.  With a first period PP goal by Pickup and a short handed maker by Mokhtari (possible Goal of the Year candidate), the Grizzlies would squander a 2-0 lead and lose the game to a Smoke Eaters team who had apparently seen the movie Animal House and instead chose to travel the day prior in order to save bus legs. Trail would outlast the travel weary Grizzlies team who were running on less fumes than a Chrysler Cordova during the Carter Administration's 79' Oil Crisis.

#15 - Mokhtari's 19 Nov SHG vs Trail on Goal of The Year?
Nov 20 - Capitals 2 at Grizzlies 6.  In front of a season high nearly 1,200 fans at the Q Centre on Military Appreciation Night and with Coach Didmon completely changing around his line combinations, the Grizzlies would have a coming out party in a number of areas. Brayden Gelsinger would net 4 points on the night while Mokhtari would earn 3 himself.  But the story of the night was Chuck Bennis's impression of the WWE's "The Undertaker" as he gave Ayden MacDonald every reason to suddenly "come down with the flu" on the morning of 12 Jan, 2016 for the teams' next scheduled meeting.  The fight was so one-sided and primordial in nature, after breaking the internet on Saturday morning, YouTube put out a new directive forbidding the posting of any hockey fight videos containing the words "Chuck Bennis", "The Undertaker" or "This video hurts my eyes" until further notice.

BCHL pundits have suggested that this image may be the source of an expected flu epidemic at the ISC on 12 Jan, 2016
By the way, I never did cast a vote in that BCHL poll.  How do you vote in a poll which was missing the correct answer?  Go Renegades! -CC



Sunday, 8 November 2015

Is There a Most Improved Award? Grizzlies On a 4-0 Roll

It never seemed to matter what year it was for me, I always loathed the moment.  Nearly every year it was the same thing, winning the dreaded Most Improved Student Award. The school would even phone my parents to make sure that they were in attendance.  The whole student body would be sitting in the auditorium and all the smart kids and all the athletic kids would get trophies and awards.  Eventually near the end of the ceremony, they would present a blue ribbon for the student who showed the most improvement for that year. And each year they would call up this awkward looking idiot savant to collect his ribbon.  And trust me back then, there was way more "idiot" than there was "savant".

The Victoria Grizzlies in my humble opinion may just end up at the end of the year being the BCHL's most improved team.  And while there are no blue ribbons, that team more often than not is the one that goes on a nice playoff run.

When we last talked, the Grizzlies had gone 1-2 on a very average road trip to the Interior.  There was improvement, but it was hard to spot.  The team were being called Team Ikea by some of the young people and fans I talk to outside the Q Centre after games.  "I tell ya Clay they're Team Ikea, all hard work and fine craftsmanship but no finish."

Then the Grizzlies travelled up to Nanaimo two weeks ago and experienced what I will refer to as "The Mid Island Meltdown".  Even after Scotty Didmon's stirring and motivational pregame speech as the bus unloaded at The Frank, the Grizzlies still lost.  Leading 4-3 with 35 seconds to play, they would somehow end up losing 5-4 in regulation.  It may have been one of the worst losses in franchise history.  In many ways it was the Grizzlies' Chernobyl.

Frank Crane Arena as seen from the air on 28 Oct, 2015
What was missed however was how well the Grizzlies played in the first 59 minutes and 25 seconds of the game. I saw an offensively challenged team suddenly erupt with 4 goals over one of the best teams in the entire league.  Sure it was a bad loss, but I saw it as a positive sign in many respects.
The following night back at The Q Centre the Grizzlies outplayed and outlasted the Powell River Kings.  They won 3-1 on the strength of an early lead, great team play and outstanding goaltending by Matthew Galadja.  The next night and it was the Cowichan Valley Capitals. Once again it was a nice tidy 3-2 win with only two unfortunate short handed goals to blame on an otherwise picture perfect night of balanced hockey.  Then on Friday the Grizzlies would win a 2-1 squeaker at The Q Centre on Parents Night.  Suddenly the Grizzlies were 3-0 since the Mid Island Meltdown.

And just hours ago, the Grizzlies blew away a very frustrated Prince George Spruce Kings team 7-3 and it is now 4 wins on the bounce.  What is going on in Grizzlies Land?

Parents Weekend pre-game ceremonies for The Grizzlies on Friday
Before I answer that, I want to explain why I used to dislike so intensely that award for Most Improved Student in Middle School.  Even as the Principal read out the award, it always translated in my head like this:  "In September this young man was without question the #1 worst student in school.  This student was an absolute grease fire when it came to math, English and science.  In fact, this student was so bad, many on the faculty wondered if maybe there wasn't a village somewhere looking for its requisite idiot."  Then they called my name and I walked past Barb Graham who used to like me when I was the class clown, but not so much since I changed into Dudley Do Right.  I climbed up on the stage to receive that blue ribbon from our school Principal with my parents snapping photos and looking so proud.  To me the whole thing was a humiliating episode.  I remember secretly promising myself that one day, I would burn the ribbons.  Remember, I was only 12 and I had a crush on Barb Graham at the time.

The Victoria Grizzlies are doing a lot of things really well at the moment and that starts in goal.  I believe that the Grizzlies possess the best "One-Two Punch" in goal in the entire league.  While Matt Galadja is universally excellent, Mitchell Benson is perhaps the best kept secret in the BCHL.  I think he may even be the most under-rated player in the entire BCHL.  On the nights when he starts, he is flat out fantastic in net.  The Grizzlies are also playing very well defensively.  Van Lierop, who at times can keep the puck in the zone by simply using the back of his trailing skate, has been outstanding.  But so too has the rest of the D-Corps who are now all beginning to add a goals and helpers from the point.

Cody Van Lierop high fives his adoring fans at The Q Centre
Maybe best of all are the forwards.  Everybody is contributing now.  "The Senior Line" of Pickup, Conlon and Barker are routinely +1 each night.  "The Smoothy Line" with Hahn, Gelsinger and Livingstone score goals and cause fits in the offensive zone.  Then there is the fan favorite "The Shock and Awe Line" of Welsh, Mokhtari and Guiney.  The line has quickly become one of the most fearsome line combinations in the league and they seem to improve each night.  There are PGA golf balls which fly through the air slower that Mokhtari when he gets going.

In short the Grizzlies have made a serious turn on their season.  With three lines capable of scoring and doing so on a regular basis, suddenly the pressure is coming off the leaders in the Dressing Room.

But much work is still left to be done.  To say that the Powerplay has issues is a bit like saying that Dr. Phil's guests may need to "do a little work on themselves."  The Grizzlies PP is currently dead last at 17th in the league with a 12.24% efficiency rating.  But if you calculate in the 8 Short Handed Goals Against, that stat drops to 4.081% in terms of overall effectiveness.  The good news is that the PK is second only to that of the Penticton Vees.  The PK is solid and was a big part of the recent 4 game win streak.

Dr.Phil recently discussing the Grizzlies Powerplay and SHGA
So while they don't hand out little blue ribbons at the end of the season for "The BCHL's Most Improved Team Of The Year", the Grizzlies can take solace from the fact they are slowly pulling themselves out of a very deep hole. This slow improvement could pay off huge come playoff time.

One last word about those humiliating "Most Improved Student" blue ribbons.  You know those little boxes/chests people keep usually in their garage or attic with mementoes and pictures from days gone by?  Well I just went downstairs to have a look at mine. 

There's a whole pile of report cards in there and some high school football pictures.  At the bottom are these three blue ribbons and you will never guess what they say?  There's even a picture of me and Barb Graham at the Grade 8 Graduation Dance.  I guess sometimes even Dudley Do Right can get a second chance.  Talk to you in Powell River on Tuesday Night. -CC