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

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