Sunday, 15 May 2016

Grizzlies 2015/16 Year End Wrap Up

With the West Kelowna Warriors now officially crowned as the 2015/16 Fred Page Cup Champions, the time has now come to close the books officially on the past season of the Victoria Grizzlies.  Let's first properly congratulate the Warriors on a BCHL Championship with a special shout out to former Grizzlies forward, Garrett Forster who was traded to the Warriors last June for Brayden Gelsinger.  Now here is a really interesting but probably completely useless trivia question:  Which former original member of The Hands Line has won a Fred Page Cup?  It's not Brett Gruber or Matt Kennedy.  Nope, the answer is of course that third member of The Hands Line, Garrett Forster.  So congrats to Forsy who also just signed a DIV III scholarship with the St. Norbert College Green Knights of DePere Wisconsin. 

Living Room Trivia: "Bubble Hockey #9 Forsy" now has a  Fred Page Cup
And let's not forget about that other connection to Victoria in former Salsa Head Coach Rylan Ferster who of course lead the Warriors to the BCHL Championship this season.  So let's all wish Coach Fertser and the Warriors good luck as they play in the 2016 RBC Cup which at the time of publishing of this blog already had the Warriors 1-0 in the tournament.

A very happy WK Warriors squad after qualifying for the 2016 RBC Cup
Now in this episode we will attempt to dissect the latest season for the Grizzlies and of course I will attempt to discern what I can about the upcoming campaign.  But before I do that, I want to take a final moment and finish off talking about that plucky Jr. B team which made national headlines over the last month, a team which I talked at length about when we last spoke, the 100 Mile House Wranglers of the KIJHL.  Not only did they upset the host Victoria Cougars in the Cyclone Taylor Cup, but as most of you know by now, they went on to win the Keystone Cup the following week.  And they did it in typical thrilling fashion in the Championship Game, a 3-2 OT win over the much favoured Quakers.  What a season of Junior Hockey in BC for 2015/16.  First, West Kelowna wins the Fred Page Cup.  Next, in Jr. B the Wranglers, against all odds, won both the BC Championship and then the Western Canadian Championships.  What a year indeed.

I guess what I am really saying is that if the Grizzlies were ever going to pick a year to fail to qualify for the post season, well maybe last year was as good as any.  What I mean by that is that after the wild post season we just witnessed, not to mention the incredible year in Jr. B, few I doubt will recall that small detail about the Grizzlies non-playoff berth any time soon.  After all of the dust settled, it suddenly seemed to me in both Jr. A and in Jr. B that there were certain clubs with almost preordained destinies.  With that said, let's take a moment and pull out the box scores and review this past 2015/16 season.  For one final time let's look back at what was one of the most unusual and tumultuous seasons of Grizzlies Hockey.

I have tried to remind fans of the Grizzlies to step back and look at the bigger picture when they contemplate the past season and the somewhat disappointing end to the year.  What people often forget is that at this time last year, that the franchise was embroiled in a fairly heated lease negotiation with West Shore Parks and Recreation (WSPR) concerning their tenure at the Q Centre.  There were reports in the media about the Grizzlies possibly "turning out the lights" on the franchise. There was speculation all over the place about the club relocating to Campbell River.  Well as we all know, none of that ever happened.  WSPR came to an agreement on the lease and the Grizzlies now have 4 more years left on the current lease which will keep BCHL hockey in Colwood for the foreseeable future.  Then later in the year, there were some changes in the club's ownership model which would help simplify how the club would be run moving forward.  Best of all was attendance.  In spite of a losing season and a failure to qualify for the playoffs, the Grizzlies averaged over, 1,100 fans/game.   The "So What Factor" in all of this is that the Grizzlies organization averted what could have been certain disaster last season and attendance improved.  Now for the first time in many years they enjoy a much more stable future and steady ownership model.

New Q Centre 5 year lease signed in June 2015, potentially saved the Grizzlies franchise
So let's now talk specifics on Grizzlies hockey.  Losing 10 out of your first 11 games for any club would normally spell disaster.  Despite that, the Grizzlies nearly pulled off the impossible by going a huge winning streak in January.  At one point they had won 8 in a row.  Then on 29 January, the Grizzlies would defeat the Nanaimo Clippers at The Frank Crane for their only win of the season vs the eventual Island Division Champions.  Nobody knew it at the time, but that win would prove to be the Grizzlies' high water mark on the season.  After that however, the team would somehow manage to lose nearly every remaining game in their schedule and miss out on a playoff birth by the smallest of fractions to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.  It would be the first time the Grizzlies had failed to make the playoffs since 2011-2012.

From my perspective, it spite of some great leadership from players like PJ Conlon and Cody Van Lierop, it was a season which never seemed to gel for the Grizzlies.  Now every year you will have a player or two who just doesn't seem to work out. Those players usually move on to other opportunities, sometimes at lower leagues.  But last season it seemed that there was just an unending line of Grizzlies players who played a considerable amount of games, but unfortunately were just not able to remain at the BCHL level.  Here is just a small sample of the names of some of the highly touted players who only played a fraction of the season and were soon to move on.  Sage Fleming, Cal Walker, J.D. Falconer, Luc Soares, Corey Iapalucci and Colby Livingstone were all highly touted new arrivals last year.  Yet each player for one reason or another just were not able to finish the year with the club and ended up moving on.  That's six players who helped to make up the spine of the team but ultimately had to be let go.  In my humble opinion it was one of the key factors which really hurt the club last year.  Frankly, there just were not enough Dane Gibsons, Matt Kennedys or Meirs Moores in last year's Main Camp and it just became too much of a hill to climb for the seven returning veterans to manage.  In retrospect, it was probably just too big an ask of the veterans to try and carry the team throughout the season, a season which witnessed winning records in only the months of November and January.

Then there was the goal scoring.  While it certainly improved, there was a point in the first few months of the year when it looked like the Grizzlies might set new record lows in terms of goal scoring.  Thankfully, Coach Didmon and the staff managed to right the ship in that regard and certainly by the end of the year, the Grizzlies were scoring at a very healthy rate.  But that slow start left a mark on the season unfortunately.  In the end, the multitude of one goal losses spelled disaster; there just wasn't enough room to manoeuvre in terms of points and the club fell short of the playoffs.

With that said, the goals against were well down in 2015/16 and this represented a major improvement from the previous year.  The 210 goals against which the Grizzlies shipped in the run and gun high octane 2014/15 season, were well down this past year.  The team which was anchored by rookie 18 year old goaltenders Matt Galajda and Mitchell Benson were hard to score upon on most nights and the defencemen were all uniformly solid last year.  That figure of 210 goals surrendered from the season before was down to 178 goals against in 15/16, a significant improvement indeed.

When it came to Special Teams this year was really a bit of "A Tale of Two Cities" for the Grizzlies.  Here is what I mean by that.  When it came to the Power Play, the Grizzlies were #1 in that stat in 2014/15.  Fast forward one year and the club sat pretty much rock bottom all season long.  Even with the addition of Dante Hahn mid-way through the year, there was only a modest improvement in the PP percentage.  In my opinion, that was almost entirely a function of the fact that the Grizzlies returned not a single player from their league leading PP from the year before.  The opposite was true of the PK which lead the league for a considerable portion of this past season and ended at a respectable fifth in the league at 83.0%.  It was a PK system with almost all of the 2014-15 PK specialists returning this year, players like Mitchell Barker, Kevin Massy along with Conlon and Van Lierop,   The efficient PK combined with the anemic PP might leave some fans in a state of bewilderment, but for me, I found none of this surprising for the reasons mentioned thus far.  This was a club with tons of experience on the PK and it showed all year long.  But that was not the case when it came to the man advantage; the Grizzlies barely scrapped into second last position by year end at a measly 15.0% PP efficiency.

In summation, I would grade the Forwards with a C+.  It was a case of doing more with less in the early going but the in the end, all the forwards improved and that's what is important.  The defence I would give an A- in view of the major improvement in terms of goals allowed on the season.  Goaltending gets a nice A- in my opinion based largely on the fact that both goalies were BCHL rookies and at 18 years old held up remarkably well while under huge pressure, especially early on with all those one goal losses.  Special Teams gets a C- and that's largely a function of a PP which regrettably just wasn't up to it this past season.  Coaching earns a B+ for me. The big surprise for me was the quality of all of the rookie coaches who really got their first real taste of coaching both behind the bench and on the ice; Coach Didmon will have much more experience to help him in the next campaign.  General Manager and Ownership also gets a B+ on the year.  I liked the restructuring of the ownership model and the infusion of some new blood while selling off some smaller pieces of the pie.  But saving the franchise with the new Q Centre deal was the biggest takeaway on the season as far as I am concerned.  It was a season which might not have been had that deal turned pear shaped last summer.

And last but not least is the future.  Multi-talented forward Nathan Looysen (ex-Victoria Cougars)  who lead the VIJHL in points this past season will be back in his rightful place as a BCHL player next year.  I look to him to lead the offense as a 20 year old.  To me it was a shame he didn't feature in a Grizzlies shirt more than just twice last season.  Another ex-Cougar gifted D-Man, Nico Somerville along with VIJHL Rookie of the Year, Cam Thompson (ex-Peninsula Panthers) will be big pieces for the future and I look to both players to make an impact.  Much like Drayson Pears did last season with a full season of VIJHL hockey behind them, these players could all take big steps in 2016/17. 

A glimpse of 2016/17: from left, Cam Thompson, Nathan Looysen and Nico Somerville. Photograph By BRUCE STOTESBURY, Times Colonist 
As far as returning players go, the Shock and Awe Liners of Keyvan Mokhtari and Tyler Welsh should both have huge sophomore years in Jr. A.  The strong goaltending as we discussed should be stellar and if Coach Didmon can return both Galajda and Benson, the Grizzlies may just possess the best goaltending pair in the Island Division.  But for me the brightest outlook rests with this stalwart defensive corps.  Just listen to the names of these returning D-Men:  Jake Stevens, Cody Van Lierop, Brett Stirling and Drayson Pears.  Those four veteran blue liners, three being 20 year olds, may very well end up representing the very best top two D pairings in the entire league.  With an ultra-strong back end anchoring a more veteran bench in 16/17, this might finally be the year where Coach Didmon can ice a team built entirely by him. This team could have a serious chance of going deep in the playoffs next spring in my humble view.  Until then, enjoy your summer and we will talk to you next as Main Camp approaches in August. -CC