Friday night’s home game against the AHL-leading Springfield Falcons is the Wolf Pack’s 39th game of the season, meaning that the Pack are exactly halfway through the campaign.
And it almost goes without saying that club is hoping for much better things in the second half, after struggling to a 12-21-0-5 record through the first 38 games.
“I think we’re just going to try and regroup,” rookie forward, and team leading scorer, Danny Kristo said this week. “It was obviously a frustrating first half we had as a team, but it’s not how you start it’s how you finish. We’ve made a couple of roster moves and I think we got a couple of new guys who can really help us out, so we’re just going to try and go into the second half with a clean slate and start off hot with a couple of wins.”
As Kristo referenced, the Wolf Pack roster has undergone significant turnover in recent weeks. Two veteran goaltenders, Dov Grumet-Morris and David LeNeveu, have been added, as has T.J. Hensick, an experienced forward who has scored at a better than a point-per-game pace over his more than 300 career AHL games. On the other side of the coin, players who had been a fairly big part of the mix in the first half, such as Brodie Dupont, Kyle Jean, Jason Missiaen and Akim Aliu, were either released or moved down to the ECHL.
“I think they’re just showing that it’s unacceptable where we’re at right now,” Wolf Pack captain Aaron Johnson said of the moves that the organization made. “The guys are going to need to take that and work even harder, find a way to get those extra points and show that they don’t want to be one of those guys that are going to get moved.”
Head Coach Ken Gernander said of the personnel shuffling, “It maybe would have been done sooner, but it’s really hard to find people at this time of year. We knew we had needs that we had to address, but we didn’t want to just jump in and make a mistake either. We wanted to get quality people, and not just a temporary fix, but something that we could build on moving forward.
“To some extent we had a lot of injuries in the first half, and that was a contributing factor as well. You don’t want to kind of overstock your team, knowing full well that you were going to get some of these people back from injury. So it was a little bit dicey as far as managing players and numbers and personnel in the first half, but now I think the moves we’ve made have really kind of shored things up, solidified certain positions and will allow us to have more success moving forward.
“I think the opportunity certainly exists to improve over the first half of the season,” Gernander continued, “from a growth perspective with a lot of our younger players, but also a personnel perspective. We brought in Hensick, a little more offense up front, two goaltenders with some veteran AHL experience, and that should help shore up some of our things defensively. So I expect a much improved team over the second half of the season.”
Johnson agreed that having the steadiness of Grumet-Morris and LeNeveu on the last line of defense is a help, but he would not point to goaltending as any kind of a weakness in the first half.
“I think we can count on all of our goalies, I think it’s really a matter of us playing well in front of them,” the veteran blueliner said. “We’ve hung them out to dry in a lot of situations, you can only put so much on them. It’s great to have their experience, but we can’t lean on them every game. When we win hockey games it’s because we’re all playing, and when we lose hockey games we’re usually putting them in tough situations. We need to play well in front of them.”
Kristo’s view of the roster overhaul from a rookie’s perspective was, “It’s been tough to see some guys go and have some new guys come in, but we’ve got good core leadership in our locker room, and the captains and leaders have done a good job helping those guys come in and helping them feel part of the team. So hopefully those new guys can help us out, and we can just keep moving forward.”
That core leadership group that Kristo talks about is bolstered by the fact that goaltending is not the only position where the Wolf Pack boast a wealth of veteran experience. In fact, the Pack are so seasoned a group that for most of the season, they have been over the AHL limit of five veterans with more than 260 games of NHL, AHL or European Elite League experience. Included in that battle-tested crew are Johnson, Darroll Powe, Arron Asham, Danny Syvret, Micheal Haley and Hensick.
When asked what the older players are harping on to the team, Johnson replied, “Just sticking to the game plan and making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. The hitters need to hit, the goal-scorers need to score, and we just try and pass that on. If the young guys ever have any questions, they know they can talk to us, and I think we’ve done a good job with the young guys so far.”
As for how the younger players have responded to the pressures of the AHL, the captain said, “There’s always guys that you can see kind of flourish as the season goes along, and then there’s guys that struggle a little bit. That’s just part of pro hockey, because we’re playing at an elite level here. As the season goes further, there’s going to be guys that are going to do the same. There’s going to be more guys that are going to step up, and more guys that need to find their niche.”
Kristo is one individual who has occupied an important niche, posting team-best totals of 13 goals and 25 points in 36 games, and he remains upbeat about his rookie season.
“I think it was a good first half,” Kristo said. “Obviously you can learn something new every single day coming to the rink, especially in the games, you can learn game by game, day by day. I thought it was a good first half for me, and I thought I got better as it went on, and hopefully I can keep that going into the second half.”
Gernander, whose job it is to groom players for the NHL level, feels that it remains to be seen how much the youngsters on his team have grown in the first half.
“I think it’s going to depend on how they finish the season,” he said. “What kind of progress we’ll see in the second half is going to be one telling sign of what they’ve learned, and what kind of progress they’ve made in the first half of the season, and certainly not everyone develops on the same pace. We’re not looking to have players drafted one spring and NHL-ready that following fall. It’s a process, and as long as they keep trending up, that’s what we’re here for.”
One positive that can be taken out of the first half of the season, according to Gernander, is that the team’s adversity has forced players to show quickly what they are made of.
“I think it gave opportunities to certain people, rookies or others, that maybe would not have been afforded to them right away,” he said, “and some people did take advantage of them, and are, because of that, being able to broaden their role on the team, and it’s actually expedited their development.
“I think it gave a number of players opportunity that maybe wouldn’t have been available to them right away, to either make a case for further responsibility and extra ice time, and for some of them it maybe pointed out some weaknesses in their game, or some areas of improvement that must be addressed. And unfortunately for some of them, it’s going to be in Greenville (with the Wolf Pack’s ECHL affiliate). For some others, it’s got to be addressed here, but I think it exposed certain weaknesses that guys can be improving upon.”
The Wolf Pack enter Friday’s game 16 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and with seven teams sitting between them and the eighth-and-final playoff berth in the conference. If there is one clear consensus in the locker room and the coaches’ office, it is that the group must ignore that “big picture” and, as the old cliché goes, take one game at a time.
“That’s going to be the key for us, is to focus, really, on that which you can control, which would be that one game at present time,” Gernander said. “You don’t look in the rear-view mirror and you certainly can’t look ahead to certain things, but if we can maintain focus on the task at hand and play some of our best hockey, I think it’s (a postseason berth) still within reach.”
Johnson pointed out that, “One of the good things about the American Hockey League is that you play a lot of those teams so much that you’re able to get those kind of four-point situations. Right now we just take it of game-by-game, look at the team that’s ahead of us, work our way to get to that team and then kind of work our way towards the middle of the pack. You can’t, unfortunately, get into the playoffs in one or two games, it’s going to take a while, but I think we’ve got the team that’s able to do it.
“At the start of the season I think we learned not to give up. And in the second (quarter) I think we got a little comfortable and maybe didn’t play our game. A lot of the games that we win, it’s when we play 60 minutes. We get back to playing 60 minutes, we’ll win more hockey games.”
Kristo summed up the task at hand by saying, “You just have to go at it day by day and come to the rink every single day, if it’s a practice, game or whatnot, and just try to get better. And going into each game, just focus on that game. Don’t think about the three games on the weekend and who you’re playing, just focus on that day and who you’re playing that day. And if you take it one day at a time, you never know what can happen.”