Monday, March 17, 2014

Idaho Steelheads Report: Fine-Tuning Needed For Deep Playoff Run

Brock Montgomery
(Credit: Glenn Smith/Idaho Steelheads)

John Mulhern contemplates what needs a tune-up to make the Idaho Steelheads a playoff team that can go deep...

Editor's note: This report was authored last Friday, before the Steelheads' games in southern California this weekend. They went 2-1 those games.

It has been 18 games since the last Idaho Steelheads report and over that time the Steelheads have gone 9-9. There was one overtime loss and one shootout loss, but since the playoffs are determined by winning percentage, I just lumped them into the loss column for simplicities sake.

Going into this week’s Southern California road-trip (Ontario and Bakersfield) the Steelheads have only won 3 of their last 10 games and at points have been struggling, but as I mentioned in the last report there are still signs that the team could make a late run if you can look past some of the numbers.

We’ll take a look at all of the reasons I mentioned as to why the Steelheads can make a deep playoff, how they are going so far and what the outlook is for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.

The power play has 3 goals on 31 chances in 10 games (9.67%) not exactly going to be scaring anybody off with those number, however even though there is only 2 goals in the last 8 games (26 chances) on the advantage, the unit is starting to get some chances again. The unit has been missing players like Patrick Cullity and Tommy Grant, and don’t forget Brett Robinson has been out with an injury. Missing those key cogs for even a couple of games not to mention Robinson for all 10 games will impact a unit.

This last weekend against Las Vegas at times the power play struggled, but at the same time, there were also chances a plenty and the unit still ranks in the top 5 in the ECHL at 17.9%. You don’t get there by accident and you don’t just all of the sudden forget how to score. With 12 games left in the regular season, I expect that the power play will get back to a percentage somewhere north of 15 and hopefully closer to 20 over the smaller sample size.

On the flip side you have the penalty kill. The penalty kill over the last 10 games is 35-43 which is good for 81.4%. This number isn’t spectacular, but it isn’t dreadful either. The kill is still operating in the top 10 for the season at 84.9%. The biggest issue right now for the penalty kill unit is how much time they are spending on the ice per game. The Steelheads have allowed 43 chances over the last 10 games, after some simple math that works out to 4.3 power plays against per game in the last 10, if you convert that to minutes, you get 8 minutes and 18 seconds. When you flip it the other way and see that the Steelheads are earning slightly above 3 chances on the power play per game (6 minutes and 6 seconds), you are going to have some issues.

If you want to put a positive spin on things, the Steelheads have had to deal with penalty issues all year long and they lead the league in PIMs with 1,217, which has a lead of 140 minutes on the next closest team (Utah 1,077), and they still have 30 wins on the season which doesn’t happen by accident. But you keep putting the same 8 to 10 guys out on the ice for that much time it starts to take away the ability for Brad Ralph to get all of his players ice time and could leave players on the bench for extended periods of time. Playing hockey that way, it is very hard to gain, or maintain any semblance of momentum.

Penalties and how many are called against a team can be easily fixed. If a player can get to the correct side of the play so they don’t have to take a hook or hold that will help. Also, by earning more power plays with speed and aggressive forechecking will also limit the ability of your opponent to draw penalties. I would not be doing a fair evaluation if I did not mention the Steelheads have 10 shorthanded goals on the season, led by David de Kastrozza, so it’s not like the teams is taking 2 minutes off to relax. They do attack when the situation presents itself, and they do great job of cashing in when they attack.

Defense wins championships, but I submit that balanced scoring can beat good defense. The first part of that is something that has been ingrained in all sports fans since they were able to figure out what was going on, but the second part refers specifically to the ECHL and the ability of teams to advance in the playoffs by virtue of balanced scoring through 3 lines come playoff time. Most teams at this level will have 1.5 solid defensive pairs, which leaves opportunities for your second and third lines to score.

The Steelheads current roster have 10 players that have 20 or more points. Nine of those 10 are forwards and the 10th is Patrick Cullity (31 points) For those keeping track at home, you only dress 10 forwards on any given night so, quick math, your 3 lines will all have at least 60 combined points when they hop over the boards. Your 10th forward is Luke Judson who has 6 goals and 13 points in his 18 games played with Idaho. If that’s not scoring depth, I don’t know what is.

The Steelheads also have 10 players with 10 goals or more on the season, which is also very impressive especially because some players that have 10 goals, don’t quite have 20 points yet due to time away from Idaho, so one would anticipate the number of 20 point players increasing over the last 12 games.

Which leads to the next point, Justin Mercier is up in the AHL (10 goals, 18 points), Taylor Vause just got re-called to the AHL (10 goals, 15 points) and Austin Fyten up in the AHL (9 goals, 15 points) [Ed. Note: Mercier was returned this weekend]. That’s an entire AHL line that could be back in time for the playoffs. Then you take a look at what type of players they are, high energy with a physical presence, and there isn’t a team that will qualify for the playoffs that wouldn’t take any one of those players in a second. The scoring punch is, and will be there come playoff time, it’s just a matter of the team’s defensive play and goaltending cleaning a few things up before they get here in about a month.

Here’s the payoff, are things all teddy bears and rainbows right now? No. Anyone within the organization will tell you that. Are they panicked? No. The message from the team has been that they all still believe in the player in the locker next to them. Will all the issues get figured out come playoff time? They have to, there is no other option for the Idaho Steelheads, a team and organization that demands and expects to be a Kelly Cup contender each and every season.

I’m going to make this prediction right now. The end of the Steelheads season will happen 1 of 2 ways. First for whatever reason, things can’t get figured out and teams adjust to what the Steelheads are doing and the Steelheads get bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Or, they iron out a few details, start scoring more on the power play, start playing more disciplined and better team defense, and this team makes a run late into May.

Based on the players that are in the Idaho dressing room and the competitive nature to win championships that they have, as well as the determination of Head Coach Brad Ralph and Assistant Coach Neil Graham to not allow this team to coast to the finish, I have full faith that the Steelheads will start to figure things out, and I’ll be writing more of these article late into May.

Until next time, which will be a playoff preview…

3 comments:

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