During a pre-season game in Crowsnest Pass, Kootenay Ice president and general manager Jeff Chynoweth said he expected his young club might take some lumps over the course of the 2015-16 Western Hockey League season.
No one, Chynoweth included, ever imagined the severity of the bumps and bruises — both literal and metaphorical — that the Kootenay Ice went on to suffer this past campaign.
Finishing the season with a record of 12-53-6-1, the club posted the lowest win total and second lowest point total (31) in franchise history.
It was meant to be the start of a rebuilding year, which was going to be challenging enough to begin with. But the hockey gods decided to throw in a few more hurdles.
“It was very difficult, to put it mildly, but we knew it was coming,” Chynoweth said. “You couldn’t have projected everything that happened throughout the year. We certainly didn’t expect to only win 12 games, but that happens. We’ve been very fortunate to avoid that for a long time, but it was a very difficult year.
“Losing our key players for extended periods of time — there isn’t a team at any level that can lose their top players and have success. For the players that we lost at the most inopportune times, it was very tough for us to recover. On the flip side of that, then you’re playing players in situations where they’re going to fail and you don’t give them a chance to improve. You’re playing them in situations where they fail and are left with no confidence.”
Over the course of the 72-game WHL regular season, Chynoweth’s Ice lost 263 man games to injury, an astounding figure.
Leading scorer Zak Zborosky missed 14 games and second-leading scorer Matt Alfaro missed seven games.
Sniper Jaedon Descheneau — who registered 78 goals in 140 games from 2013-14 to 2014-15 — suited up for only two contests in 2015-16 after seeing his season come to an end due to a shoulder injury Oct. 6 at Prince Albert.
Prior to being dealt to the Red Deer Rebels, former captain Luke Philp was in and out of the lineup before a fractured ankle sidelined him in mid-November until well after he joined the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts.
Cale Fleury, Tanner Lishchynsky, Austin Wellsby, River Beattie, Troy Murray, Max Patterson, Roman Dymacek and Dylan Stewart all missed varying time due to injury.
For lengthy stretches and on multiple different occasions, the medical wing was so full that head coach Luke Pierce was often left without the ability to dress a complete lineup with 18 skaters.
“Disappointment is the first thing that comes to mind,” Pierce said. “We knew the challenges that were going to be there, but those things kept compounding on themselves with the injuries.
“I’ve seen injuries all happening at the same time and you think your luck is just awful. But that happened on several occasions [this season] and it always seemed to be really key parts of your lineup. Obviously, in game play, it affects you because you don’t have the full resources. But the bigger effect it had on us is that you really need your veteran players, in a transitional-type of year, to teach and to show the way from their leadership and their experience in the game. We didn’t have that.
“You’re trying to emphasize that as a coaching staff all the time, but [the players] don’t have a benchmark with the Lukes, Jaedons and those types of kids, night in and night out, to reference back to. I think that took a big toll on our younger guys in teaching them the proper way to play in situational hockey.”
And so struggle the Kootenay Ice did, though things got progressively worse as the season wore on.
During the month of October, though the young club lost its fair share of games, six defeats were of the one-goal variety.
The situation completely derailed beginning with a 5-2 home loss to the Red Deer Rebels on Nov. 25. From there, the Ice dropped 16 consecutive games, including going completely winless during the entire month of December.
The club’s next victory finally came in the form a 3-1 road triumph Jan. 3 at Swift Current. Though the Ice managed to string together consecutive wins, that simply led into another long skid that saw the team fall in 10 straight outings from Jan. 9 to Feb. 5.
To make matters worse, the Ice chalked up another lengthy losing streak of 13 games from Feb. 13 to March 11.
“You had guys in the last month that were extremely burnt out,” Pierce said. “That’s not healthy for them as far as learning lessons and the right things, because you have to keep playing them because you don’t have numbers. They’re out there, their legs are gone, their brains are gone and they’re reinforcing some bad habits. That’s something we’ll certainly have to work on early in the season next year.”
Over the course of the entire campaign, the team never won more than two games consecutively.
Of their 12 triumphs, seven were of the one-goal assortment.
“Our biggest shortcoming, without question, was our inability to create offense and spreading that amongst our lineup,” Pierce said. “For the most part, start to finish, we really relied on two to three players to create offense for us and you can’t do that. We needed better output from Vince Loschiavo, River Beattie and guys like that. They had tough years. A lot of that falls on them, but also falls on us in that maybe we mishandled their roles or their preparation as second-year players. “Our inability to create offense certainly hampered our game. You look at the defensive side of it, we gave up a lot of goals, but we showed a lot of improvement in that area during the second half. It was to be expected with how young our defence was.”
The offensive production ranked as the worst in the 22-team WHL as the Ice scored 155 goals — 27 goals less than the 21st-ranked Everett Silvertips.
With 32 and 22 goals, respectively, Zborosky and Alfaro accounted for 34.8 per cent of the team’s offensive output.
On the flip side, the Ice surrendered a league-high 320 goals. Only the Saskatoon Blades (318 goals) really gave the Ice a run in that department.
“As a group, in general, we took a long time and I don’t know if we ever really did find ourselves as a team and who we were and our identity of how we wanted to play,” Pierce said. “Next year, having a little more familiarity with the players will allow you to forge that identity a lot sooner.”
With the regular season having concluded March 20 in Calgary, players met with coaches and management March 22 for exit meetings with sights set on the off-season and preparing for 2016-17.
“As an organization, you really have two options: there’s personal change, in that each player needs to come back in a better mindset, better shape, more prepared,” Pierce said. “The other option you’re left with is personnel change. There’s not a ton we can do, but at the end of the day, nobody here is going to accept 12 wins and think that we’re fine, move on, status quo. Players come back and reinvent themselves a little bit and that will go a long way to show that they didn’t accept the way things were either.
“We have to be ready to fully embrace our new identity of who we’re going to be. Really, Matt and Zak were the only two guys that were prominent members of the team in years past that maybe carry forward some of that identity. They’re ready to move on and embrace a new challenged and be the leaders of that group that forges a new path.”
After 12 wins and 31 points, having missed the post-season for the first time since 1997-98 and snapping a 16-year run of finishing at .500 or better, there really isn’t much option but to move onward and upward for the Kootenay Ice.
With each player a year older and more experienced, Chynoweth expects nothing less when the 2016-17 campaign rolls around this fall.
“They’re going to be a year older, that’s the key thing,” Chynoweth said. “Nothing has changed in the Western Hockey League, you still win with quality 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. A lot of our players are going to be a year older and it was a very difficult year for them as well. Hopefully they can learn from it and improve.
“We know this is not a short-term thing. This is a three- to five-year turnaround. That’s what happens in major junior hockey.
“We’ve avoided it, up until this year, for the previous 17 years. This isn’t like July 1 in the NHL where you can go and sign four or five free agents. This is going to be a long and slow rebuild. Hopefully we’ll move quicker with our draft selections, but also with the maturity of some of your returning players.”
In the meantime, Chynoweth’s immediate focus is on preparing for the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, scheduled for May 5 in Calgary, in which his club holds the first-overall pick for the first time since moving to Cranbrook.
From there, attention turns to the 2016 CHL Import Draft, which perhaps provides the best opportunity for the savvy, veteran general manager to immediately improve his club.
“You’re always positive,” Chynoweth said. “It doesn’t matter if you had 31 points or 73 points, if you miss the playoffs, you miss the playoffs. Yeah, it was a tough year, but now it’s over. We move towards next year. I’m looking forward. Everyone is going to be a year older and a year smarter.
“Next year, everyone knows what to expect. We’ve got the potential to return a lot of players and the coaches. I expect improvement in all areas.”