The headline is a bit misleading. You can’t really fix something that arguably was never really working to begin with.
The Trenton Devils are 42 games into the 72-game ECHL season, and are 15-23-1-3. Their 34 points are last in the Eastern Conference and second to last in the league, with only the Ontario Reign’s 32 points keeping them out of the basement. Things have particularly fallen apart as of late, as the team’s two wins in their last ten games are the fewest among any team in the league over that stretch. Their 157 goals against are the third-highest in the league as well.
Trenton sits 10 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference, and show no signs of making a run to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2008-09 any time soon. But can they turn it around? And if so, how do they do it?
Last season, when it was the American Conference and there were 12 teams and not 11 in it, it took 77 points to crack the top 8. That would, based on last season’s results, mean Trenton would need to post 43 points out of a possible 60 over their last 30 games to get back into it. Based on this year’s pace, it won’t be much easier. Kalamazoo, who currently is in eighth place, is on pace to put up 75 points (rounded down from 75.42), which would require 41 points from Trenton out of a possible 60 in their last 30 games.
Historically, over the past two seasons, Trenton has been a second half team…which has always been somewhat puzzling given you’d think that would be the time you’d expect some of the first-year college players to wear down given they haven’t played that far into a season before. But anyway, the Devils went on a remarkable 22-10-1-3 run over the last 36 games in 2008-09 (18-8-1-3 over the last 30) to challenge for the division title and charge into the postseason. Last year, Trenton was in a similar hole and went 21-14-0-1 over the final 36 contests (19-11-0-0 over the last 30), but fell just short of a playoff berth.
This season, however, it’s hard to believe a second half turnaround will take place based on what’s happened in the first half. Their longest winning streak this season? Two. They’ve done it just twice, and they’ve done it entirely in regulation once.
There was a lot of optimism around the team at the beginning of the season, and it was justified. Maybe I’m still too close to the forest to see the trees, but I do believe this is a talented group. Did at the beginning of the season, do now. The amount of depth in the organization seemed to be a real strong suit, and it seemed hard to believe that the team would be underachieving as it is now.
All the built-in excuses are there: call-ups, injuries, etc. Fact is, this group hasn’t produced. But blame can be placed all across the board. Let’s start with the front office.
Any attempts to bolster this club have often come way too late and from players off the street. Only Brad Miller was acquired via any sort of a trade, with the team instead choosing to bring in spare parts such Mike Potacco, Chase Watson and Kyle Kucharski in off the free agent market. Shane Connelly, whose acquisition seemed like a wise one at the time, has simply not panned out as the team had hoped. While other teams around the league are improving via trades — well, realistically, plucking players off of other teams for cash considerations — the Devils have largely stood pat.
A large part of the 2008-09 turnaround was the team bringing in players like Brett Pilkington, Dan Eves, Jeff Prough and Gerald Coleman in via trade. With no disrespect to Miller intended, as he’s been a nice fit, it’s going to take a lot more than bringing him in to completely turn things around. And making those moves will be difficult. A lot of players are on AHL deals, and the organization won’t move them at the sake of improving the ECHL team. Prime free agents at this level simply will not sign with Trenton, as their options for progressing their careers are limited due to only being able to be called up to Albany and nowhere else…surely, that’s played a large role in the lack of any outside veteran presence on this team since the colossal failure of Mike Harder. Perhaps the only hope of help this team has would come too late, as you may recall Myles Stoesz came over in an NHL deal at the trade deadline two seasons ago.
This group, especially the forwards, is a stale one right now. Making just one move — the right move — could really infuse something into this team that they haven’t had. So let’s move to the players in the blame game.
Largely, the effort has been there with this group. But it hasn’t been there 100 percent of the time. And anything less than a 100 percent, 60 minute effort every night will keep this team in the cellar. Nobody likes to lose. These guys don’t like to lose, I don’t like covering a losing team, and the fans don’t like seeing a losing team. It isn’t fun for anyone involved. But somebody needs to step up and take an on-ice leadership role with this team. Someone needs to make sure these guys are finishing their checks, playing aggressive but smart, playing desperate but within their limits. Play like your job is on the line, because for a lot of these guys, it should be.
This team doesn’t always play like a confident group, and maybe the coaching staff has something to do with that. Kevin Dean is brutally honest with us, and that’s really all any reporter can ask for. Nobody wants to be fed a line of BS, and Dean certainly can never be accused of that. However, constant reminders of how fragile his team is can’t sit well with his group sometimes. You can’t blame him for being frustrated either, but I’d have to assume these guys aren’t going out there thinking they’re going to lose. And let’s make this clear…while there are quite a few parallels between John MacLean and Dean (rookie coach whose team got off to an awful start) I don’t have any reason to believe anyone’s job is in jeopardy. Dean is making the best of a bad situation, and there’s only so much someone in his position can do.
So what do you think? Any chance they turn things around? Where do you place the blame for why the first half has gone so poorly? And how do you change it?
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com