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Sea Dogs learn new tricks

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When you talk experience with the Saint John Sea Dogs, it's off the ice more than on.

A big takeaway from chatting with Sea Dogs associate coach and director of hockey operations Mike Kelly is how staying the course paid off this season. Many teams with Saint John's makeup (10 players born in 1992 or '93) might have mortgaged their future for a playoff run. Kelly and coach Gerald Gallant, both in their first year in Saint John, along with long-time personnel guru Norm Gosselin agreed not be rash. Now their young charges, including prospective NHL first-rounder Stanislav Galiev, are up 2-0 entering Game 3 of their QMJHL semifinal series vs. Victoriaville.

"When we got to the trade deadline, we sort of discussed making a move here or there," Kelly said Tuesday afternoon. "What we found was everyone wanted our younger players. We decided to go with the group that got us where we are.

"Maybe it's just experience, Norm and Gerard and myself have been around so long, we know the chickens come home to roost if you trade away young guys. We came to have a high level of respect for the young players, though."

Perhaps people could have seen Saint John's jump from 72 points to 109 coming. When Gallant, the former Columbus Blue Jackets coach, and Kelly, who has won in the CHL and CIS, were hired last April 24, then-Lewiston coach Don MacAdam joked it was almost unfair to have both hockey minds on the same team.

Then the Sea Dogs used number one and four picks in the import draft to add Galiev (downplaying the Russian factor) and Tomas Jurco (who's not draft-eligible until 2011).

Kelly notes Saint John was "lucky" to get high-scoring overagers, Mike Hoffman and Nick Petersen, back after both attended NHL camps with Ottawa and Pittsburgh. There was more to it than that, though.

Gosselin, there since Day 1 with the five-year-old franchise, noted luck is the residue of design, pointing out how Gallant and Kelly help put younger players at ease.

"The big key for me is the coaching staff," said Gosselin. "When you look at Gerard Gallant, you're looking at someone who played in the NHL (with Detroit), and who was a 19-year-old with Verdun with (future NHL superstar) Pat LaFontaine (in 1982-83), so he know about helping the younger players ... all season long, they have used everybody, everybody got to touch on the ice on the power play, whether they were up 4-1 at the end of the game or down 3-1.

"That's old-fashioned, to say you're 17 years old, you're going to sit in the stands or not play much. We played six defenceman, all game long, we play with four lines. We carry only 22 players, so many teams, they carry 24-25. We're lucky that we have been healthy all year, but it's paid off. (Defenceman Kevin) Gagne is injured right now, so (rookie) Gabriel Bourret, 17 years old, a draft pick from last season, has been filling in. Mentally, he was ready, because we gave our 10 younger players some responsibility in the team. We have to credit Gerard and Mike."

Galiev, Gosselin said, was a unique case, since he came to North America in 2008 to play in the USHL.

The Sea Dogs have flourished with a somewhat unconventional front office. They have no formal general manager (Kelly notes: "There's a lot of give-and-take between us three, we're pretty experienced, so it would be little bit foolish not to give everyone input").

Meantime, with the possibility of an all-New Brunswick QMJHL final in the offing, attendance at Harbour Station has increased, with the club averaging 4,470 through seven playoff dates.

"It's been great," Kelly, who brought a University Cup to the province with the UNB Varsity Reds in 1998, said of the support. "They've been very supportive, especially in the second half of the season when the team started to take off."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada. You may contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca