The dust has settled, but it still looks bleak for the Moncton Wildcats.
Danny Flynn is out as coach, but will retain his Director of Hockey Operations title. Flynn lost in the opening round the last three seasons. Team owner and president Robert Irving stated that losing isn’t acceptable: “The organization is very disappointed. Our program is about winning. We’re not here to lose. It’s not satisfactory,” he told The Moncton Times & Transcript recently.
In their series against the Victoriaville Tigres, Flynn was outfoxed by the Tigres' Yanick Jean. Knowing Wildcats top scorer Dmitrij Jaskin was the main catalyst for the team, Jean dressed 10 forwards and eight defencemen, freeing up one player, Carl-Antoine Delisle, to shadow Jaskin. Jaskin earned a goal and an assist in Game 5, but only one other point in the series. Flynn tried to juggle the lines but could not get Jaskin away from Delisle.
Also, eight defencemen allowed Tigres 'tender Brandon Whitney to see nearly every shot the Wildcats threw at him. That many blueliners keeps the back end fresh, and keeps them strong so they can keep the Wildcats stronger forwards like Jaskin and Yannick Veilleux away from the front of the net. In Game 2 alone, the only game the Wildcats won, they took 58 shots, with 45 of them from far away.
The Tigres consistently gave the Wildcats different looks on the breakout, even during the same shift. Some plays, the Tigres would settle into a 1-3-1 setup. Later in the same shift, a 1-2-1-1 setup, with the low defenceman standing beside the goalie. Other times, they set up in a 2-1-1-1 with the two defencemen stacked up in the neutral zone. This discombobulated Wildcats defencemen who had to make decisions based on player positioning they weren't used to seeing.
After a split in Moncton, Victoriaville had the Wildcats right where they want them. Moncton had been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team all season, with the second-best home record in the QMJHL and 10th-best road record. They were sub-.500 on the road.
Victoriaville won two of the three games in overtime at home to win the series, which would look like luck to most observers, but not really a surprise to many Moncton followers. The Wildcats blew a four-goal lead in Game 3, surrendered the deciding goal with fewer than two minutes left in Game 4 after a string of ill-timed penalties and were undone in Game 5 by a huge giveaway by overage Allain Saulnier, who coughed up the puck to Philippe Maillet for the series-winning goal. All three of the games in Victoriaville were in the Wildcats' hands at some point.
Ultimately, the Wildcats consistently, since they trading away star defenceman Brandon Gormley last season, have had trouble playing through adversity. They were a team without a leader. Jaskin arrived this season, and they found a leader. Without him, the Wildcats were 6-9-1-1. With him, they were 36-12-1-0. Former Victoriaville captain Phillip Danault was acquired to help Jaskin with the leadership in the dressing room and on the ice. The shadow job of Delisle frustrated Jaskin and effectively drove him off his game. The rest of the team had no idea how to react.
Did they do enough at the trading period?
Flynn said after he acquired Danault that if a team is going for the championship, then go for it 100 per cent and don’t second-guess it. In 2006, when the Wildcats came one win away from a Memorial Cup championship at home, Flynn and Ted Nolan acquired goalie Josh Tordjman, defenceman Luc Bourdon and forward Philippe Dupuis. In 2010, the Wildcats acquired Nicolas Deschamps, then the league’s leading scorer, Gabriel Bourque, Kelsey Tessier, Alex Wall, Alex MacDonald and Spencer Metcalfe en route to a President's Cup.
This season, in one that the Wildcats identified as making a run for a championship, the team acquired two big players, Danault and overage defenceman Jonathan Narbonne, who was part of the Shawinigan Cataractes' 2012 Memorial Cup winner. That’s it, and Narbonne was acquired in November. One could argue that the team was in the hunt for several top players and didn’t win out, but as Flynn said, you make those trades. You identify and you acquire, period. You don’t sit around and think.
The needs were there for a true No. 1 goalie and for another top-four defenceman. Granted, the goalie market was the tightest it had been in several years, with most contenders already set in net and few of floundering teams relying on younger or fringe netminders. Eighteen-year-old Wildcats goalie Alex Dubeau, when he was on, was one of the best goalies in the QMJHL, but when he was off, he was way off. Another defenceman to play on the second pairing with James Melindy should not have been that hard to find and pay appropriately.
In regards to a new coach, the Wildcats’ last three coaches were all hired out of the pro ranks, and there’s no reason to think that they won’t do that again.Irving loves his coaches with pedigree, from Nolan, to current Houston Aeros head coach John Torchetti, to former New York Islander assistant Flynn. Prior to Nolan in 2005-06, Christian La Rue was the head coach.
The rumour mill churns up current University of New Brunswick mastermind Gardiner MacDougall as the first name on the list. MacDougall always has very well-coached and well-prepared teams at UNB. He also carries that winning pedigree that Irving would love with three Atlantic University Sport coach of the year awards, four University Cup wins and five AUS championships. However, MacDougall has ultimate power at UNB, and is known on a first-name basis around campus and the city. Would he want to give that up to coach the middle-of-the-road Wildcats next season?
Another AUS coach, the Saint Mary's Huskies' Trevor Stienburg, has also been bandied about, but his issues are the same as MacDougall's. Would he want to leave his tenured job at SMU to coach a nothing-special team? Names such as Guy Boucher have also come up, as has Dan Lacroix returning to the team, but those coaches are likely looking at professional jobs first. Boucher in particular has expressed interest in coaching in the NHL next season, or the AHL if that falters.
However, with Flynn staying on in the front office, it will be hard to attract coaches with great resumes. Half of the teams in the QMJHL have separate coaches and managers: Bathurst, Baie-Comeau, Blainville-Boisbriand, Chicoutimi, Drummondville, Rimouski, Sherbrooke, Val-d’Or and Victoriaville have separate people listed. Of all the coaches in Moncton’s history, only Bill Riley, Tom Coolen, La Rue and Dan Lacroix didn’t have the final say in the players they kept on the roster. It would be a really tricky sell for an outside experienced coach to have to come in and work under the guy who last coached the team.
The Wildcats will lose 20-year-old twins Allain and Alex Saulnier, and Narbonne. They are sure to lose Danault (Chicago), Jaskin, Yannick Veilleux (St. Louis) and Jonathan Racine (Florida) to the pro ranks. James Melindy may or may not be back, depending on Phoenix’s defensive depth next season.
With that in mind, forwards Ivan Barbashev and Chris Lalonde will take center stage next season up front heading into the draft, barring any moves. The line of Mark Tremaine, Ryan Penny and Ross Johnston will be back, along with youngster Conor Garland. Defensively, Danick Emond will be back, as well as Brayden Wood and Jacob Sweeney. Dubeau should progress during his 19-year-old season. The team could still make a run as a middle-of-the-pack team next season. If that's the plan, they have to hit a home run in the import draft like they did with Jaskin last season, and hope Melindy returns as an overage to to anchor the defence.
The team owes at least one player on a list of three to Victoriaville as part of the Danault trade, receiving some picks in return. It won't be Barbashev or Garland, as they both have no-trade clauses.
Go for it or sell and build?
All isn’t lost, but it sure doesn’t look great. None of the holdovers have won a playoff series in Moncton. Only Lalonde and Dubeau have been further than the first round of the playoffs. The Wildcats need to decide now if they sell off and build back up completely, or if they go for one last run and sell off after that.
This draft will be very important for the future of the franchise. Flynn has a reputation of acquiring a number of draft picks in surplus to acquire depth players through the draft, and there's no reason to think he won't do that again at the draft this year. That is the next step, but the question is where do the steps lead? Do they want one last shot or do they tear it down and start again?
With Flynn back and Irving at the helm, patience is a virtue. Irving likes to win, no doubt, but he has put his ego aside to help the team in the long term. Will Flynn have the patience to do the same this time around? Will Flynn even be around to witness it?
One thing is for sure: a new coach will put his fingerprints on the team. When that coach is named, the Wildcats will have answered those questions.
Mike Sanderson is a QMJHL correspondent for Buzzing The Net.