Old Dog: The End of the Line

14-03-2019 23:03

After the Huskies ended this season with an inglorious outcome in Bowling Green last weekend, it’s time for the Old Dog to fulfill his promise to issue his grade to the coaching staff for the year. This season wasn’t pretty, and adding up the pros and cons tilts the scales heavily to the negative side.

On the positive side of the ledger, this year’s freshman class—the first recruiting class that Joe Shawhan, Chris Brooks and Dallas Steward are fully responsible for—had a very good year and in some ways a great year. More importantly, they showed a level of potential that Tech fans haven’t seen from that many freshmen in a long time.

Another plus was the deployment of goaltending duties. After Shawhan’s first season of nearly madcap musical chairs in the nets and the selection of a starter each week as a regular revelation, this year’s stability was a welcome outcome. Serious national contenders nearly always have a solid #1 keeper with a very good backup. Matt Jurusik grabbed the top spot early, and when he delivered a couple of mediocre games, Robbie Beydoun stepped in and was outstanding—until he, too, turned in a couple of less-than-excellent games. When Jurusik got a chance again, he never relinquished his starter role. He may have been relieved a couple of times, but those came when Tech was taking big offensive gambles to try and come from behind, and the Huskies gave up way too many grade-A chances.

After that short list, it’s hard to come up with any more issues that can be listed as positive. Tech’s second half record was terrible by any standard and, over the entire year, Them Dogs only won a two games from the top four WCHA teams. And the way they lost, by making foolish mistakes in the third period, can only partly be attributed to the relative inexperience of the roster. When teams lack discipline at crunch time—and the Huskies regularly did just that—it most certainly calls into question the coaching staff’s performance.

Was it a lack of discipline? Or was it poor conditioning? Tired players, and players with oxygen deficits, often do foolish things or make poor choices. Either way, the staff bears a heavy responsibility for the way Tech lost so many games in the final ten minutes of regulation.

By his own admission, Shawhan had difficulty in the locker room. In a set of unusual admissions in January—admissions that he reiterated in different ways on his final show of the season this week—he acknowledged he was on the verge of losing control in important ways. Not only is this a negative indicator, but the fact that he admitted it publicly was not something that the Old Dog can really understand. Yes, it validates the genuine, no-varnish kind of guy that Shawhan is, but this is something that’s best left unsaid or discussed in a more general manner.  Perhaps he wanted to get in front of the situation as a defensive move if, for example, he feared that one of the players would have leaked the situation to the press. However, that’s just not the way a championship program is run. And it does seem that Shawhan sometimes sinks into a stream-of-consciousness brain dump when he’s speaking publicly. That rarely turns out well for a coach.

In another area, the Old Dog wondered whether Shawhan, Brooks and Steward had the correct matchups at key times in the games they lost through yet another third period meltdown. Shawhan didn’t use his timeouts to any extent until the last few games, and that’s something I would have thought was needed to calm down young and inexperienced skaters at key times.

As Scotty Bowman (probably the most successful coach ever in North American hockey) said, his most important job was to make sure he had the right personnel on the ice at the right time. Yes, there were several critical mismatches this year that were circumstantial and hard to avoid due to penalties or timing, but there were plenty of other times when the Huskies deployed their third or fourth lines, or third defensive pairing, against the other team’s top players. That’s totally on the coaches.

The final area that worries the Old Dog is the general direction the team seems to be taking. During the 35 to 40 year “Dark Age” that descended on Husky Hockey after John MacInnes died, most of the coaches tried to build a defense-first team. That’s something coaches with weak talent will often do, hoping that they can frustrate opponents and then scratch out a one or two goal victory when the other guys get too anxious to score and make errors leading to scoring chances for the defensive-minded team.

It never worked very well for Tech, and right now that’s the way Anchorage and Huntsville play, and it’s not working for them, either. When Mel Pearson arrived in Houghton, he clearly tried to establish a more offensive style. I don’t think it’s fair to say Pearson was strictly a run-and-gun kind of guy, but offense had a higher priority than we saw this year. That’s something Pearson learned first from MacInnes but even more so from Red Berenson during Pearson’s 21 years as an assistant in Ann Arbor.  In contrast, Shawhan appears to be channeling Jeff Jackson, who is also a defense-first coach but now, at Notre Dame, has a showcase university and a brand new arena behind him.

Why does all of this matter? It’s critical because it all affects recruiting. The young men coming out of juniors almost all have advisors who steer them to Division I teams. With the most recent rule change, these “advisors” can even be agents. While the representation must cease once a player enrolls at a university, the advisor-agent is clearly hoping to hitch his wagon to rising stars who will become professionals—and help the agent build his stable of paying clients once that happens.

These advisor-agents want their charges to play where media exposure is high and personal achievements can be polished, thereby making the player more attractive to the NHL scouting world. Tech doesn’t stack up highly in media exposure, and (no matter how Husky Nation would like to see things) Tech doesn’t have the intrinsic appeal of a Big Ten team, or a top NCHC team, or one of the Boston schools. While the JMac is a great building, and Tech’s fans really are among the best, it’s still not as appealing to a junior as playing in “The Ralph” in Grand Forks, Yost in Ann Arbor, Mariucci in Minneapolis, or the new arenas at Penn State and Notre Dame.

I think Pearson understood that, and for that reason emphasized offense. It does look like Shawhan is a much bigger fan of defense. If this year’s freshman class—which has a ton of offensive potential—leaves in 2 or 3 years and feels that their personal development has been limited or even stifled by the Shawhan-Jackson style, it won’t be a secret, either to the agents or to the top talent in the USHL or other junior leagues. If that happens, the pipeline of talent that Pearson started and Shawhan added to this past year will likely dry up.

This is a complicated issue, and there are plenty of “Yeah, buts” that can be raised. Pearson didn’t do very well in Ann Arbor this year, either and Jackson’s had some great teams over his long career, including NCAA championships at Lake Superior State. Will Shawhan be able to get the right mix to keep the Huskies relevant come NCAA tournament time? The Old Dog hopes so, but the problems that arose with team chemistry this year are less than encouraging.

When you add it all up, it’s hard to avoid a grade of “F” for this season for the coaching staff. Since Shawhan gave himself a “failing grade” on his Monday show with Dirk Hembroff this week, any chance to lobby for something a bit better, like a D-, is impossible to justify.

The only thing the Old Dog can add is my hope that, in a year or two, we find the Huskies battling in the WCHA finals and going to the NCAA tournament. We’ll also see top talent signing letters of intent. I will then look back at this column and give myself an “F” as well for being so very wrong about things.