With each passing game, the challenges that come with breaking young players into hockey at the professional level are becoming more and more apparent. Although they have perhaps the richest roster on paper in team history, life has been anything but easy for the Ontario Reign in 2021. As evidenced on Sunday night, when the team lost for the seventh time in eight games.
With about half of Ontario’s forwards playing in the AHL for the first time, and several newbies on the defensive side to boot, incoming coach John Wroblewski no doubt has his hands full. However, he likely just needs more time with his current group. Time to teach, time to assess some of their individual needs.
Fortunately for him, the week ahead should be helpful, as the team has five days off before playing again. The additional practice time should allow quite a bit of time to work on a plethora of items before they suit up to play in San Jose next Saturday.
Despite the Reign losing to the Silver Knights for the third time, there were still positives to take from Sunday’s game. Running with just 11 forwards once again — as Alex Turcotte and Rasmus Kupari weren’t available — didn’t slow Sammy Fagemo down. He buried his team-leading third goal of the season:
— Eric (@Kingsgifs) February 22, 2021
Trailing 3-1 heading into the final frame, Akil Thomas potted his second goal of the season to bring the Reign within one of tying it up:
— Eric (@Kingsgifs) February 22, 2021
Assisting on both goals was defenseman Daniel Brickely, giving him three points in three games vs. Ontario’s newest division rival.
It wasn’t enough to claim victory, though, as Henderson held on to win 3-2.
Following the game, Wrobo shared the following thoughts:
On what he learned from the previous games against Henderson this season
The first game really was kind of a punch-for-punch effort and could have gone either way. I thought their goalie was tremendous in that very first game. The second one, we learned a lesson – what it takes to compete in the AHL. That was kind of a base point, a ground zero for us. The majority of our guys hadn’t seen that two-day set against a mature group. We took a huge step forward today in the first period, being able to compete against that lineup. I thought our first period was our best one of the season thus far.
On the if the difference between the first and second period was more of Henderson adjusting or Ontario losing focus
I would say a little bit more towards the latter on that. It started off with our first shift, where we really wanted to concentrate on having quick shifts. It was a major emphasis point that we talked about yesterday and into the morning meeting today – trying to make sure that our shift lengths, we were passing them off to our teammates. That first shift was 71 seconds and it was in the offensive zone. We had ample opportunity to change. That followed up with the neutral zone turnover, which we were so diligent within the first period, and that almost triggered a breakaway for Henderson. We then get scored on when we didn’t change on time again. Number one, we didn’t cover for a pinching defenseman. Then we didn’t change on time in addition to that, so we were too tired for the back check. As mature as our first period was played, we did not stay with the process, and that was definitely frustrating. In the first period, we were so good at winning the loose puck, generating from the top. Then, there were multiple encounters where we had two guys at the net to one Henderson defenseman, players open down there. We just didn’t want to embrace that simplistic approach and we kept forcing pucks into the mid-slot when Henderson was compacted in there. All around, as good as the first was, I thought we were equally unimpressive in the second. A lot of it had to do with our determination to just stay with what works and to try to wear the opponent down. We wanted to score now instead of wearing on them.
On the play of Sean Durzi this season trying to find his way in the AHL
I think you said it right there, still trying to find his way. There’s a lot of really good happening with Sean and then there’s some items that really do need to get cleaned up, as well. Normally, my answers are a little bit longer, but it’s a variety of things – just a little bit more feel for the game. Hopefully that comes with experience. We really like Sean, and I think his brain is brilliant. It’s all just has to come together for him at some time here, but he does seem to be around some big mistakes.
On keeping guys buying in to the system while carrying a poor record so this season
Number one, it starts off with their individual development. Along that road, it’s making sure that our meetings — we’re piling on individual meetings with each player trying to get them to play their best game, to understand what they need to do for their success. That’s always been a belief of mine. If you can bolster the individual and then teach him within the team ideals, because each guy has to do the job a different way. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to tell [Arthur] Kaliyev to forecheck the same way that [Tyler] Madden does, right? Just trying to bolster the individual as much as possible. These guys understand the process. The losing part is unbelievably hard to take afterwards at this point, but you also see so much promise every game. If we didn’t have the first period that we had tonight, then I would say today was just a complete and total — even though the score was tight, and we were in it — that would be a total loss. There’s so much to build off in that first period. We’re trying to cultivate all these new players into one style that they’ve never played before, where they have to try to get on the grind first. Very little appreciation at the beginning for the grind sets up your skill. We’re trying to rebrand DNA, and there are a lot of players that have to go through it and you don’t necessarily have a group of second, third, or even above table setters. We have a great collection of veterans but there are still so many young guys that when it pops for these guys – you know what, it might not happen even this year, it might not pop as a collective unit, but we’re building something bigger. I have patience with that. Every day, there’s a different message and we’re unlocking different pieces of the game with every meeting. We’re just gonna keep chipping away at it.
On if they have tried to partner veteran players with younger guys to work with them short-term
That could be an ideal frame of mind, but we’re limited a little bit here with our roster structure. It seems like almost every game we’ve either had an injury or we’ve started with 11 forwards. The first Henderson game, we didn’t. But then second game, Boko [Imama] gets kicked out right away because they didn’t let the puck drop. Then, we had another continual effort in San Diego. But after that, the last five games here, we’ve had it almost every game where we’ve been down to 11 forwards and trying to piecemeal it together. Considering guys energy scores, first-year players, we have not been able to achieve the continuity that we would like or even strive for. We’re certainly considering all options, and it’s just very difficult to try to get any flow with line combinations right now.
On if there is anything specific he wants to address going in to these five days off
I think to build off that first period, and to make that our calling card. We were passing off shifts and the game started with us playing behind them. How many first touches did we have on loose pucks and how much action did we have at the Henderson net? We’ll continue to bolster the good and try to teach off of where the mistakes were made. These kids all have pedigree, they’ll all learn it, and they’re trying to acquire this knowledge on the fly. It’s a very difficult time for a lot of people. I think these guys, they’re a long way from home, sometimes for the first time. There’s a big learning curve not only in hockey, but also in life.
On where he has seen growth in the team’s play thus far this season
We’ve started to have an identity in the offensive zone. To me, is one of the most important parts of the game because it just controls the flow, which then allows you to not have to break out against a concentrated forecheck. Hopefully, it’s disconnected because they’re changing after a long d-zone shift, so they only have one or two guys on the hunt instead of three. Then, you have to just recycle that same thought process. You have to get right back in the offensive zone and touch first on it, then run our schemes. If you watch the games, at times we’re very good at getting three players up into the high-ice and starting to rotate players through. Then, we haven’t scored hardly at all in the net front, what we’ll call the dirty areas. Something we’re referring to as ‘badges of honor.’ Instead of dirty goals, it’s a badge to score down in that greasy area. We get that goal in the third from [Akil] Thomas on that exact type of play that we’ve been working on. There are plenty of things that we can grab and hopefully just try to duplicate and replicate as often as possible. There have been a few teaching points that I won’t divulge the details of it, but it’s about having that killer instinct, whether or not you go up a goal early, you have to go right back to the recipe that worked and the other team is gonna answer. You have to go back at it harder. I think guys are starting to understand the ranks of what the professional game is like. Teams just don’t go away. If anything, a goal against starts to fuel a veteran club. We’re just chipping away at lessons and they’re presenting themselves every single day.
Sunday’s Ontario Reign lineup can be viewed here.
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