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Friday, Sep. 21, 2018
Sudbury Wolves management addresses the media - and their fans
by Randy Pascal

Mere days after being officially eliminated from the playoff hunt in the Ontario Hockey League, Sudbury Wolves team management felt it was important to address the media, and in effect their fans, discussing the current season and beyond.

"In September, our hopes were to get into the playoffs, and this weekend, as the weekend went by, the reality was evident that we were not going to be in the playoffs," noted General Manager Rob Papineau at a media reception hosted this past Tuesday at the Sudbury Arena. "We believe, especially at a time like this, that we have to be both accessible and accountable to the fans and the City of Sudbury, because it is their team."

In examining the 2017-2018 campaign, Papineau and company focused on eight critical factors that came into play, good or bad. While there is obviously some overlap in some of these areas, following were some of their thoughts on the past eight months or so:

1) injuries: while some Wolves' fans will counter that all teams in the OHL must deal with their share of injuries, it would be naive to discount the effects of not only losing veterans Macauley Carson (injured in 1st game of year and lost for almost two full months) and Ryan Valentini (injured in 2nd game of season and lost for the entire year) quite early, but also the subsequent impairements to the likes of Zach Malik, David Levin, Kyle Rhodes, Reagan O'Grady, Liam Ross and Blake Murray

"When you look at the injuries, it's not just the amount of injuries that we had, it's the significance of who those injuries were to," noted Papineau. "In Carson and Valentini, that's 100 points out of our lineup."

2) discipline: "the second area is an area that we have made some improvements in, but (head coach) Cory (Stillman) and I will tell you that we are not finished," said Papineau, while pointing out that the Wolves lowered their penalty minutes by more than 2.5 minutes per game this year (roughly a 17% improvement)

3) special teams: Wolves currently sit 18th in the 20 team league in both their power play and penalty kill stats - "in order to do what we want to do in this league, we need to get in the top half (in those categories)," acknowledged Papineau. He would go on to say that the injuries compounded this situation, with the Wolves often without almost an entire PP unit due to injuries. At the same time, the team did post better PP and PK numbers on the road, something of a feather in the cap for the group of young players who often filled in, rookies and sophomores who generally struggle away from home when it comes to junior hockey ranks

4) goals against: averaging more than 4.25 goals against per game, second highest in the league, is a sure-fire sign of a bottom end team. Both Papineau and Stillman, however, believe that even more discipline can help address this issue. "If we're killing penalties, we're allowing more opportunities for the other teams to generate offense, more chances and more shots against us," said Papineau

5) one goal games: in the minds of Wolves management, the team fell short in no less than 24 one goal games (league stats may vary slightly, as the team includes games where perhaps a late empty net marker or two would take the final score outside of the true parameters of the definition, though these are games that are effectively still up for grabs with anywhere from two to three minutes to play) - "What's really encouraging is that in 14 of those games, we scored three or more goals," said Papineau. "Those are things we can build on moving into next year"

6) veteran production: "If you look at the league and the teams that are near the top of the standings, they did get more production from their older guys," said Papineau. "While we had some pretty key injuries to some of the older guys, moving into next year, we are going to have to get more production from that group. That's just a reality of playing in the OHL - it's an 18, 19, 20 year old league, for the most part"

7) overtime record: noting that historically, roughly one in five (about 20%) of all games are decided in overtime or a shootout, Papineau pointed out that the Wolves have only managed to pick up the extra point in two of their ten games (2/11, if you factor in Saturday night setback, in OT, in Flint)

8) shots on net: while it seems like such a common sense cure to some of what ails the Wolves, Papineau stressed that only four active players on the team roster took more than 100 shots this year, and all four were enjoying what could be described as "career years" (or perhaps breakthrough years)

Still, the season was not without certain "silver linings", in the eyes of Papineau and his co-horts. They pointed to the play of Blake Murray (no 2017 drafted player is averaging more points per game than Murray), Anthony Tabak (on a team features almost exclusively negative players in terms of their +/- ratings, Tabak remains dead even heading into action tonight) and Liam Ross ("there's no question he was an outstanding pick for us - plays like a veteran").

Additionally, mid-season trades that have now added two former 1st round picks from the 2000 age bracket in Kirill Nizhnikov and Peter Stratis, along with the continued development of Malik and others, provides some reason for optimism.

"As a general manager, I can tell you one thing that I am very proud of is the compete level this team has had," stressed Papineau. "This team has not quit." In fact, after dropping three straight games last week by a final score of 3-2, two of those in overtime, the Wolves have picked up points in both of their western swing road games this weekend, making it four of five games, on the road, where the team has added to its total in the standings.

While much of what Papineau noted above might not qualify as any great surprise to the Sudbury fan base, he did address a couple of key questions, in terms of management mindset moving area.

For starters, one should not expect any movement whatsoever behind the bench. "Cory has my full confidence," said Papineau. "He will be the gentleman who leads our team forward."

For his part, the well-respected long NHLer did note that he certainly feels more well prepared for his second season as head coach, having never previously guided a junior hockey team or higher prior to his arrival in Sudbury.

"This year was a learning curve," he said. "I think for me, it was the ups and downs of the kids. They are 16 to 19 years of age, and you have to repeat, repeat, repeat. As soon as you think everything's going well, they will slip back."

"We seem to be able to find ways to lose instead of knowing how to win," he continued. "My biggest thing, moving forward, is that we will learn how to win. It takes confidence."

With regards to the overage situation for the 2018-2019 season (the Wolves have just three players - Drake and Darian Pilon, and Cole Candella - that are born in 1998 and eligible to return as O/As next season), Papineau could not have been more emphatic with his feelings.

"The Pilon twins are welcomed back to Sudbury as overagers, and Cole Candella is welcomed back, if that's the plan that Vancouver (Canucks) have for him," he said.

With the OHL Entry Draft and the Import Draft alloting top end picks in the direction of Sudbury, it's no surprise that the conference cellar dwellars will have no issue identifying areas of improvement.

"We could use a guy that can score more goals, and we can also really use a stud defenseman who can help us generate more from the back end," said Papineau. "We have to score more, and we have to keep more pucks out of our net."

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