Last week we looked at how the Rampage staff used their players, now it’s time to see how that paid off. I’ll employ some foreshadowing and say it didn’t. On paper the Rampage had the talent to produce quite a bit more than they did and honestly should have been in the Calder Cup playoffs. Various injuries to both the Avs and Blues and how each team decided to handle them made that more difficult but even with the regular lineup this wasn’t the worst team in the Pacific Division.
San Antonio got off to a good start with a 6-2-0 record in October, outscoring their opponents by an average of a goal per game. They played .500 hockey from then on and by late December the scoring had dried up for good. In the first 28 games they had 91 goals and were a top 5 scoring team in the league. In the remaining 48 starting with a road trip to Manitoba just before Christmas break they scored 107, a 2.23 per game average, and finished up 27th in the league.
The big dropoff doesn’t make a ton of sense really. Even when they were rolling it was scoring by committee, no one on the team ever cracked the AHL leader charts. The power play felt the loss of Jordan Schmaltz in the 2nd half of the season but you can’t pin an entire goal per game on that. Andrew Agozzino was the team’s leading scorer with 44 points, which isn’t great and asking him to lead the team in offense is a bit much but that shouldn’t kill a season.
One of the hallmarks of Avalanche AHL affiliates is inability to improve or even keep up with the rest of the league over the course of the season. It’s a matter of course now to start looking for chinks in the armor in early January and the inevitable collapse after the All-Star Break. While other teams push their games harder as the season progresses, the Avs are left in the dust. Some of that is talent related, injuries hit everyone hard so there’s no reason to make that excuse, but the majority of the issue lies in the players not getting better.
Veteran players are a necessity on any minor league team, they are there to smooth out the rough patches when the younger guys get inconsistent. They don’t have upside though, they won’t get any better during the season and if relying on them to carry your team is the strategy then you’re going to collapse every year. To compete through April and beyond there have to be contributions from young players from the very beginning and they have to get progressively better to counter the same phenomenon from other clubs. In turn, that also helps the veteran players give more since the pressure becomes spread out as time goes on. Let’s look at the various groups of forwards and how they measured up to past scoring performance.
Agozzino: 0.61 pts/gm (-16.4%)
Ranford: 0.33 pts/gm (-47.6%)
Grimaldi: 0.63 pts/gm (-8.7%)
Vogelhuber: 0.20 pts/gm (-31.0%)
Girard: 0.24 pts/gm (-14.3%)
These 5 were projected to be the core of the forwards by Avs management and the coaching staff at the beginning of the season. Aggz, Rocco and Ranford for scoring and Girard/Vogie as the dependable 2-way players. It didn’t work out like that. Rocco was ok but slipped into a long drought in December then got injured. Aggz also went through a two-month goal drought in the middle of the year but was ok at the beginning and end of the season. Ranford was a horror show with a grand total of 3 points in Jan/Feb. Vogie and Girard had their moments but Girard ended up as the 4th line center and Vogelhuber was healthy scratched at various times late in the season. Not one of them lived up to the roles Billington and Veilleux projected them into.
Petryk: 0.25 pts/gm (-40.5%)
Greer: 0.37 pts/gm (-38.3%)
Nantel: 0.17 pts/gm (+21.1%)
St-Amant: 0.12 pts/gm (-58.6%)
Greer and Nantel were in their 2nd ELC year, with St-Amant the same but on AHL contract. Petryk was 2nd year ELC but 4th as a pro. Nantel’s “improvement” came from scoring the same number in 11 fewer games so that’s not really improvement in a developing talent view. All four basically regressed hard and all four had more goals than assists, which is weird and reflects poorly on the club’s offensive strategy.
So why all the regression? Part of it is usage and asking too much from older players while not putting more talented younger players in a position to learn and improve from Day 1. The balance wasn’t quite right then when callups started there wasn’t the reserve needed to plug holes. Whether that’s lack of trust or just being short-sighted isn’t important. It happened, it’s happened many times before and is bound to happen again unless someone breaks the cycle.
Beyond that, the coaching strategy has to be examined. Last season Coach Veilleux struggled massively with the 2nd game of back-to-backs, an indicator that there was an adjustment gap. I’ll say that tactically, EV’s adjustments were better this year but the major issue was strategic. The Rampage’s offensive system was decent in the early part of the season but looking back they seemed to score in spite of it rather than because of it. It was predictable and largely ineffective. Skill took a back seat to grit and that was a poor fit for the players available. Scoring chances developed off the rush or from perimeter shots generating rebounds. Puck movement below the circles was strictly on the outside of the slot area and dangerous chances extremely rare. Eight players on the team had more goals than assists, which is ridiculous. The players scoring regression wasn’t just because they didn’t score as much, it was highly influenced by the fact that no one passed the puck anymore. I usually take coaches public comments with a grain of salt but when EV stated many times that they needed to “get pucks in deep, crash the net” that was pretty much the whole San Antonio o-zone strategy in a nutshell.
Going forward with the affiliation change and new coaching staff, the hope is that these issues of usage and strategy can be corrected and improved significantly. There are 5 guys that will be on new ELCs plus the returnees that are currently with the Eagles on their Kelly Cup run to form a young core. The talent level of “older” players like Greer and Toninato and Kamenev is beyond the usual for the Avs minor league system. They can handle skilled roles and still have plenty of upside for improvement during the season. I’d love to be sitting here a year from now breaking down how the changes were a success rather than doing the same post mortem for the sixth year in a row.
Next week, I’ll take a look at some of the players individually in what will be the final edition of From the Rampage Desk. Starting soon after, From the Eagles Desk begins.