From the Stands
By Paul Osborne
The pre-Christmas break is upon us, so it’s time for Storm fans to catch their breath and take stock in their hockey club.
For starters, this team has been entertaining. Several full houses at the Sleeman Centre can attest to that. Even in their 4-3 shootout loss to London on Saturday the Storm competed on every shift and played well enough to win. Coach Scott Walker’s full octane forecheck and offence has made this team play an up-tempo style and lately, they have managed to tighten up defensively with Brock Beukeboom coming in via trade to create balance in their top four.
“I’m happy with the way the team has played but I’m not satisfied,” said Walker.
“We want to be a team to be reckoned with but I understand there are a lot of good teams to be reckoned with (in our conference). We have been hard to play against, harder on the puck and a more physical team than last year but to be successful in this league they need to find another 20 to 30 percent to give.”
“I would give us a B+,” said general manager Mike Kelly. “From a points standpoint (44 in 33 games) we’ve probably exceeded our goal a little bit. I think we’ve followed the blueprint fairly well.”
When asked about first half surprises Walker points to defenceman Zac Leslie and forward Justin Auger.
“We knew we’d be relying on Andrey (Pedan) and (Matt) Finn of ‘D’ but Zac has really stepped up so that we can now play him as much as the other guys and Beukeboom,” said the coach.
“Up front everyone has taken a step forward but Auger has been a good surprise. I was waiting to see where he’d be this year and I’d say in his third line spot, he is probably the most dominating guy in the league at (that point in the line-up). I think he can be even more dominating once he grows into his (6-foot-7) body. The young players and even the older ones have taken a nice step forward too.”
“I agree with Auger and Leslie and I think Ben Harpur has played above expectations as well,” said Kelly.
“When I look at where he was drafted and the other defencemen now in the league, I wouldn’t trade for a single one of them. Sometimes we’re hard on the 6-foot-5 guys but I think he’ll be fine. Robby Fabbri has also improved. He was squeezing his stick too tightly for the first 15 games or so but is now playing with confidence, even against the other team’s top line.”
As for the second half, Walker says they will need a lot of things to fall into place. The team needs to improve and stay healthy and points out the trade deadline in early January could also change the complexion of the race in the Western Conference.
“We don’t know which team will be the most active” said Walker. “One team could decide to go for it and trade away some youth which might help us next year or sometimes you bring in a guy and he screws up the room for a good team. (General Manager) Mike (Kelly) has a good handle on what he wants and what our needs are, and his eyes are on what we’re going to look like in a year or two.”
“We’ll look at anything that makes sense for the short-term” said Kelly, “but nothing that hurts us over the long-term.”
London has been the cream of the crop to this point and they are looking like they could run away with things. They have won 21 in a row and have plenty of depth. The worst scenario for Guelph would be to finish fourth in their division giving the home side the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs against either Kitchener or Owen Sound in all likelihood. It will be important for the Storm to grab home ice advantage for the first round to give them the best chance of moving on.
They have shown in the first half there are some impressive horses in the barn, now it is up to Walker and his staff to wring every ounce they can from them.