The farm club of the Edmonton Oilers is quietly accomplishing a remarkable feat. The first year franchise has climbed out of the league’s cellar since December to the point where they might be the team to beat in the coming AHL playoffs.
The Toronto Roadrunners have compiled an amazing comeback since Christmas on the strength of a 23-11-5-1 record between Boxing Day and the start of the current weekend. The Roadrunners entered the weekend in a three-way tie for third place in the Northern Division.
The turnaround has been sparked by the performances of many key players but most noticeably by several rookies. In the early months of the schedule, the first year players struggled with making the adjustment to the new league, but as time has gone on, the youngsters have made all the difference.
The Roadrunners are so hot as of late that one would have to regard them as the team no other wants to face in the opening round of postseason play. A 6-0 pounding of Grand Rapids was soon followed by a close victory over league leading Milwaukee – both road victories.
Toronto ends the season with six of eight games at home, starting Saturday night against their former brothers-in-arms Hamilton. Last season the Oilers and Canadiens shared the Bulldogs before Edmonton chose to move its farm club to Toronto. Now the two teams have one of the best rivalries in the AHL.
Hockey’s Future spoke with the Geoff Ward, the head coach of the Toronto Roadrunners earlier this week about how his team has been able to surge up the standings on the way to making their third straight run at the Calder Cup.
HF: How do you explain the drastic turnaround since Christmas? Was there one specific thing to trigger the resurgence?
GW: No, I don’t think so. I think it was just the evolution of our team to be honest with you. We approached the year based on our schedule and the new people we were going to have in our line up. We cut it up into three major sections. The first section was when we spent so much time on the road and we wanted to make sure that we got all our players immersed in life of the AHL, see what our young guys could do and get our older veteran guys comfortable with the leadership roles we needed them to perform on our team. The second part of the year we wanted to make a move by the 54 game mark in terms of being in or near a playoff position so that we could get that challenge during the final third. And in the last part of the year we wanted to improve our playoff positioning and make sure that we were playing our best hockey as we neared the end. So I think it’s just been our evolution as a group and at Christmas time I think the guys were really ready to step up their game because they had all gotten comfortable with their roles. We started playing more games at home so we were finally getting used to our surroundings at Ricoh.
HF: Because of the roll that you’ve been on, are you the team that no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs?
GW: We hope that we are! Our goal right from the beginning was to be a playoff team and to be playing our best hockey at this time of year. We haven’t realized that goal yet so we’re still focused on achieving that but once we do that then we can start looking at specific opponents for the playoffs but right now were still taking it a day at a time. Whether or not people want to play us or not, I don’t know. We’ve had an awful lot of success in the second half but our job now is to use that as a springboard to keep ourselves moving forward and improving as opposed to saying that we’ve had a lot of success and then falling off a bit.
HF: Do you think of Toronto as an expansion team?
GW: I think in some ways we are.
HF: That considered, it’s remarkable that you’re in the position that you’re in now, especially with how far back you were at Christmas.
GW: Yeah we really had to make up a lot of ground at that time and the credit goes to the players, they’ve done a tremendous job. We haven’t really done anything different as a coaching staff; the players have become a lot more accountable as a group and in their roles. They have been really focused and it’s been a great team to be around and to work with everyday.
HF: Is it easier for you as the coach to not have a split affiliation like you did last year?
GW: Oh yeah, it’s a lot easier. Last year, all the decisions that had to be made had to go through Montreal as well as Edmonton in terms of how it affected us down on the farm. Scott Howson and his counterpart from Montreal did a great job in terms of making things as smooth as possible for us and there was never a problem. Those dual affiliations either work really well or they don’t work at all and last year it worked really well. That said it’s definitely easier now just having to represent the Oilers and work with their prospects in terms of just the expediency of the operating process in a lot of the day-to-day business.
HF: Bobby Allen is the team’s captain. Who is wearing the alternate’s A’s?
GW: We’ve always gone with home A’s and road A’s. We’ve got Dan Smith, Chad Hinz, Jamie Wright and Dave Roche.
HF: Any particular reason why Bobby Allen was singled out for the captaincy?
GW: We had a variety of guys who could have done the job; Dan Smith wears the C when Bobby is out of the line up or while he was up with the Oilers, so we had guys who we felt were strong candidates. There were guys who had leadership experience with their previous clubs in the AHL or that had won championships and those types of things. Bobby, with the history he’s had with our team in particular being a leader on our last two teams that made long playoff runs, we felt that he was a logical choice and he’s done a tremendous job.
HF: Chad Hinz mentioned to me last month that there are only four or five players on the Roadrunners roster who played in Hamilton last year. Is that where the role of the veterans comes in to play to gel the team together with all the new faces?
GW: Oh yeah. It was extremely important that we get the right kind of veterans into our line up in Toronto just for that reason. You look at guys like (Nate) DiCasmirro, Chad Hinz and Mike Bishai as guys who were returning to our team from Hamilton and on defense Bobby Allen was a huge player for us last year. You add (Tony) Salmelainen and (Jani) Rita and that’s about all we have for returning players. Guys like DiCasmirro we were really asking to step in and be first and second line players for us now where as previous years they were third or fourth liners for us. That process for them that they had to go through was almost like our first year guys just coming into the league. It was a totally new learning curve for about 90 percent of our guys. The guys we mentioned were experienced with the roles we wanted them to play and what we expected of them and that’s why we felt it was extremely critical that we get the right type of veteran to surround ourselves with to help those guys out in terms of bringing the team together and giving it a strong core to get the team where we needed it to be.
HF: Trades that the Oilers made this year impacted your team, adding Woywitka then losing Sarno and Valiquette, how have these trades affected the dynamics inside your dressing room?
GW: It’s been a really smooth change. Valiquette was great in the room and in the community for us and he’s a great young man. He was, at the time of the trade, starting to really play some great hockey for us. At the beginning of the year he was trying to learn how to be a No. 1 goalie again because he had been a backup for so long. We felt that he was just starting to become comfortable again when the Oilers made the trade to get Tyler Moss. I think Moss is a little quieter than Valley was, more serious and not in a negative way, but he’s an experienced No. 1 guy at this level and he brought that into the room right away. Where we saw the immediate impact was on the ice in the confidence that he brought to our team. He’s a guy who makes the big saves when we need it and who battles hard when we’re not playing so well to keep us in hockey games.
HF: Mike Morrison has also had an impressively strong year.
GW: He’s been a huge. I don’t want to say surprise, but I don’t know if there’s another way to put it. Here’s a guy who coming out of training camp was probably the third guy on the depth roster but he’s just worked his way into a position where he played himself into the line up and when he got the opportunity he made good on it. Our guys have an awful lot of confidence playing out in front of him and he’s played some tremendous games for us. He’s a young guy who’s making the adaptation to pro hockey but every time that he’s been called upon for us this year he’s made a real positive impact. He and Steve got along well and now he and Tyler get along well. They compete with each other but they support each other and a large part of the credit has to go to Mike for that because he’s had to adjust to competing to be an everyday player here but he’s also had to do it against two different personalities. He’s a good guy in the room, one of the guys who keeps the atmosphere in the room alive.
HF: Do you have a number one goaltender in mind for the playoffs or will you rotate them still?
GW: Right now I’d say, until we got Tyler Moss, we went back and forth. We had that situation last year with Ty Conklin and Mathieu Garon and the year before it was Conklin and Mark Lamothe so we’ve been riding the two-goalie system for a while. Since we picked up Tyler Moss, here’s a guy that was the MVP in Manitoba last year, and he’s an experienced starter in our league so I think it’s clear cut now that Moss is our No. 1 guy. We’re confident in (Morrison) when he comes in but I think right now as a team and a coaching staff we feel that Moss is our starter and Mike can learn from him.
HF: The weakest link on a team most of the time is the rookies but yours in the second half have been outstanding.
GW: Yeah they have been. That’s been a major reason why we’ve been able to climb the standings the way we have. The veteran guys have been playing at a pretty consistent level all year long. The rookies, really since Christmas time, have grabbed the bull by the horn. Guy like Joe Cullen, J.J. Hunter, Sean McAslan, Jeff Woywitka, Doug Lynch – these guys have made huge impacts for us. They have created big moments and when we’ve needed big goals, these guys have stepped up on a regular basis and have done it. It’s been a huge reason why we’ve been able to climb from last place in our division to challenging for second and third right now.
HF: You’ve recently added Jason Platt from Providence College on an amateur tryout contract. How has he looked to you?
GW: He’s an extremely keen player and he wants to come in here and learn and get better. You can see by the way that he conducts himself that he’s committed to being a pro hockey player. He’s not a really tall guy but he’s extremely thick, stocky defensive defenseman who loves to hit. He likes to stand up on guys and he’s shown us a lot of good things for us in practice. I’m hoping that we can secure a playoff spot so we can have an opportunity to get him into the line up before playoff time to see what he can offer in game situations because we potentially see him as a really good depth guy once we get into the playoffs.
HF: Would he compare physically similar to Marc-Andre Bergeron?
GW: He’s actually thicker than Bergeron, a little taller and a little thicker. Jason’s more of a defensive guy who moves the puck up. Similar in stature but different in the role they play.
HF: Looking at the remaining schedule, there is lots of room to move up or down in the standings since the remaining games are mostly all against division rivals.
A: That’s the interesting thing about the playoffs this year. The parity is huge in the way that you play off in your division until there are only four teams left. If you get out of your division then you’re in the conference finals, the Calder Cup semi finals, and we’ve had pretty good success against our division this year so we’re really hopeful that once we get to the playoffs we can be an extremely dangerous team and we can make another long run like we have the last couple of years.
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