Interview with Broncos Coach/GM Mark Lamb (Download):
Every year after the end of the Swift Current Broncos season I have made a tradition out of interviewing Broncos Coach/GM Mark Lamb in an extended chat on the state of the franchise. The first such interview came after a disappointing 2010-11 season that started with high expectations and ended up in the organization going through a renewal.
In some ways the 2014-15 season started with similar high expectations to that 2010-11 season. Were some perhaps overrating Swift Current’s potential fortunes this season? On one hand it’s never a bad thing to set the bar high. On the other hand… perhaps we should have, at least to some degree, seen this coming.
The Broncos were a very strong team in 2013-14. Come playoff time they had a centre ice depth of Graham Black, Nathan Burns, Colby Cave and Zac Mackay. They had a veteran goalie who was one of the best in the league with an emerging and capable backup. They also had a core on the blue line that was diverse and talented. When you could pair a big defensive specialist like Dillon Heatherington with someone as dynamic as Julius Honka that is a great starting point for anyone. Combine that with two guys who got drafted in the third round on your second pair and things are in pretty good shape.
Unfortunately a tie on top of the East Division standings went to Regina and the Broncos wound up on the road against a tremendous Medicine Hat team in the first round of the playoffs. It was a wonderful series that could have gone either way. I truly believe had the Broncos won it they would have wound up in the Eastern Conference final against Edmonton just as the Tigers did.
They didn’t and yet optimism was still high. There was a real buzz around the Broncos after that season and that playoff. How could their not be after such a fun series with the possibility of returning their entire group of defencemen? Each guy in the top six wound up picked in the first three rounds of an NHL draft. That’s the foundation for success that had people predicting a battle between the Broncos and Brandon Wheat Kings this season.
So why were they instead fighting for their playoff lives at the end of the season instead of battling for top spot?
First of all I think the impact of their graduating players was perhaps bigger than people realized. Eetu Laurikainen went form being an unknown in North America to a model of consistency in two seasons with the Broncos. He gave them a chance to win every night and was very rarely the victim of a bad goal. Consistency in goaltending is perhaps the greatest challenge of the position at this level. Every goalie in the WHL this season had strong games or strong weeks. I’m not sure any of them this season offered the kind of consistency the Broncos got out of Laurikainen. That’s not a shot at Landon Bow by any stretch as I honestly don’t think any Eastern Conference goalie this season played at that level with the kind of consistency Laurikainen did when he was in Swift Current. You can’t help but miss that.
On top of losing Laurikainen the Broncos lost the veteren depth they had up the middle. Graham Black and Nathan Burns ended up being the key players on the top two Swift Current lines down the stretch and in the playoffs. Strength up the middle like that with a point per game player like Colby Cave sometimes on your third line is very tough to line match against. A player like Black also pushed teams back all on his own with his speed. That’s an element Swift Current certainly missed when you took the skating ability of Black and Honka way from a team that wasn’t particularly fleet of foot otherwise.
The overage rule also meant that the Broncos had to lose Andrew Johnson and Stephen Shmoorkoff. Both guys ate some key veteran minutes in a two-way role. They weren’t insignificant.
I’m not pointing this out to suggest the Broncos were the only team turning over important players. It happens all throughout the league. I’m just saying that the idea that they were bringing so much of their key core players back does take a bit of a hit when you look at how important the guys they lost were to the success of that 13-14 team.
Then there was the biggest loss of them all when Julius Honka was allowed to play in the AHL and didn’t return as expected.
There are those who will tell you the Broncos are at fault for this happening and they should have known this was possible based on the arrangement they had with Honka’s Finnish team. Fair enough I suppose. So how many other times has that ever happened? If you think he was the first guy to come over to North America on a loan instead of a release you’re wrong. They had every reason to expect he would be back and to be surprised by what happened.
Regardless of your view on how it happened the loss of Honka was a devastating blow to this season’s team. It was devastating not only because he would have been one of the top defencemen in the league, but because he had such a unique skill set that left a hole that would be incredibly difficult to fill with a similar player.
I have no doubt that with Honka in the line-up the Broncos would have been well above .500 and at least in the battle for a home ice advantage. He just brings so many elements to the team that they weren’t able to replicate without him. Then they only had a star like Heatherington for 48 of 72 game sdue to injury and World Junior and a former first round pick like Jordan Harris for only 29 games and none of the second half. Those losses add up. Finally if the D wasn’t hammered enough they tried to trade Brycen Martin for a veteran in Josh Connolly who would fill some of the holes created by Honka’s departure and he refused to report. Jordan Thomson is a talented young man but was not ready to do as much as the Broncos would have asked Connolly to do.
The Bronocs went from being able to return their entire defensive group from last season to only having two of those guys in the lineup come playoff time and one of them missed almost half the season. That returning group on the blue line was supposed to be the strength of the team so should it be a surprise that the season didn’t go quite as hoped?
The Broncos were a hard team to score on in the fall when they had at least their full group on the blue line (minus Honka) and an almost league MVP level performance by Landon Bow in net. At one point he had his save percentage over 0.940% and had six shutouts while the season was still young. A depleted defensive group and some second half inconsistency from Bow took a team that thrived in a 1-0 mentality to one that was getting behind a goal or two almost every night.
Another factor in a second half that trended in the wrong direction was the amount of veteran players in depth roles on the roster. Part of that was by choice and part of that was by necessity. The losses of Honka and Harris encouraged the Broncos to go get veterans like Ayrton Nikkel and Griffin Foulk to fill those holes. The loss of Cole Johnson to injury and requested trade of Dakota Odgers created openings up front that were filled with additions like Linden Penner and Miles Warkentine. Mix those guys in with Zac Mackay, Tanner LeSann, Andreas Schumacher, Kristian Ferletak and Cavin Leth. Teams often have a young bottom six and the Broncos were instead loaded with 18 and 19-year-old players in those spots.
On one hand it should be a good thing to have a veteran hand in those spots as they should be less likely to make mistakes. On the other hand you had guys there in particular at 19 who for whatever reason had not been able to push into a top six or top four role in their career and were perhaps less likely to make sudden rapid growth as a 17-year-old. You also had guys who at that age playing in a bottom six or bottom pair role had to be wondering and worrying about having a hockey future. Most 19-year-olds who aren’t top six or top four players don’t find spots in the league as over-agers and based on my chat with Coach Lamb it sounds like that anxiety crept into the play and the attitude of not all but at least some of those guys.
A 16, 17 or 18-year-old might not be as anxious about playing limited minutes or not producing offence as a 19-year-old because they still have time to push up the ladder. It sounds like some guys started seeing their time running out and the coach felt it had an impact on the team mentality of their group in the second half.
Was it the right decision for the Broncos to go that way? It obviously wasn’t their plan as they expected to have Honka, Harris, Johnson and Odgers available to them. When all those holes appeared the organization made a choice to fill the holes with veterans instead of bringing up their youth and limiting their playing time during key seasons of development. Instead of the veterans they added they could have called up a Colby Sissons, Owen Seidel, Tyler Adams, Brandon Arnold or someone of that ilk. However, they felt that the development of those players would be better served playing elsewhere this season. Adams and Conner Chaulk had successful seasons that took them to a Telus Cup with Regina. Seidel won the BC Major Midget scoring crown. Sissons got to play big minutes in every situation as a 16-year-old like Max Lajoie before him.
Would those young guys have been better off where they were or fighting for minutes at the back of the bench? To me it was probably the right call for their sake, but it might have taken some of the youthful push out of the Broncos in the second half.
All that said the organization was still confident they could have a good series with Regina and maybe at least win a round. They had a very good season series with the Pats and were confident they could again in the playoffs. It didn’t happen that way. They lost three very close games to start the series and a game four that was scoreless until an ugly shorthanded goal midway through. They dealt with a family situation that impacted their captain in the opening two games and a bad missed call in the third game that could have completely changed the series.
Things happen in the playoffs. Regina had their adversity too and they were full value for their win. Coach Lamb said they outworked the Broncos and certainly had a much better skating team. The Broncos had a very skilled top six forward group and yet a few of their key guys were not elite skaters. That was also an issue on the blue line once they went through their changes back there. Those factors didn’t add up to matching up well against all Regina’s speed.
So in hindsight should they have gutted their team and traded their veterans away? There are fans who were arguing for that in January. There are some asking now why it didn’t happen based on the result. Ultimately Coach Lamb said he felt a responsibility to the veterans that were with him as long as they had been to make an effort to win together. He did make the Martin move (for Thomson and a 1rst round pick) with an eye to the future, but he still believed in January that the Broncos had hope for the playoffs. The coaching staff certainly didn’t envision a fall off in their play and a late losing streak. Hindsight is always 20/20.
There’s no doubt whether you’re talking to Coach Lamb or you’re talking to a Broncos fan that this season ended with a sour taste. Everyone hoped for better things. Does that mean the season as a whole was a disaster?
The Broncos have made the playoffs three straight years. Losing in the first round isn’t ideal, but there are six other teams that didn’t make the dance every year. Of the four community owned teams in the WHL the Broncos had the best record and were the only one in the playoffs. Of the teams in Saskatchewan in general only two made the post-season. There are some unique challenges to being a community owned team in a small market. I’m not saying the organization shouldn’t aim higher than playoffs… but it does say something that they’ve been there for three straight seasons while the other similar organizations were on the outside looking in.
Again yes it is disappointing to lose in the first round of the playoffs… but did the fans get a solid and entertaining product? In the Eastern Conference only Brandon, Medicine Hat and Calgary had a better home record than the Broncos did. Fans in Swift Current saw their home team win 22 of 36 games and get points in 24 of those games.
Are the Broncos developing players? They had three players drafted in the first three rounds of the NHL draft last season with two more expected this season. It could be back-to-back years where the Broncos have players selected in the first round of the NHL draft. Looking even further back and you’ve got guys like Adam Lowry and Cody Eakin proving they are already key pieces of their NHL teams only a few years removed from playing here. The AHL has a handful of former Broncos in it and having success. In that sense the organization is doing their job.
How about drafting? It’s hard not to look at this team and wonder what could have been if the top five picks in the 2011 draft had turned out better. The bantam draft is not an exact science. That’s why nobody picked the best player from the draft (Brayden Point) until 14th and arguably the best defenceman in the draft (Haydn Fleury) didn’t go until 43rd. At the time Brycen Martin was a sure bet and he is talented enough he got drafted in the NHL… it just didn’t work out here and they turned him into Jordan Thomson and a first round pick. Zack Gonek didn’t turn out but they turned him into Jordan Harris who should be a top four guy next season. Dakota Odgers didn’t develop into more than a grinding two-way forward but he is certainly good enough to play in the league, Cavin Leth to me had an excellent year and is on the verge of breaking out in a big way… and Jordan Wittman was a bet that didn’t turn out.
If you think there is an issue with the ability of Swift Current’s scouts to find talent though you just have to look at the later rounds of that draft. Goaltender Alec Dillon is an NHL draft pick, forward Cameron Hughes was a point-per-game AJHL player who got an NCAA scholarship, defenceman Viktor Dombrovskiy was a high scoring defenceman in the BCHL who has an NCAA scholarship to Harvard and in the 7th round they nabbed a kid named Jake DeBrusk who I think turned out OK. In talking to Assistant GM Jamie Porter they drafted all those guys with the intention and hope they would be WHL players and for whatever reason it didn’t turn out that way with all of them. I know Dillon and Hughes were close a few times. Obviously drafting talented players that don’t play for you doesn’t help much except to say that I believe these guys know how to spot talent.
The 2012 draft class already features some strong talent as well with Glenn Gawdin, Travis Child, Wyatt Sloboshan (playing great for Saskatoon), Jackson Keane (NCAA scholarship), Max Lajoie and Brandan Arnold. The success of the 2013 and 2014 drafts is still up in the air although I think trending positively. The organization went through a significant review of their drafting and scouting in 2011 and beyond. The success of drafts in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 will shed light on how well those changes have worked in getting the right players for this organization. So far it’s too early to tell.
Off the ice the news has been good. The organization has moved from six figure losses back into the black. Sponsorship is strong, ticket sales are stable and there are more young fans in the rink. There is always room for improvement on and off the ice… but as much as there was a sour taste after a disappointing season I still think it’s fair to say the Broncos are a healthy organization right now. The big question they face is in a league full of great coaches, great managers, great scouts and tremendous talent how does this organization go from healthy to elite. That’s their goal and they’re not there yet. Those next steps will be the toughest. We’ll see if a roster full of enthusiastic youth next season can get them headed in that direction.
I’m sure my view of the season and the big picture is different than some of yours. There are always mistakes and things you can improve on just as there are always positives to build on. I think the people involved in this organization have done a very good job in many ways. It’s incredibly hard to win and compete with the Calgarys, Brandons, Kelownas and Portlands of the world. They clearly aren’t there yet. I believe in the ability and intelligence of this management group. I hope one day they can be. Only time will tell.
No matter what I look forward to being back in the booth calling the action. I hope you’ll all still be listening.
Tomorrow is the annual WHL Bantam Draft. I generally like to cover that one with as much depth as I can. Generally I think we have had very strong coverage and I hope I can continue that. However, I have some family health related obligations I have to take care over the next two days and another job to worry about as well. I say that not to suggest we won’t still have good coverage of it only to explain that I personally might not be quite as quick with all our interviews as in past years. I’ll talk to every one of the drafted players it just may take some time.
It’s always a fun day and I’m really looking forward to seeing the next batch of future Broncos. I’ll have a Jamie Porter interview posted later on Wednesday previewing what you can expect.