Murray: "You don't want to be a dominant team" 3/5
That is the message Phantoms coach Terry Murray delivered after Tuesday’s practice at the Civic Center.
The last-place Phantoms are 21-30-2-2 with 21 games remaining, and are on pace to finish this season with 63 points. It would be not only the worst season in the 17-year history of the Phantoms franchise, but the fewest total points from any Philadelphia Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate in nearly 30 years.
The Flyers organization stresses player development above all else at the AHL level, as it should. The No. 1 goal of a farm club is to groom players for the National Hockey League, and, thanks in large part to the lockout, eight players on Philadelphia’s current roster have spent time with the Phantoms this season.
But the Phantoms are 1-6-0-1 in their past eight games, and barring a meteoric ascension in the standings that would require them to nearly double their point total, they will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. No AHL team has posted fewer points in that time than them, which begs an important question.
How important is icing a winning AHL team to player development? Not as much as one might think.
“You don’t want to be a dominant team, I don’t think, at this level,” Murray said. “You don’t want to blow everybody out and run away with first place by 20 points, because then I think it’s a process where young guys get the wrong opinion of how to play and how important it is to come and play hard every day.”
What Murray is arguing there is not that the Phantoms do not care about winning AHL games. They do, because there are few things that can help a young player’s development like postseason experience. Those games are where younger players “earn their stripes,” he added, where they can learn the most.
They want to make the playoffs, but they want to do it within the overall philosophy of the organization.
“I think the way you learn is to get that happy medium where you’re a pretty good team so you can make the playoffs,” Murray said, “but still at the same time it’s really hard for the young players and they have to come to the game every day and come to practice every day in order to get better to find out how to win.”
He is basically arguing the Phantoms don’t want their younger prospects to get complacent – to show up and expect to win. They want them to experience some growing pains and learn to do the right things to get them playing at a high level all the time, but that's something they have yet to figure out.
However, suppose a team is running away with first place. To me, that would imply a lot of things.
- Whatever system that team has in place is pretty effective and difficult for opponents to stop.
- The players have bought into that system, and have done a great job at executing it routinely.
- That team must be playing pretty hard to keep beating teams that are trying to knock them off.
- That team is pretty talented, and has a good chance of taking home the league championship.
The end result makes for a frustrating product to watch. The team’s play – both in individual games and in multi-game stretches throughout the season – has had the peaks and valleys of a sine wave.
They are one of just two AHL teams with 30 regulation losses, and they have played three fewer games than the other. They have 10 players on their roster who are either rookies or second-year pros.
“We’re trying to get to a point where we’re a 60-minute team,” Murray said. “It’s not easy. Young guys, it’s hard. You have to push and demand and dig in hard.”
They have tried to right the ship post-lockout, bringing about veterans like Jon Sim and David Laliberte to help the team’s struggling offense. But since Jan. 25, the day Laliberte first played, they are actually averaging fewer goals (2.125 per game) than they were before the two arrived (2.46).
The team’s leading scorer, Brayden Schenn, has not played a game for Adirondack in two months.
“I think everybody needs to be better,” Murray said. “I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re in 30th place here in the league and (we’re) one of the lower scoring teams in the league. … I can’t stand here and say everything is rosy with each one of the players. We’ve dug ourselves a big hole here right now – a very big hole. You’ve got 21 games left, and you’re going to have to get – last year’s number for 16th place (and the AHL’s final playoff position) was 83 points. You have a mountain in front of you if you’re going to do anything. We need our veteran players to be better, and we need the young guys to continue to grow.”
Murray said, on the whole, the young players have improved since the start of training camp. They might not be collectively gelling as a team, but he does like the way that some of the individuals have responded. He argues though the results do not reflect it, the team is playing better in recent weeks.
However, some of the issues that plagued the team at the start of the season are still present now. They are the fourth-most penalized team in the AHL, and have led after one period in just 12 of their 55 games -- a Murray priority. In those games, they are 9-3. In the other 43, they are 12-27-2-2.
“I think in practice we do a pretty good job with our work,” Murray said. “It’s that push the opposition gives you in a game situation. You either respond and push back or you take your game to the next level and push them out of the game. That’s the part of the business that I’m talking about a lot with the players. The small step back at a critical time in the game is not what I want to see.
“Looking at the game on Sunday afternoon against Albany (a 3-2 loss), we had a critical power play in the third period,” he continued. “That was a great opportunity to get ourselves right back into it and we spent our time breaking the puck out three, four times. Those are the things you have to identify, and you have to do it right as a group every time the opportunity presents itself.”
Until next time,