March 22, 2013

2012-13 in Review; What Went Into a Last-Place Season?

Coming into the 2012-13 season, everybody knew that the Ottawa 67’s would see a drop-off from the previous year where they won a division title and went to the conference finals, but nobody predicted that it would be this bad. 

After posting back-to-back 40-plus win seasons, the Barberpoles only mustered up 16 victories in their first season at Scotiabank Place, eight on “home ice”, although it didn’t feel as though there was any home-ice advantage, and eight on the road.

Along the way, we saw a revolving door between the pipes, a decimated defence that was made up of mostly rookies by the end of the year, and an offence that only seemed consistent when it had the man advantage.

What resulted was a 38-point finish, nine points back of the next –lowest Erie Otters, and 21 points back of the Peterborough Petes, the other team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

To put this in perspective, the last time Ottawa missed the playoffs, current 67's Dante Salituro, Andrew Abou-Assaly, Connor Brown, Jonathan Duchesne, Nevin Guy and Jake Middleton weren't yet born.  Jacob Blair, Mathieu Desautels, Taylor Davis and John Urbanic were born during that year's playoffs.  Howard Darwin and Earl Montagano still owned the team and Chris Byrne was playing Junior ‘A’.

The 2012 pre-season looked promising, but perhaps fans put too much stock into three pre-season games, two against the Quebec League’s Gatineau Olympiques and one against the Kingston Frontenacs.  All three were victories, as the 67’s were the only undefeated OHL team in exhibition play, but their inability to keep the puck out of their net was already evident in those three matches.

In a run that saw Ottawa only pull out one win in their first six regular season contests, they allowed 26 goals.  By the end of October, with four wins in 14 games, it was evident that defence was a problem.  Somehow, it managed to falter even more.
Mid-November, sitting ahead of only the Petes with a record of 5-14-0, Ottawa started the firesale when Jake Cardwell and Richard Mraz asked to move on.  Cardwell was shipped to Belleville the day after a loss to the Bulls, and Mraz returned to Europe. 

On the same day, the Barberpoles shook up their goaltending situation as they peddled Keegan Wilson to Guelph, while acquiring Clint Windsor from Mississauga.

Blair ended up being the beneficiary of Ottawa’s poor record.  Chris Byrne allowed the youngster Blair to get as many starts as possible late in the year, as he and Windsor each appeared in 33 games.

Although not fully the fault of the netminders, Blair and Windsor stood in as teams ran up the score on the 67’s many nights, causing them to finish last in the league with 323 goals against in their 68 matchups.

A second firesale came ahead of the January trade deadline, with many of Ottawa’s top scorers and their top defender finding new homes.  Tyler Graovac went to Belleville, Remy Giftopoulos went to Windsor and Cody Ceci and Steven Janes went to Owen Sound.

In their place came a number of new bodies that made up a new-look 67’s squad.  Gritty forwards Mark Petaccio and John Urbanic came over from the Greyhounds and Generals respectively, one-shot scorer Sergey Kuptsov joined the team from Belleville, and top rookie defender Jake Middleton came over with first-line forward Joseph Blandisi from Owen Sound.
Urbanic and Petaccio epitomized what the post-deadline Barberpoles were; gritty.  But while the team that was iced for the first half of the season managed to stay competitive through losses and keep games close, there were nights where other teams simply outclassed the 67’s talent-wise and handed them some embarrassing losses.

Without Ceci logging 25 minutes of ice time per night, and with a lot of depth scoring traded away, the blowouts poured in; a 10-6 loss against Peterborough, a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the Barrie Colts, and a pair of matchups with the league-leading London Knights that saw Ottawa lose the season series by an aggregate score of 21-6.  In a game against Brampton, they didn’t register a shot until nearly 25 minutes in.

Quickly, the focus shifted away from any slim playoff hopes and instead on drafting.  At the OHL draft, who would the 67’s take to make up for this tough season?  And at the NHL draft, would Sean Monahan’s stock drop because of his team’s poor performance?

Both questions have yet to be answered but Monahan did his best to silence any critics.  The captain fought through a tough back injury to play a game against Belleville and score two goals in the process.  He had 11 shots on goal and Ottawa’s lone tally the day he dropped to eighth on International Scouting Service’s 2013 NHL draft rankings.  And he tied his career high with 78 points, despite missing 10 games to suspension.

Around Monahan, however, the team continued to falter.  Meanwhile, the Petes went on an amazing run that saw them miss the playoffs by one point, leaving Ottawa an insurmountable deficit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

The 67’s didn’t need to tank to get a high draft pick, but with only one win in their last 15 games, playoffs were mathematically crossed out in February and the first overall pick was clinched a week before the end of the season.

What went wrong for the 67’s in their first year in Kanata?  A little bit of everything.  What can be done to ensure that this type of disastrous season doesn’t happen again?  That will be up to Byrne and his staff when a number of decisions have to be made as trades and draftees could further change the outlook of the roster.

For now, we’re left watching 16 other OHL teams do battle in the playoffs.  But if it’s any solace to Ottawa fans, last time the team was in this situation, they came back to go on a 17-year playoff streak, winning the Memorial Cup on home ice four seasons later. 

With the Nation’s Capital being an early favourite to host the 2017 CHL championship tournament, history could repeat itself.

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