Going Down With The Ship: Playoff Post-Mortemby Eric Schneider | May 28, 2016, 4:02 PM ET
The home team dressing room at the Halifax Metrodome is a quiet place. Somber, even. Players and staff come and go and the odd pleasantry is exchanged, but nobody's interested in drawn out conversations. Eyes meet briefly then look away, often at the floor.
It's time to clean out the lockers, and the feeling is all too familiar.
For the second straight year, the entire season came down to a Game 7 against the team's Atlantic rivals, the hated Acadia Golden Bears, and for the second straight year a vaunted, powerhouse Schooners lineup crumbled under the expectations of fans and owners. The sting of the repeat loss is fresh and no doubt it will ease in time, but there's a feeling of futility, a Sisyphean inevitability to it, and it may take a little longer to get over this time around.
"Not sure what to say yet. It's disappointing, sure, but it's more than that," said team captain Ryan Suter. "We came into this year expecting, planning to win the Cup. Planning on beating Acadia. We choked, had two chances to close it out, and we have to live with that."
Perhaps there's a touch of hubris involved -- in a league this competitive, especially in the cut-throat Canadian conference, it's foolhardy to plan a victory parade in October. But that's exactly what the organization set out to do, earmarking a league-high $94 million payroll and surrounding the team's young core with veteran influences like Marian Hossa, Sergei Gonchar, Manny Malhotra, Paul Gaustad and Brad Stuart. When the plan seemed to be going awry mid-season and the team was in danger of missing the playoffs altogether, top-flight talents Jonathan Toews and John Carlson were brought in to right the ship. The team entered the playoffs with an 8-1-1 record in the final 10 games.
But in the end, the line-up designed to beat the Bears fell one goal short. The Schooners floundered at even strength, with star John Tavares struggling to find the net and posting a -5 through 14 games. Hossa, brought in on a $9.25 million contact, recorded just 3 assists and a -6 during the playoffs. An injury to Stuart prior to two straight losses in games 6 and 7 brought back the spectre of defenceman Andy Greene: made available to Nova Scotia before being acquired by Acadia at the trade deadline, Greene was instrumental in limiting the Schooners to just two goals in those finals games. Surely he would've been a significant upgrade over Stuart's replacement, Gonchar. Only Marc-Andre Fleury lived up to expectations -- after a disastrous regular season, he rebounded with a .923% post-season and single-handedly kept Nova Scotia limping along.
What's next for the Schooners? GM Eric Schneider, architect of the underwhelming season, was quick to act following the season-ending loss on Friday, firing interim head coach Willie Desjardins and announcing cryptically that "everyone and everything is on the table." At least eight players from the pro club are expected to leave over the summer, and at this point it looks likely that a number of young Cape Breton Clippers players, led by Teuvo Teravainen and Johan Larsson, will compete for the opening night lineup. With just $1.5 million in the club coffers, it's unlikely the Schooners will make much of a splash in free agency and will rely on an influx of youth to fill out their bench. Schneider went "all in" this year, and he'll pay for it.
It seems, for the time-being, that Haligonians will have to content themselves with another summer of anticipation. The team's core remains intact, for better or worse, and there's little to indicate that the Schooners won't at least ice a competitive team, even if it's not a Cup favourite. Like last summer, that will have to be enough for now.
Captain's Log: Entering next season, the Schooners are committed to $67 million in salary, a decrease of $27 million from this season... Despite his woeful playoff performance, Hossa is the presumptive choice and best option for the team's Franchise Player tag... In addition to Teravainen and Larsson, Jack Skille, Chris Porter, Connor Brickley, Joseph Blandisi, Stanislav Galiev, Aaron Ness, and Brad Malone are expected to compete for roster spots next year... When asked about Suter's captaincy, GM Schneider replied "like I said, everything is on the table."