The Acadia Grizzly Bears have officially hit the midpoint of their 2023-24 schedule. The team currently sits 4th in the Canadian conference according to points, 5th by winning percentage, and appear well on their way to qualifying for the SICHL playoffs for the 13th consecutive season. They should be happy, right?
"There are lots of reasons that we can be pleased right now," said GM Guy Flaming, "but no matter how good a season appears to be, it can always be better and improvements can be made. Yes we're fourth in the standings but there are four teams in the conference practically tied for this same spot. We've been hot and cold, lately the latter, so in a matter or a day or two we could very easily be in 7th place. That's just life in this conference."
Acadia's record of 24-11-6 is good but even after a 4-0 victory over Boston on Thursday, the Bears have only managed a 3-3-4 record over their last 10 outings. The team was pretty hot a month ago but for the first time this year, injuries started to take hold of the team. Currently, Jacob Trouba is sidelined for probably a couple more weeks, Colton Parayko and Ryan McDonagh both recently missed a handful of games and netminder Logan Thompson is just returning to practice duty after being unavailable for a couple of weeks.
"Injuries are unfortunate but every team deals with them at some point so it's something you have to overcome," said captain Claude Giroux, "Those were some key guys but fortunately they weren't all out at exactly the same time and our depth helped us get through that patch better than most teams would have."
By the Numbers
The offence has been led by Acadia's top two lines but in particular by Chris Kreider and Mikko Rantanen. Kreider's 24 goals is by far the most on the team and puts him on pace for a near 50-goal season, something no Bear has managed outside of Jordan Eberle's 70-goal year in the inexplanable 2012-13 season. Rantanen has 47 points and together with Kreider, are both in the league's top 20 scorers.
"Those two have definitely led the way for us this season but it's a team sport and we have always been a team with depth as opposed to a team with a couple superstars and a bunch of roster fillers," said head coach Dave Hakstol. "Fortunately we're not a one or two line team and we're getting contributions throughout the roster."
Claude Giroux recently became the first Acadia player to top the 1000 career points plateau so it's no surprise that he also leads the franchise in every offensive category. Acadia's 12th overall round pick way back in 2006, Giroux has been the face of the franchise every since.
If not for Giroux, that title would fall to Ryan O'Reilly who, taken in the 2nd round of 2009, ranks 2nd in franchise history for almost everything. The Ontario native is an impending unrestricted free agent this summer, something he says he's not trying to think about right now.
"I'd be lying if I said it never crosses my mind but it's out of my control right now so I have to focus on doing what I can to help this team have success," said O'Reilly, "I'm not the only one in this position but we're professionals, we know what can happen but we have a responsibility to perform and that's what we're going to do.
"That's next year, I'm concentrating on the here and now," said McDonagh.
The Bears had four rookies start the season on the active roster. Phil Tomasino got into 18 games before being sent down to the Villains of the GHA but the young forward managed to impress and scored his first SICHL goal. Shane Pinto will hit the 50-game mark of his SICHL career when Acadia takes on Reykjavik on Saturday meaning he will officially graduate from the "prospect" list. The same happened recently for defenceman Mikey Anderson who has basically forced the team to dress 7 defencemen most nights.
Acadia has adopted a platoon system between the pipes this year having acquired Logan Thompson from Jacksonville during training camp. Thompson and veteran Tristan Jarry, have shared starting duties with a challenge being given to them by coach Hakstol at the start of the year.
"He told us that he knows how badly both Jars and I want to start but that he'd basically leave it up to us to decide who actually gets the nod," smiled Thompson.
"Win and you stay in, that's what he said," Jarry followed.
Acadia has pretty much stuck to that plan; one goalie keeps the net until the team loses and then the other guy gets a chance to go on a run. That worked well until Thompson's injury and Jarry had to carry the load on his own for a few weeks. Neither guy has put up overly impressive numbers although the pair has combined for five shutouts so far this season.
Not-so-Special Special Teams
Acadia's power play (18th) and penalty kill (11th) have been decidely average so far this year.
"That's one area that has been a work in progress since the start of the year that, for some reason, we're still trying to find answers to," said coach Hakstol. "We've recently been dressing Juuso Valimaki on PP1 and low and behold, he's got 3 points in 2 games in still pretty limited minutes. But when Trouba comes back to the line up in a couple of weeks, keeping Juuso in the lineup too would mean that we're dressing 8 D and 10 forwards. We've done it before but I don't know that it's something we want to do long term."
Going back to the subject of the three impending UFAs, Acadia will definitely have some hard choices to make in the weeks and months ahead with O'Reilly, Kreider and McDonagh. One can be retained via the Franchise Player tag while two will become free agents this summer. Do the Bears decide to move two before the deadline instead of risking losing pretty valuable assets for nothing in free agency?
"We talk about that internally pretty much every day," Flaming admitted, "If we were lower in the standings it would make it a lot easier to consider that but where we are right now, I have a hard time. I'm fairly confident that we're making the playoffs even though having home ice in the first round is far from a guarantee. What's the old saying? Just get in and anything can happen? I look at the banners hanging in our rafter and we have four titles. Two of the years we won we also were Commissioner's Trophy winners, but two of those years we were not. I know that right now Fredericton and Banff appear to be the class of the conference but we've won series before when we were the underdog and we've lost some when we were the favorites. Anything can happen so a big part of me thinks I need to keep all three of those UFAs for the playoffs, consider them my own rentals, because I can't envision a scenario where I can make the team better NOW by trading them away."
"Hell, look at Nova Scotia. They won three championships in a row but how many Commissioner Trophy banners do they have? The answer is none. Zero," smiled Flaming, "SICHL playoffs; Just get in and go from there."
The 2024-25 season is a long way away but sources within the Bears organization are already looking forward to a competitive training camp. Head scout Chris McCarthy feels that a number of Val d'Or Villains will be banging on the door next fall to earn SICHL roster spots.
"I think guys like Jake Neighbours, Jack Drury and Alex Texier will definitely be in the mix for us next year. Those first two forwards are having really strong seasons down on the farm and Texier will be coming back to us from a year overseas," said McCarthy, "Brock Faber is probably going to do more than just make our blueline next year, that kid has been unbelievable when I have watched him. I also think that Dylan Samberg is getting really close to starting his SICHL career."
- 2021 4th round pick, Conner Roulette continues to have a career season for the WHL's Spokane Chiefs. The forward has 70 points, including 32 goals, in just 47 games.
- Not to be outdone, Saskatoon Blades forward Yegor Sidorov has 41 goals to his credit already this year. Acadia chose him in the 3rd round of the 2023 SICHL Draft.
- Forward Gracyn Sawchyn, 2nd rounder in 2023, was traded earlier this year from Seattle to Edmonton in the WHL. The skilled playmaker has 41 points in 35 games combined with the two teams.
- Seattle Thunderbirds forward Nico Myatovic, another 2nd rounder in 2023 for Acadia, missed most of the year after being injured in the opening days of the season. Since returning to action in Janaury, the forward has 15 points in 15 games.
- Danish Olympian netminder Frederik Dichow was traded in the SHL from Frolunda to HV71. The move has been a great one for both Dichow and his new team. In 5 starts, the 6'4 goalie has a .939 sv% and a 1.62 GAA.
- Acadia chose two players from the QMJHL during the 2023 SICHL Draft and both are having strong seasons. 1st rounder Ethan Gauthier is boasting 52 points through 45 games with Drummondville while Moncton defenceman Etienne Morin sits with 36 points in 39 outings.
- It's been a fantastic season for Oshawa Generals forward Calum Ritchie, Acadia first 1st round selection in 2023. Coming off an injury limiting year and off season shoulder surgery, Ritchie has exploded offensively. His 56 points in 32 games helped earn him the OHL's Player of the Month for January.
- At the NCAA level, Stephen Halliday is leading Ohio State in scoring once again. The sophomore has 27 points in 28 games. Meanwhile, Owen McLaughlin is second in scoring for North Dakota with 29 points. Halliday was a 3rd round pick in 2022 while McLaughlin was taken in the 6th round that same year.
- Freshman defenceman Sam Rinzel, 2nd round in 2022, is having a great year at Minnesota. The big blueliner has 24 points after 28 games plus helped USA capture a gold medal at the 2024 U20 WJC in Sweden.