Luke Juha is one of many young players on the Mavericks roster. (Photo: John Howe/The Sin Bin)
It’s been a while, I know. It has been 35 days to be exact since I sat down and put pen to paper (not literally trolls) to provide my thoughts, analysis, and anecdotes surround the Missouri Mavericks. Things have been a little crazy for me, but I’m not here to make excuses. All that matters is I’m back, and there’s a lot to catch up on.
A lot has happened since then. Players have come and gone. The Mavericks fought their way back to a .500 winning percentage, even if it was short-lived. There have been dominating wins, blown leads, come from behind efforts, special teams successes and failures, and after all of that, there are more questions than answers. In fact, looking back over the course of my absence, it might be a good thing that there has been radio silence on my end. Can you imagine the whirlwind of columns that I could have produced over those 35 days? It would have been hitting one end of the spectrum, then leap-frogging the part of that spectrum where consistency and predictability reside, all the way to the other side.
Let’s do a little group exercise, shall we? Fill in the blank. When playing the 2016-17 Missouri Mavericks, opponents can expect to see ________ style of play? (Crickets) Anyone? Seriously, if anyone can answer that question and feel confident that their response will still be true five games from now, then maybe I’m way off base here. Maybe I should clarify. This is not a criticism, well at least not for the most part. It’s also not praise by any means. This team is completely unpredictable. Not only have they not consistently shown a dedicated style of play, they have chosen several different styles throughout the first 21 games of the season. They’ve been aggressive at times, passive (very passive) at others. They’ve been physical, then turned around and relied on skating and finesse. They’ve passed with precision and beauty, then have buried the puck in their teammates’ skates or put it out of their reach. Their transitional play has turned the oncoming forecheck into a liability for their opposition, but has also gotten overwhelmed, much like they did in the 4-1 loss in Allen on Wednesday night, and given up some bad turnovers in the defensive end. It has been exciting, then frustrating; impressive, then depressive; dominant, then dominated.
When the Mavericks stumbled out of the gates, there was a lot of concern that another season like 2014-15 was on the horizon. Has that season made us all a little gun shy? Yeah, I’d say so, and rightfully so. However, I preached sample size, that it was way too early to judge this team. I urged those who were not just pressing the panic button, but jumping on it like their own personal mini trampoline, to wait until the 20 game mark to start passing judgment. That moment has arrived and I don’t know if there are any questions that have been answered over the course of the last 15 games. What can we say with much certainty at this point? The Mavericks have incredibly solid goaltending. Josh Robinson and Ville Husso have made big stop after big stop, but have been put on an island entirely too often. That is the only glaring observation that can be made, but you’d have to be watching every game to see that, because the numbers and gamesheets may say otherwise. After all, the Mavericks have given up four or more goals in 11 of their 21 games. That’s an astonishing number. Their average margin of defeat is a shade under 2.5 goals per loss. Their average margin of victory is 2.4 goals per victory, but take out the 10 goal outburst against Tulsa and it’s only 1.7 goals per victory. Looking at those numbers, it would be easy to assume that there might be some confidence issues when getting down early, but we’ve seen this team come back several times. An assumption might be made that in the wins, the Mavericks have had a hard time putting teams away, and that is 100% true. Some late leads have been choked away, and games that had no business being close were exactly that.
The biggest issue facing this team can be summarized using one word: finishing. That should be, if it already isn’t, a common message behind closed doors. On offense, finishing rushes and scoring chances have been sporadic at best. While there have been several different goal scorers for the Mavericks so far this season, no one has stepped up and proven that they can carry the team through tough times. Dane Fox and Sam Povorozniouk have had their moments, but haven’t done it in the same games often enough. Reed Seckel has missed a lot of time due to injury, Andrew Courtney is banged up, and Rocco Carzo is in Bridgeport. Those are three veteran leaders that are not on the ice, so the opportunity is there for someone else to have their name chanted throughout the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena.
On the defensive side of the puck, checks must be finished. Clearing the crease must be finished. Clogging up passing and shooting lanes must be finished. Most of all, taking care of the puck in the defensive zone must be finished. Defensive zone turnovers are absolutely killing this team right now. This team has given up 76 goals in 21 games. Any guesses for what last year’s team allowed in 21 games? Anyone? 34. To be fair, that was a historically good team, with a blue line that may never be replicated. Also, the heart and soul of the defense, Bryce Aneloski, is in the AHL with Bakersfield. The youth movement on the blue line is progressing. Luke Juha, after struggling in his first six or seven games, has really turned a corner and looks to be a blue liner that can contribute at both ends. Kevin Tansey has been fantastic, and it’s no surprise why he was one of the last players cut from the St. Louis Blues training camp. Ryan Obuchowski could end up being a special player. The talent is there, folks. Talent is not the issue, which is why there hasn’t been a lot of roster movement to this point. Unfortunately, a team can’t win on talent alone. That talent not only needs to progress every day, but they need to learn how to play and progress together, as a unit.
We all would have thought that 21 games in, we would know what style of play this team would have. I think that Coach Dickson knows what kind of style he wants to play. He has said it himself. He wants to go north-south, and quickly. He wants to be physical. He wants to outwork opponents every night. He wants to be the most defensively sound team in the league. That message hasn’t changed, and we have seen flashes of each of those characteristics at one point or another. Even with some early season struggles, this team is still a mere five points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and there are still 51 games to play. Time is on their side. I preached patience after the fifth game of the season, and I wasn’t expecting to still be preaching it after the 21st, but I am. I preach patience because of those aforementioned flashes, but those flashes aren’t enough to maintain patience. Those flashes of brilliant play need to turn into lengthy and consistent streaks of brilliant play, and quickly.