NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays are no strangers to slow starts. The 2016-17 team, last team that went to the Kelly Cup Finals, started 7-7-1. But with new ownership and a new head coach, the scrutiny is a bit more intense this year. Eighteen games into the season, the Stingrays are two games above .500 and only four points out of first in the South Division, yet there seems to be an uneasiness from fans as to the direction of this team.
After years of physical shut down defensive play, the Stingrays are a faster, more offensively-minded team this year. But the speed and offense has come at the price of smaller bodies and less physicality, especially in the defensive zone. The Stingrays have just two fighting majors in 18 games and they are last in the league in major penalties with three. Discussions on social media sites and in the concourses of the North Charleston Coliseum have fans wondering if there has been a philosophy change within the organization that limits fights and physical play. The lessened physicality, when coupled with the trade of Jake Kamrass, the abrupt departure of Marcus Perrier and fewer assigned players from Hershey and the Capitals, have many fans wondering what the rest of the year has in store for this team.
“We are happy with a lot of things we see in our team and the potential we have,” said Spiros Anastas. “We have a really young team especially on the D side of things. So we aren’t overly thrilled about our record…We are happy with the process and the development of our younger guys. We think we need to be more consistent and that’s the thing we probably need to address the most out of the past couple of weeks. You could ask me in March and we could be first in the Division I’d probably tell you we still need to get better. It’s an ongoing process for us. We’re never content with where we are at.”
When asked about his on-ice systems and the less physical play this year, Anastas was frank and honest. He says that he is happy with his team and especially their cohesiveness in the locker room. They are a tightknit bunch and that is fun to be around. Anastas said that Perrier was the only player that he signed after becoming head coach. All other players were recruited or signed for prior to him being named head coach.
“I would say it’s more of a personnel thing. Depending on who you have on your roster, that changes the kind of team you are going to be. I think everyone has noticed we have a smaller, faster more offensively-minded team this year. That seems to be a little bit of the vision and the direction of the team when Coach (Ryan) Warsofsky was still here,” Anastas said.
Anastas also commented on the philosophy shift in the sport as a whole:
“I think the philosophy of the game of hockey has changed over the past five to six years. It’s kind of trending that way across the league or across the game in general…but it’s not something we have preached about here, from the coach’s office. We are always looking for a little more bite, a little more grit in our lineup. There’s a bit of a different vision of what toughness is these days in hockey. A lot of it is how hard you are to play against. And that not necessarily means how many fights there are but there has by no means been any message or indication that we don’t want guys to fight. But in saying that, I personally am not a coach that will ever send somebody to fight. We appreciate guys that gauge the game and gauge the momentum and the vibe of the game on their own and if they want to take things into their own hands it’s not something we’d ever hold back.”
Anastas believes the departure of Perrier was a bit of a blow to the team, as he and Joey Leach were being counted on to help mentor and develop the young defensive players on the team this year. However, his continuous message for his defense has been to manage and contain pucks.
“We don’t have a number of guys that can make bone crushing hits. When you talk about a guy like (Tim) Davison, (Mike) Chen and (Kevin) McKernan, who is a strong guy as is (John) MacLeod, we always talk about stick on puck first. That’s the key philosophy and a lot of teams in the NHL and the American league and even in our league focus on that first,” Anastas said. “So we talk about stick on puck and shoulder to shoulder. while we believe that finishing your checks can definitely set a tone in a game, we don’t believe in giving up your body to allow open ice. It’s a hybrid. We have to contain the puck first and then get that physicality in there. But you always have to remember the personnel as well. So, it’s not a message of change. It’s not a message of don’t hit. It’s just a message of contain the puck and play smart hockey and sometimes your personnel finds different ways of doing that.”
In one of the stranger trade situations in recent Stingrays history, Kamrass was traded for Garret Ross. While Ross was in transit to South Carolina he was offered an AHL deal with the Milwaukee Admirals. The Admirals would not assign him to South Carolina and the Stingrays were placed in a situation where they had to trade him to the Atlanta Gladiators. In exchange, they received Shane Eiserman and future considerations.
“we aren’t in the business of holding people back. We’re not going to cost a player a significant pay raise. So we believed in doing the right thing. So the next vision was to make sure the return was at least as close to equivalent as what we gave up,” Anastas said of the trade. “You evaluate where Jake Kamrass was, a 6’2” power forward, left winger with good college numbers and good numbers here and was close to a point a game guy. Then we targeted Shane Eiserman and plus we got futures as well. So we got a guy who is a 6’2” power forward, left winger with good college numbers and was a point a game guy in the ECHL. So at the end of the day, while we weren’t happy because we didn’t get the original piece that we were looking for, that grit, that bite that veteran presence, we ended up coming out OK in that situation.”
Although the Hershey Bears have been keeping more healthy scratches in the stands in Hershey than in years past, the affiliation is still strong between the Capitals, Bears and Stingrays. Grant Besse, John MacLeod, Parker Milner and Adam Morrison are the only four players not on ECHL deals in Charleston this year. All four are contracted with the Bears. For the first time in recent memory, no players on Capitals contracts are on the roster. Anastas says that he is in daily contact with the affiliates whether it is Bears head coach Spencer Carbery, goaltending coaches Alex Westlund or Scott Murray, Bears VP of hockey operations Bryan Helmer or Capitals Director of Hockey Operations, Jason Fitzsimmons. The Bears are a younger team than in the past and this year they are holding more players in Hershey to increase competition for game time and internal development. Anastas says that the Stingrays coaching staff understands their role in developing players for the Capitals and Bears, regardless if they have one or 12 contracted players in Charleston.
“There’s constant communication. We’re happy with our affiliation. They’re a great organization that we love working with,” Anastas said. “We can’t control who they send or who they take. But we’re fully aware and willing to do the job that they ask us to do on a daily basis. We got a guy like Grant Besse that’s been here the whole year. We’re working on a daily basis to get him called up. That’s what our job is. Sometimes people lose sight of that. We want Grant Besse to play American Hockey League games and to fulfill his goal of being there. So that’s our job every single day.”
I believe the Stingrays are a skilled and talented team. They display the two main characteristics of young teams; moments of pure brilliance and infuriating individual breakdowns. The fact remains, they are on pace for an 80-point season and are well positioned in the South Division to be in the playoffs.
I remember the calls for the firing of Ryan Warsofsky and Spencer Carbery in their first years behind the bench. Everything may not be exactly where the coaches, players and fans want them to be, but the season is young and there is still 75 percent of the season to play. The boo-birds calling for a coaching change when they are two games above .500, have a better win percentage than 15 other teams in the league, sit only four points out of first in the South Division, and won four of six at home, seem to be a bit off base.
The team does have issues to address including team toughness, consistency and depth on defense. Until these issues are addressed, there will be lingering questions on the long term success of this team. But for now, this young team is on the (bumpy) road to success.