NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays set a record. A record that no one in the organization is happy about. With the February 28 loss to Greenville, the Stingrays lost a franchise record 11 in a row going 0-8-3. There were many changes to the organization in the offseason and many are wondering what has gone wrong in Charleston.
With new ownership and a new head coach, rumors have swirled since the summer about the direction and long term viability of the team. From the onset of the season, fans have noticed a less physical team. Several factors have contributed to the Stingrays less physical play. The roster that Spiros Anastas inherited this summer was a younger, smaller and faster group of players. Players that by in large were rookies. Players that were not used to the grind of a full professional season and the physicality of the ECHL.
No Help From Above
The Stingrays have enjoyed great success in their affiliation with the Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears over the years. But since Doug Yingst left Hershey in 2016 and the Washington Capitals took control over all assignments at the NHL and AHL level, there has been a steady decline in NHL and AHL contracted players in Charleston. Usually one or both goalies and up to six skaters, often with near veteran status experience. This year only four players, two goalies, one rookie defenseman and a second-year forward, were assigned to the Stingrays on AHL contracts. For the first time in a few years, not a single NHL prospect was on the Stingrays roster. Philosophy changes in Hershey kept more players in the AHL to add competition to make the game day lineup. This has kept players from trickling down to the Stingrays.
Veteran defenseman Logan Pyett was penciled in for South Carolina but stuck in Hershey and ultimately left for Europe. Forward Axel Fjällby invoked his European assignment clause and the Capitals loaned him back to his previous team in the SHL. Forward Sergei Shumakov asked for a release from his NHL contract and ended up back in the KHL. Forward Mathias Bau Hansen was lost to injury in training camp. Neither one of the free agent PTO forwards, Jeremy Morin or Derek Hulak stuck in Hershey. To further complicate things, Stingrays forward Steven Whitney was in Hershey on a PTO and ended up making the team and has stuck all season to date.
The net results from the lack of trickledown ended up being less experience and skill on the roster for the Stingrays, combined with fewer assets available to trade and acquire the pieces that Anastas wanted and needed to set his roster. With 14 games remaining for the Stingrays and the Bears in hunt for a playoff position in the AHL, there seems to be no effort by either the Capitals or Bears to get any players to South Carolina to log the five games they need to become qualified for the playoffs in the ECHL.
Play the Hand You’re Dealt
Spiros Anastas was given a stack of young mobile raw talent in terms of the signings left to him by departing head coach Ryan Warsofsky. Warsofsky mentioned in his end of season exit interview that he wanted more youth and speed on his team for the 18-19 campaign. However, when Warsofsky departed for the Charlotte Checkers, the recruiting process seemed to dry up and the opportunities to secure talented journeymen dwindled. Instead of picking and choosing from the rookies signed, Anastas was put in a position where they almost all made the team. Anastas only signed one player in the offseason, defenseman Marcus Perrier. Perrier ultimately left for Europe, which further depleted the defensive corps.
Anastas for the past four years had been in the Canadian college system and world cup play with South Korea and Estonia. He had been coaching in leagues that generally favor skill over grit. The lineup he mostly had chosen for him was a skilled team and with a few exceptions were players not known for their physicality on the ice. Anastas set in place systems that favored his lineup, systems that avoid heavy checking if it means losing position on the puck. And despite the concerns of the fans in the stands, it by in large worked. For the first three and a half months of the season, the Stingrays were routinely in second place in the South Division and were never below .500.
So what happened during the losing streak? Not much actually changed. None of the 11 losses were by more than two goals and six were one-goal games and another 3 were only two-goal games due to empty net goals. The Stingrays barely averaged over two goals a game during that stretch. I believe that the performance of the Stingrays during that stretch was not much different than their play for the majority of the season. The lack of scoring, more than the defensive play of the team, kept the Stingrays out of the win column. The lack of offense highlighted the individual defensive zone errors that lost games in the final period time and time again.
The Deeper Issues
There is no killer instinct or drive on this year’s team. Rarely this season has the team taken a lead and capitalized on it by shutting down the opponent or racking up a multi-goal lead. The Stingrays are not very good after scoring. On almost a dozen occasions since January, the Stingrays have given up a goal within two minutes of scoring. They have a propensity to take their foot off the gas the moment they feel a touch of relief on the ice. This has allowed opponents to routinely regain leads or tie the game back up, taking away momentum and confidence.
In the closing minutes of close games, the team fails to protect the goal. Case and point is the game-winning goal by Michael Pelech of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on February 28th.
Look below how Pelech went behind the defense to get to the front of the net unimpeded and had three chances to score the game-winning goal with one minute left on the clock. All five Stingrays were around the net but all were focused on the puck and none sought to clear Pelech from in front of the net or tie him up and prevent him from getting off a shot, let alone three. This kind of missed assignment in the defensive zone has been problematic for the Stingrays all season.
🗣️ MICHAEL PELECH WILL NOT BE DENIED!
— ECHL (@ECHL) March 1, 2019
Until the defensive play of the team solidifies, the playoffs will be a big question for this team. This is a team-wide issue. The forwards have to commit to their defensive assignments and the blueliners have to simply be better. The return of Leach or the addition of a top tier D-man from college or juniors is a must, and better if both. The Stingrays have proved they can play with the best in the league, they just have not done it consistently.
In the past month, the Stingrays have made wholesale changes to the defensive corps. This may have occurred about a month too late into the season. The additions of Miles Liberati, Steve Johnson, and Chase Harrison are solid pickups for the Stingrays. How fast the new players can integrate with the team and build rapport and trust with each other will go a long way in determining if the Stingrays make the playoffs.
The Road Ahead
The Stingrays have 14 games left, 13 against teams that are either in or in contention for playoff spots. Eight of the remaining games are on home ice which should help give them an advantage. Four games are against the Atlanta Gladiators, who are only a point behind with two games in hand on the Stingrays. For the Stingrays to make it into the playoffs they will most likely have to win nine of the remaining games and win at least three of the four against Atlanta. To add extra drama to the end of the season, the last three games of the regular season for the Stingrays are all against Atlanta. It could very well be that the last spot in the South Division isn’t decided until the last day of the regular season.
For the entire season, those around the organization have commented on how close-knit and cohesive the locker room is. I think this has led to an issue where players are too hesitant to hold their teammates accountable on the ice. Players have to be professionals first and friends second. A close locker room is a key component to making a run in the postseason, but you have to get there first. The playoffs have already arrived for the Stingrays whether they like it or not. Until the team starts treating every game like a game seven, the Stingrays will be on the outside of the playoff race looking in.