After a record-setting regular season in 2017-18, and a run to the Commissioner’s Cup final where they fell to the Watertown Wolves, expectations were high for the Port Huron Prowlers, who entered this season with revenge and unfinished business on their minds.
But the Prowlers have limped out of the gate to start the 2018-19 season, sitting in last-place heading into this weekend’s games with a mark of 2-1-7-1 (W-OTW-L-OTL) and just nine points through the first 11 games. A far cry from last season when they lost nine games all season and posted a glistening 41-3-7-2, winning nine more games than the next closest team, and winning the regular season crown by 27 points.
So what’s caused the sharp drop, that through 11 games has sent the Prowlers from first to worst?
Lack of Scoring and Goal Prevention
Really, a quick look a the peripheral stats of the Prowlers shows what the problem is: They can’t score, and they can’t keep the puck out of their own net.
Currently, the Prowlers have scored the second fewest goals in the FHL at 34, just 3.1 goals per game, only Mentor has scored fewer goals at 31, and they’ve played fewer games. Compare that to last year where over the course of the season, the Prowlers averaged 4.6 goals per game for 246 on the season, and Port Huron is on pace to score 180 goals, more than 60 fewer than last year despite having more games on the schedule. In the FHL, where it’s all about offense, if you aren’t scoring, you aren’t winning, it’s as simple as that.
While they’ve struggled on offense, the defensive side has had just as many issues, as the Prowlers have given up 50 goals so far this year, for a team GAA of 4.54, both of those marks are second worst in the FHL, again ranking better than Mentor. Again, comparing to last season, the Prowlers posted a glistening 2.47 GAA, almost unheard of in the FHL, and this year they’ve giving up more than two goals a night more than they did last season.
So combine that with a sharp drop in goal scoring, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve struggled, but what’s contributing to those struggles?
Missing Key Players, Lack of Depth
While dominating the league last year, the Prowlers had SEVEN guys who played more than half of the team’s games and averaged more than a point per game. And in a league where you only have 18 players, having two forward lines and one defenseman who combined for 431 points between them is insane depth and makes it REALLY tough for FHL teams to match, especially on defense.
This year, the Prowlers have just four guys who are averaging a point per game, which is solid to have more than a line’s worth of scoring, but perhaps even more troubling is the complete lack of scoring a depth beyond that. This year, the Prowlers have six guys take the ice for at least nine games who have two points or less, including three who have yet to contribute a point. When a third of your active roster combines for five points, that’s a problem. Even worse, three of those players are forwards, so one of your three forward lines that are supposed to chip in on offense is contributing next to nothing, that can’t happen.
And part of that is simply that some of those big-name players simply haven’t been in Port Huron this year. Last season’s two leading scorers, Branden Parkhouse and Matthew Robertson, who had 82 and 81 points each last year, haven’t skated a game for the Prowlers this year, and trying to replace 163 points is nearly impossible. Other notable scorers who haven’t returned this year include Stepan Timofeyev, who had 37 in 29 games, and signed with Elmira this year.
And those losses have had a two-fold effect on the Prowlers both on offense and defense, while the scoring is obvious, that also affects play on the defensive end, because while those guys were scoring and dominating the puck, it meant the other team couldn’t get the puck to score. So when you lose three of those type of players, that’s more chances for the other team to control play, and obviously, they have this season.
Now, the Prowlers will get Robertson back this weekend, but they also will lose forward Austin Daae, who had 13 points in five games this season, as he was called up to Birmingham of the SPHL. One step forward, one step back.
But more than anyone else, the Prowlers have badly missed last year’s top goalie, Michael Santaguida. Santaguida went an absured 23-1-1 last year with a 2.24 GAA and .938 Sv%, both of which were tops in the FHL. This year the Prowlers have had two goalies who appeared in six combined games and had a combined GAA of over 5.50 and a Sv% of around .860. Not surprisingly, those two goalie combined for a record of 0-5-1 in their starts. Goalies Chris Paulin and Cory Simons have been much better, with a combined mark of around 3.08 and .931, but Simons is no longer on the active roster after appearing in six games, and posting a 2-2 record.
So it’s looking like Chris Paulin or bust for the Prowlers, and Paulin is on his third team in the FHL already this season, and in two previous FHL stints that combined were 14 games, he had averages closer to a 3.80 GAA and .881 Sv%. That’s an improvement over what the Prowlers have had this season outside of he and Simons, but still not numbers that indicate he could steal games like Santaguida did last year.
Does it start at the top?
One of the more stunning moves this off-season was that last year’s Prowlers coach, Joe Pace Sr., had left the organization to take over as coach and GM of the expansion Mentor Ice Breakers. Needless to say, that didn’t work out for Pace Sr., but it left a void and two open spots in Port Huron.
So the Prowlers decided to make history (kind of) and have Joe Pace Jr., who spent last season as the player/assistant coach, and elevated him to player/head coach/general manager this year, and well, the results haven’t been kind so far.
I know there’s no real, quantifiable way to know the impact a coach or GM has on its team, but so far the results speak for themselves in that the team has a 2-1-7-1 (W-OTW-L-OTL) record, and is in last place after 11 games, behind two expansion teams.
Again, I can’t speak for what’s actually happening, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s a, “Struggling to see the forest while amidst the trees” type of thing. Because Pace Jr. is still an active player, you can’t help but wonder how that affects his ability to coach the team and be the general manager. Because Pace is so close to the action on a night-in, night-out basis, you wonder if he thinks, “We’re working hard, we’re giving our all, it’s not the players and a lack of effort that we’re struggling.”
When really, a person who isn’t a player would be able to take a step back and objectively view the roster from above, while not having teammate relationships like Pace does, and maybe act quicker to make changes where they see needed.
I bring that up, because I can’t help but wonder if changes are coming, or if changes won’t be drastic enough because of Pace Jr’s various roles within the team.
Will they turn it around?
I have to believe the team is going to make moves to switch things up, getting Matthew Robertson back helps, and if Daae doesn’t last long in the SPHL, like his other stints have been, and they are able to get him back for the majority of the season, then that adds to the depth the team has and bumps players down a spot.
But the bigger question is in goal, can the team find steady goaltending without Santaguida, or will they get him back? He’s played a handful of games in the SPHL this year, and seems ingrained as a backup at that level for now, so the team can’t assume that he’ll be coming back to save the day.
But the Prowlers are not in bad shape if they want to make the playoffs, while the top three of Carolina, Danville, and Watertown are starting to pull away, the Prowlers remain right in the race for the final spot with Elmira and Mentor, and sit just two poitns back of the last playoff spot.