Putting the D back into the St. Albert Steel’s defence has been a work in progress while preparing for the playoffs.
“After Christmas we started focusing more on our own end and just let the offence happen,” said defenceman Ryan Wilkinson. “Since the start of the year we’ve known how good we are offensively so we wanted to start getting better in our own end. We had to keep pucks out of our net to win a few games so we started focusing on that a little more.”
The arrival of Shawn Martin, bench boss of the junior B Fort Saskatchewan Hawks and former assistant coach of the Sherwood Park Crusaders, coincided with the Steel’s defensive turnaround. Even though the Steel finished 14th out of 16 teams with 260 goals against, they averaged 4.38 GA in 39 games before the Christmas break and in the last 21 games of the season it was a modest 4.23. The Steel also suffered only a couple of blowout losses in the new year, unlike some of their defensive train wrecks before Christmas.
“He’s really big on keeping everything really simple by getting pucks out of our end and not trying to do too much and that’s really helped with our transition game and D zone,” said defenceman Nolan Smith. “He’s all about hard work. We work hard in practices and that carries over into the games.”
The arrival of netminder Chad Ketting (7-8-3, 3.93 GAA) from the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League also gave the back end a major boost after starter Mark Kotylak walked out on his hometown team prior to Christmas.
“The main thing was we started working harder and the whole team started focusing more on our own end and by doing that we’ve kind of gelled as a team,” said Wilkinson, one of three returning D-men from the AJHL’s 13th-ranked defence in 2008/09.
In the playoffs the Steel will be under the gun defensively against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, as they averaged 3.91 goals per game as the AJHL’s third-highest scoring team.
“They’ve got four pretty deep lines and their top three are pretty skilled guys,” Wilkinson said. “Whoever is out there, we’ve got to be careful and play smart and get the puck out of our zone when we can.”
The kingpin offensively for the Oil Barons is Branden Gracel, a finalist for the league’s MVP award. The 19-year-old centre ranked fourth in league scoring with 94 points on 38 goals and 56 assists in 58 games.
“They have that one big line with Gracel that we have to watch out for,” Smith said. “They do have small forwards and they’re really fast along the boards. They go to the net really hard too.”
Game one in the best-of-five north division series was played Friday in Fort McMurray but the score was unavailable at press time. Game two goes tonight at the Thickwood Heights Arena at 7:30 p.m. The series resumes Monday at Performance Arena at 7 p.m. If needed, game four is Tuesday in St. Albert at 7 p.m. and game five is Thursday in Fort McMurray at 7:30 p.m.
In six games against the third-place Oil Barons (37-19-1-3), the sixth-place Steel (24-29-2-5) were outscored 32-8 in five losses. Last weekend in St. Albert the Steel beat the Oil Barons 6-3 but two days later in the rematch they got rocked 7-2 to wrap up the regular season.
“It will come down to whoever wants it more and who competes harder,” Smith said. “They usually have a big, physical team but this year they’re not that big, they’re more talented and skilled so we have to play more physical than them.”
The playoffs mark the final chapter in the junior A careers for Smith, captain Ryan Edens and forwards David Carr, Alex Perkins and Bryce Williamson.
“It’s kind of bittersweet right now. I’m excited for the playoffs but I’m not ready for this to be over. It’s been a real good season so far,” said Smith, 20, who is torn between playing NCAA division three in the fall or studying petroleum engineering at Montana State University.
The six-foot-seven and 235-pound import from Billings, Mont. was acquired Oct. 1 from the Brooks Bandits for centre Mike Small and future consideration.
Its been great playing for the Steel, Smith said. I had that [lower body]injury and I was out for about a month [from mid-November to mid-December]. It took me about 10 games to get back kind of into it, condition-wise and playing-wise. I kind of had to work my way back into the line-up and back into my role and but now Im back into the full swing of things.
The second-year AJHL player finished the season with five goals, eight assists and 61 penalty minutes in 39 games with the Steel after collecting three points in six games with Brooks. In the Steel’s last five games he generated one goal and four assists.
“I’m kind of working with the first unit with guys like Bryce Williamson and Reed Linaker and it’s not hard to pick up points with guys like that. You just pass the puck to them and watch them do their thing,” said Smith, who has eight goals, 15 assists and 151 PIM in 97 career games.
He was the second-leading scorer on the Steel’s defence behind Wilkinson, who posted three goals and 20 assists in 56 games.
“I was hoping it would be a little higher than that,” said Wilkinson, 18, who surpassed last season’s totals of one goal and 17 assists while limited to 32 games because of a broken collarbone. “I had a little slow start this year but as with the team I started to turn it around after Christmas. I kept improving and working hard every day until things started to go my way.”