Hockey Blog In Canada: Wasted Opportunities
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Hockey Blog In Canada: Wasted Opportunities

The image to the left of Saskatchewan Huskies forward Carson Stadnyk scoring on Manitoba Bisons netminder Tyler Brown is, in a frozen moment, a perfect epitome of Bisons men’s hockey. There isn’t a defender to be seen near Stadnyk as he pots what appears to be either a pass to him or a rebound off Brown’s save, but the face that Stadnyk faces no opposition in scoring the goal speaks volumes as to some of the problems that the Bisons face. And while this image was taken in 2019, the same problems seem to be appearing in 2023 for the Winnipeg-based squad as former players show their skills elsewhere and talent needed to make an impact have left for green pastures elsewhere. In short, it’s going to be a long season.

You might be wondering how I can write a team off before they’ve even played a second of preseason hockey, and I’m here to say that this year’s version of the Manitoba Bisons could surprise many. They could play far above the ceiling currently being proposed for them, make the playoffs, and restore some faith to those who have had their faith tested. What should be known, though, is that the talent pool compared to other teams appears to be relatively shallow, and that’s due to a couple of players leaving before they’ve fulfilled their eligibilities in Canada West.

The first player that we should note is the man to the left in goaltender Liam Hughes who had himself a heckuva weekend over the last few days. Hughes, as you may recall, is playing in the Australian Ice Hockey League with the Melbourne Mustangs where he’s established himself as one of the top netminders in the circuit. The Mustangs won their AIHL play-in game for the playoffs on August 20 by an 8-3 score over the over the Brisbane Lightning, setting them up for the semi-final this weekend. Saturday saw the Mustangs crush the Sydney Bears 4-0 to send them to the AIHL final where Liam Hughes stopped all 33 shots sent his way by the CBR Braves in a 1-0 Mustangs win! Liam Hughes was named AIHL Playoff MVP in helping the Melbourne Mustangs win the Goodall Cup!

Why is this relevant you ask? This statement seems to be all the evidence one would need in finding relevance:

“”Goaltending was a priority and we were really excited to get Liam Hughes from the Ice. He was the team’s number one goalie and one of their most valuable players,” says Sirant.

“The time that he’s been with us, he’s shown how good of a goaltender he is. He’s outstanding and really competes hard.”

Based on that glowing review from the recently-retired Mike Sirant, one would think that the Bisons would do everything in their power to keep Hughes in brown-and-gold colours, but Hughes lasted just eight games with the Bisons in 2021-22 before leaving for a professional opportunity with the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets. I don’t fault Hughes for taking an opportunity when it knocked, but happy players don’t usually leave in the middle of a season.

Just two short seasons later, Hughes is now the AIHL Playoff MVP and a champion with the Mustangs rather than preparing for a third season of eligibility in the Manitoba net. It makes you wonder “what if…” had he stuck around Winnipeg, but the reality is that we’ll never know as I don’t think Hughes regrets his decision to leave.

The other gut punch that the Bisons took came this weekend as well as their top offensive player in Brett Davis decided to leap to the professional ranks by signing a deal with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades! Davis’s two seasons in Winnipeg saw him establish himself as one of Canada West’s best scoring threats as he scored 20 goals and added 26 helpers in just 36 games for the offensively-challenged Bisons. Davis was Manitoba’s lone representative on the 2023 FISU Team Canada squad that brought home a gold medal where he showed his offensive touch once again. Davis’s 46 points was one back of linemate Devon Skoleski’s two-season total with the Bisons, but Davis’s 1.28 points-per-game average was considerably higher than Skoleski’s 1.07ppg.

Davis came home to Manitoba after bouncing around the WHL between Lethbridge, Kootenay, and Red Deer, and it seemed the former sixth-round pick of the Dallas Stars was set to put Canada West on notice with his scoring talents. He certainly did, and it’s now earned him a shot at not only joining the two-time defending Kelly Cup champion Florida Everblades, but he’ll even skate with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers at their training camp in September!

“Hopefully I can make a splash and go from there,” Davis said in the Bisons’ press release. “I’ve been to a few pro camps, so it makes things a little more comfortable going into it for sure. Just soaking it in and working my hardest is all I can do. There are a lot of good people and surrounding coaches and staff. I’m just going to try and soak it all in as much as I can.”

There will be opportunities for others to step up into the roster spots left by Hughes and Davis, but will those players who look to take those spots have the same impact that Hughes and Davis had? Based on the recent round of recruiting, it seems very unlikely that the Bisons will get an MVP-calibre netminder like Hughes to stop pucks this season nor a point-per-game player who had the impact like Davis had. Both players spent parts of two seasons with the Bisons before leaving, so one has to wonder if this is less about professional opportunities and more about the culture in and around the program.

Happy players usually stay where they are happy. This isn’t a proven scientific fact or anything, but just a general observation. Professional opportunities will still come to those who may want one more season to play with close teammates just as we’ve witnessed in Alberta and UNB, and those two programs who win often rarely have players opt out before finishing their eligibilities. Manitoba had two game-changing players in their ranks over the last three seasons, and they squeezed just 44 games out of them. Seems off, doesn’t it?

You might think, “It’s just two players, Teebz,” which would be accurate if it also hadn’t happened in the cases of Keaton Jameson (three seasons), Reece Harsch (15 games), Remi Laurencelle (38 games), Quintin Lisoway (53 games), Blake Heinrich (39 games), Kamerin Nault (40 games), and the aforementioned Tyler Brown (12 games) who all left Manitoba for professional hockey opportunities and never looked back. In all but Jameson’s case, these players wore a Bisons jersey for two seasons or less. That’s not a great track record when it comes to building team chemistry, but I can’t fault any of them for wanting to leave a program that hasn’t won a Canada West playoff series in a decade.

I will say that the slate has been wiped clean with new head coach Gordon Burnett installing his systems and building a culture he wants to see, but he has yet to recruit a single player nor jettison any of the holdovers from Mike Sirant’s era behind the bench. Losing his most dynamic offensive player in Davis before the season starts is a hit he didn’t need, but Burnett will need to find a way to replace that scoring if the Bisons hope to start moving up the standings rather than being stagnant in sixth-place or worse.

If Burnett can recruit players like those above who bring immense talent and skill to the ice, the Bisons will undoubtedly get better. If he can find a way to retain them for four or all five years of their eligibility, the Bisons could move into territory they haven’t seen in decades as Canada West contenders. The Bisons have certainly had enough talented players to give the best in Canada West a run for their money, but those players never play together for more than a couple of seasons. And then the rebuild begins again.

Losing Hughes two seasons ago hurt the program as he was a bonafide starter in Canada West. Losing Davis this season is a setback that the Bisons didn’t need before opening training camp, but no one will pity them for their loss. At the end of the day, this Bisons team could have had some of the more successful seasons in recent memory had the team stuck together, but the grass is greener when one considers where the Bisons have finished over the last decade. Knowing some of the players who left other programs, the Bisons have seen some wasted opportunities as other teams rebuilt and restocked in that same time.

What’s very apparent for this season, though, is that the Bisons need an infusion of high-end talent into their ranks once more. With Burnett’s WHL experience, he should be calling all his contacts and seeing if any undrafted talent wants to move to Winnipeg for next season. After that, it’s up to him and the Bisons to give those guys a reason to stay. Otherwise, it’s just more wasted opportunities which seems to be the modus operandi over the last decade for one of Canada’s oldest and most storied programs.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

#Hockey #Blog #Canada #Wasted #Opportunities

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