The AHL announces their All-Stars tomorrow. What a perfect time for a retrospective on the Admirals
Norfolk is not going to the playoffs. Eleven points out of the eighth place spot is not impossible, but would be incredibly difficult to achieve. Swan-diving near the end of 2014 cost this team positioning, barely accumulating points and finding wins to be few and far in between. Why has the team failed this year, compared to last year?
The answer is not a simple one, rather it is a lump sum of several different parts. Anaheim experienced several injuries at the start of the year, meaning players on ELCs like Rickard Rakell, Emerson Etem, William Karlsson, and Josh Manson spent extended time with the Ducks. Norfolk’s own roster took a hit when Stefan Noesen, Brad Winchester and Max Friberg, expected to be big offensive contributors, suffered long-term injuries. Thankfully, Friberg returned to the lineup. Defensively, the Ads have had little to offer this year. Kevin Gagne got moved to forward, making depth worse. In goal, Anaheim entrusted duties to Jason LaBarbera and Igor Bobkov, a remarkable step down from the pairing of John Gibson and Brad Thiessen.
Gibson got injured, Labarbera got called up, and then Yann Danis came in and provided decent enough play in net. Jarrod Skalde and Bob Ferguson were left to make a roster up of ECHL players and duct tape; it never quite worked out. A change has come in recent weeks.
John Gibson has stepped back into the number one role with the Ads, the offense features real scoring talent, and they’ve played their divisional opponents closely. With the additions of Gibson, Etem, and Dany Heatley (!), Norfolk secured two points over the weekend. Imagine that everyone is healthy in Anaheim and Norfolk, and I think the roster resembles what we saw over the weekend–maybe with Noesen in place of Heatley. That team wins a few more games, escapes with a few more points. The overarching problem is that the Ads can not sustain possession this year.
They couldn’t last year, either. The difference? Gibson was in net for most of the year, and the team was shooting at a 9.9% clip. In other words, they were getting the bounces. This year, the team is at 7.7% shooting, which two goals less for every 100 shots the team takes. If the Admirals are allotted two goals to disperse among regulation or overtime for the past three games, they walk away with at least one win. Unfortunately, the luck is not with them.
When you can’t shoot, you need goaltending. Norfolk’s goaltending last season posted a save percentage of .920, mainly through the work of Gibson and Thiessen. To wit: no goalie posted less than a .919 save percentage. What a difference losing an NHL-caliber goaltender makes. Save percentage for the team is at .897 this year, thanks due in part to lackluster efforts by Bobkov and LaBarbera. To his credit, LaBarbera has played well in his last two starts, making his save percentage .910.
Norfolk’s roster was not a very good one much of the season. Friday and Saturday night, they had their best lineups. They could certainly use help on the defense, but the depth was there for a change. The AHL is a land of flux, and there is no guarantee that you will get to keep those lineups. Injuries happen, GMs act on their whims, and you must play with the roster you are dealt. If that team that played over the weekend was here, with the addition of a healthy Josh Manson, the team may be fighting for a playoff spot. Instead, this season has had bad goaltending, a lack of scoring, a lack of possession, and somehow very good special teams.
Does it matter? Anaheim may be leaving the area, headed to San Diego. They would need to find a new affiliate for the Ads, then buy a team. The thing is: if this team doesn’t make the playoffs, if they just sort of creep along, does it make their departure bearable, especially with a successor in place? As it stands, none of these things has been confirmed as true, and I doubt they will be for a while.
In the short term: enjoy the game. Maybe the Ads can rip off a winning streak, maybe they’ll get lucky for a change, maybe they can keep some talent on the team. Norfolk gets back to it Tuesday night on the road against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.