Riopel, rookies shine; defense is lackluster
Norfolk’s season-ending 5-4 loss to South Carolina is emblematic of the Admirals’ season as a whole. The opponent scores first, the Ads get it together and even lead for a bit, Nic Riopel does his damnedest to keep the team in it, unnecessary penalties are taken, and the defense ultimately costs the team the game. Spencer Carbery’s South Carolina team is excellent: a combination of AHL-level talent, two solid goalies, and the best defense in all of the ECHL. They’re a threat to win the Eastern Conference. Eric Veilleux’s club-decidedly average this year-tried their best to take it to their re-acquainted rivals.
Despite their best efforts, the Ads began and ended their rebirth in the ECHL with losses to old foes. Something has to be fixed for next year, and it’s not quite clear where to begin. Player personnel is a topic I will give my full attention to later, as the Admirals have quite a few decisions to make in the coming weeks. For instance, why did they pick up Paul Rodrigues and Max St-Cyr off the waiver wire? Veilleux and company must also figure out who they want to (and can) keep for next year’s club. For the most part, I think Veilleux deserves a second season.
Norfolk needs some semblance of stability, which has infamously been lacking in the Oilers organization of recent vintage. Veilleux, who was responsible for the offense, was not the main problem. The team could have performed better-they did not make the playoffs. Their struggles were not on the other side of the opponent’s blue-line. The Ads looked downright competent, even excellent, most nights once they solidified their roster. Defense is where the problems were. Norfolk leaned on Nic Riopel more than anyone could have really imagined this year. Riopel, who was in Rapid City to start the season, emerged as the Admirals’ most important player. The team in front of him was often undisciplined (second most penalty-minutes in the ECHL) and often appeared lost. The Stingrays hemmed the Admirals in their zone for large periods of time, then capitalized. South Carolina’s 4th goal-the most important-came after an inexperienced line couldn’t get the puck out of the zone. Zone exits need to be stressed.
Some of the defensive miscues can probably be placed on the lack of continuity on the blue line. Charles-Olivier Roussel was a large part of the team for a while who Veilleux tried to replace several times throughout the season. No one quite fit the bill. Some of it might be Edmonton’s notoriously bad defensive structures of the past few years. It’s unclear how much of the system shakes down to the ECHL level or how Todd McLellan affects it as a whole. Ben Boudreau, though, is in a weird place. Boudreau is obviously in the ECHL because his father is one of the most respected coaches in the NHL. Nepotism exists, unfortunately. Still: I think a better path may have been for him to start in the USHL. Jon Cooper, Jeff Blashill, Jon Hynes, and Dave Hakstol cut their teeth in the United States’ top junior league before heading toward the AHL or NCAA jobs before going to the NHL. Ben Boudreau can still do this and it might be the right idea.
Norfolk should have more continuity, a better sense of the team as a whole, and better personnel next year. While some of it is out of the Admirals’ hands, they can make some decisions for the next year.