Look­ing ahead to next year

De­spite suc­cess, play­ers wanted more

The Sudbury Star - - FRONT PAGE - BEN LEE­SON

When Sud­bury Wolves head coach Cory Still­man was hired two years ago, he promised to in­sti­tute a win­ning cul­ture and a team-first at­ti­tude in the Nickel City.

Roughly a month af­ter wrapping up his sec­ond sea­son as bench boss, Still­man is pleased with the progress in those ar­eas, among oth­ers, and op­ti­mistic about what his team can achieve dur­ing the 2019-20 OHL sea­son.

“I think our cul­ture has changed ,” said Still­man, who sat down with The Sud­bury Star re­cently to dis­cuss the 2018-19 cam­paign, as well as his ex­pec­ta­tions for the fu­ture.

“We play as a team, we play hard, and ev­ery­body buys in to play­ing that way, we score as a com­mit­tee, we win and lose as a team, and I think the big­gest thing, when you talk to the kids, it’s how much they en­joy com­ing to the rink, they want to be at the rink. And now, they have a feel­ing that’s com­ing that they ex­pect to win ev­ery night, they want to win ev­ery night, in­stead of let’s just show up and see what hap­pens.”

That’s the prod­uct of an on­go­ing, ev­ery­day process, ac­cord­ing to Sud­bury’s coach.

“It’s com­ing, work­ing hard, be­ing prepared. As a coach­ing staff, we give them the in­for­ma­tion and it’s up to your lead­er­ship, your older group, to take that and run with it and I think you can see a swing, what’s go­ing on here.”

Still­man heard it, too, dur­ing the team’s exit in­ter­views. While his play­ers were happy with a 43-win sea­son, the third best in fran­chise his­tory, and their first visit to the sec­ond round of the play­offs since 2013, they were hun­gry for more.

“When you’re win­ning, you want to get right back at it,” Still­man said. “Right through the year, the week­end couldn’t come fast enough, to play a game, and when you’re in con­tact with play­ers, they’re miss­ing it here. They’re miss­ing their friends, more or less miss­ing their fam­ily that they spend six or seven months with, ev­ery day. It’s turn­ing — peo­ple want to come to Sud­bury and as long as we can con­tinue to build that, then I think we’re go­ing to con­tinue to climb.”

Af­ter an in­jury-rid­dled 201718 cam­paign, dur­ing which the Wolves traded away many of their best vet­er­ans en route to a last-place fin­ish, there was lit­tle room to go any­where but up this sea­son. Yet Sud­bury likely ex­ceeded the ex­pec­ta­tions of many fans and prog­nos­ti­ca­tors, rid­ing the rock-solid play of im­port goal­tender Ukko-Pekka Luukko­nen, the even­tual OHL Goal­tender of the Year and Red Til­son Award win­ner as MVP, and the ex­cite­ment cre­ated by the ar­rival of first-over­all pick Quin­ton By­field, the league’s rookie of the year, to a strong start.

As the sea­son went on, for­ward David Levin played some of his best hockey as an OH­Ler, though in­ter­rupted by in­jury. NHL draft prospect Blake Mur­ray passed the 30-goal plateau in his sec­ond year in the league, while trade-dead­line ac­qui­si­tion Adam Ruz­icka ce­mented his own sta­tus as a fu­ture pro by lead­ing Sud­bury in scor­ing. The likes of Shane Bulitka and Nolan Hutch­e­son had break­out sea­sons of­fen­sively, while over­agers Dar­ian Pilon and Drake Pilon and rugged vet­eran Macau­ley Car­son ex­celled in shut­down roles, while adding timely of­fence.

Over­age de­fence­man Cole Can­della and 18-year-old Peter Stratis an­chored a young, but im­prov­ing blue­line corps, joined by 19-yearold An­thony DeMeo at the dead­line. Sopho­more rear­guards Liam Ross and Em­mett Seren­sits and rook­ies Isaak Phillips and Jack Thomp­son im­proved as the year went on and saw their ice time in­crease ac­cord­ingly.

Most im­por­tantly, how­ever, they all ex­pe­ri­enced — and suc­ceeded — in the play­offs.

“That’s what every­one plays for,” Still­man said. “You play 68 games to get to the sec­ond sea­son and that’s when you have to put ev­ery­thing to­gether.”

The Wolves de­feated the Mis­sis­sauga Steel­heads in the open­ing round of the play­offs, sweep­ing the best-of-seven se­ries in four games. They suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate in the sec­ond round, how­ever, fall­ing to the Ottawa 67’s, the even­tual Eastern Con­fer­ence cham­pi­ons, in four straight and leav­ing coaches and staff with a feel­ing of un­fin­ished busi­ness.

“We didn’t get as far as we wanted to,” Still­man said. “To sweep is a great thing, but to be swept is not, yet we played a good team. You learn from your mis­takes, though. You learn ev­ery day, as you come to the rink, how to get bet­ter. Play­off ex­pe­ri­ence was some­thing a lot of guys here didn’t have and for our young guys, some­thing we talked about all the time was don’t ex­pect it just to hap­pen. You can go through your whole ca­reer, whether it’s three years, four years, five years in the OHL, it’s go­ing to fly by, and if you’re not ready, you might play in the play­offs once.”

That’s part of Still­man’s mes­sage for play­ers, from OA can­di­dates to those hop­ing to stick as rook­ies — be ready.

“There’s a dif­fer­ent feel­ing com­ing back, I think, be­cause we have more play­ers. There’s (fewer) spots to be filled this year, which makes for a more com­pet­i­tive team and for us, for me, it’s earn­ing your ice time, earn­ing a spot to be here. We made strides, and now it’s to con­tinue to build off of that.

“Shane Bulitka had his best year. He’s go­ing to have an op­por­tu­nity to come back as an OA and I’m go­ing to ex­pect more out of him. Blake Mur­ray, who had a good rookie year, started off slow, but took off in the sec­ond half. He’ll need to be ready at the start of the sea­son. Jack Thomp­son will need to be prepared at the start of the sea­son, be­cause it doesn’t get any eas­ier. He’ll see bet­ter play­ers, more minutes and dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions.”

Still­man ex­pects his defence, some­thing of a ques­tion mark one year ago, to be one of the team’s strengths mov­ing for­ward.

“We were young, we had two first-year play­ers, we had Em­mett Seren­sits, who had played in and out of the lineup, as three, but the ex­pe­ri­ence they gained in play­ing and play­ing ev­ery game, is go­ing to start some­thing. I could see them all be­ing back for the next two years, mi­nus an OA player, say, but our D corps is go­ing to be our foun­da­tion, I think, and then we’ll add the pieces from there.”

The likes of Luukko­nen and Ruz­icka, both of whom are ex­pected to play pro­fes­sion­ally in 2019-20, leave big skates to fill. So do Can­della and the Pilons, as play­ers and as off-ice per­son­al­i­ties. The Wolves will need sim­i­lar con­tri­bu­tions from other play­ers, whether re­turnees or ad­di­tions, if the team is to take an­other step for­ward this com­ing sea­son.

“We lost the best 19-year-old goalie in the world,” Still­man said. “We’re go­ing to need some­body to step up and take that role and play and give us a chance to win a hockey game ev­ery night. We don’t need our goalie to stand on his head, but we’re go­ing to need some­body in that po­si­tion who is go­ing to give the other guys a chance and the con­fi­dence that we can win.

“As a team, we need to be­come more dis­ci­plined. We were highly dis­ci­plined again this year and if we can cut that down, that’s an­other part of our game we want to im­prove. If you look at our spe­cialty teams, our penalty kill was very good, which is also partly goal­tend­ing. Our power play, half­way through the year, we started putting younger guys on it, as a five-man unit, and to start the year, that will prob­a­bly be our No. 1 unit. You have that ex­pe­ri­ence, now let’s move for­ward.”

In any league, he said, games played in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber are just as im­por­tant as those played in March, as they set the tone and the ex­pec­ta­tions for the rest of the year.

“We need a good start. We were OK last year, but I’d like a bet­ter start. It puts play­ers in that mind set where if you win hockey games, it’s ex­pected all the time.”

At­ten­dance re­bounded slightly from last sea­son, to an av­er­age of 3,109 fans per game, but the Wolves hope that number grows fol­low­ing their re­turn to play­offs and the buzz cre­ated by Luukko­nen’s and By­field’s awards.

But the best way to fill the stands, Still­man said, will be to win, and to keep win­ning.

“It’s ex­cit­ing to hear peo­ple talk about the Wolves, it re­ally is. And what that’s from is you just have to put it to­gether, game in and game out, and win. Just be­cause you have one good sea­son, it doesn’t mean peo­ple are go­ing to come. We would like the fans to come and show, but we have to build that ex­cite­ment around town. As the say­ing goes, if you build it, they will come. I think we’re start­ing that right now.”

BEN LEE­SON

Sud­bury Wolves head coach Cory Still­man ex­plains a drill dur­ing prac­tice dur­ing the OHL team’s prospect ori­en­ta­tion camp at Gerry Mc­Crory Coun­try­side Sports Com­plex in Sud­bury, On­tario on Satur­day, May 11, 2019.

ER­ROL MCGIHON

Ottawa 67’s Tye Fel­haber bat­tles with Sud­bury Wolves Jack Thomp­son dur­ing first pe­riod OHL play­off ac­tion at TD Arena in Ottawa on April 5, 2019. Thomp­son will be a key player for the Wolves next sea­son, coach Cory Still­man says.

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