peering down the road

For the Flyers and their fans, it may seem like April will never get here.
 
For many of the players (and for the community as a whole) the 2010 Allan Cup will be the biggest event of their careers.
 
But, with the regular season now well underway, I think April will sneak up pretty quickly, and the boys need to make sure they’re ready.
 
And I’m not saying they won’t be. After three straight losses to Bentley in the McKenzie Cup, I’m sure there are doubters out there, and members of the Flyers organization that are left wondering if they did enough, if the team did everything it could to be ready for the Generals. 
 
But, the way I see it, the Flyers were more than ready. Sure, they stumbled out of the blocks in game one, but that was a product of nerves, not a lack of preparation.
 
After their championship in 2009, the Bentley Generals have proven that they are probably the best senior team in the country right now. And so, painful as it may be, it’s worth looking back at those McKenzie Cups, to see where the Flyers came up short.
 
And, for fear of spending too much time after the fact, I’ll sum it up in three key areas. 
1)      Consistency – the Flyers (or any team looking to compete at the highest level) cannot afford to take any shift off, because one breakdown simply costs too much. Last year in Red Deer, the Flyers had two bad periods, and otherwise played brilliantly. The problem is, those two bad periods (the first periods of games 1 and 4) may have cost them the series, as they just couldn’t recover in either case.
 
2a) Scoring – the Flyers need to be able to put the puck in the net every chance they get. The tougher the competition, the less chances you get. That means dressing players with pure goal scoring abilities, and it means those in the lineup need to be shooting bulls eyes. Against Bentley, they broke out big time in one game (#2), but otherwise struggled to find the back of the net. Trying to come from behind meant they simply had to score, and they didn’t.
 
2b) Powerplay – The Flyers lost the 2009 McKenzie Cup by a differential of 3 goals. As it happens, that’s just how many more powerplay goals the Generals scored than did the Flyers. This isn’t tremendous insight either. The Flyers openly admitted after the series, their powerplay had let them down.
 
Now, the Flyers would never make excuses, but as a broadcaster, I think I’m entitled to point it out. The injury to Kip Noble really, really, really hurt their chances. The powerplay wasn’t just ineffective in Red Deer, it was anemic. The Flyers took too long to get the puck up ice, they looked disorganized in the offensive zone, and they clearly lacked the ‘quarterback’ they needed.
 
If you agree that the Generals have been the best team in the country in the past couple of years, then it’s not a stretch to think the Flyers aren’t far away. If anything, the Flyers are just unlucky they keep facing Bentley in the McKenzie Cup. If they played in any other zone, they would have made it to the Allan Cup by now.
 
Which brings us to this season. Kip Noble is back in the lineup, and there’s no reason to expect he won’t be the class of the NPHL once again this year. And, while he’s getting older, I see no reason to think he can’t still be the class of the Allan Cup (as he was as tournament MVP with Powell River in 2006). He may be losing a step with every passing year, but his shot remains one of the best in the country, and his first pass allows the Flyers to expose even the most dependable of defences.
 
Noble’s injury last year exposed two weaknesses in the Flyers – one being how essential he was to their powerplay, the other being their lack of depth on defence. The latter became more and more evident as the series wore on, with the team having no choice but to keep their only six remaining defence in the lineup, despite injuries.
 
And that’s why Rob Larson has been working the phones, and beefing up the two places the team needs more beef. The Flyers have already picked up Donny Lloyd, the importance of which cannot be underemphasized. Lloyd was an absolute sensation when the Flyers took on Stony Plain and Lloydminster two weeks ago. His smooth skating and puck-awareness give the Flyers a deadly 1-2 punch, with the most likely pairings at this point being Noble+Bryan Lewis, and Lloyd+Arlo Hadland. This gives the Flyers depth on D, more depth on the powerplay, and more depth in case of injury.
 
They’ve also already added some scoring punch, with the additions of Andrew Derton, Mark Woolf, and Ryan Manitowich. While Kurt Bensmiller certainly deserved to be named McKenzie Cup MVP last year, Manitowich was the most dangerous player of the series, and a thorn in the Flyers side all series long. The beauty is, he did it playing against his main man, Ryan Carter. Seeing those two together (and likely centred by Tyler Brough) is very appetizing, and not what other teams wanted to hear.
 
When you consider that the Flyers now have more scoring, more D (Andrew Derton brings one more smooth-skating defenceman into the mix) and goaltending coming out of their ears (Troy Hunt was probably the Flyers best player in the ’09 McKenzie Cup, Rod Branch is a member of the affiliate Dawson Creek Senior Canucks, and Chad Vizzutti still has his eyes set on his fourth national championship) the team is in great shape moving forward.
 
It may only be early in the season, but early indications are, that is indeed the case. The Flyers powerplay was excellent in Stony Plain and Onion Lake (a combined 3/10) and added three goals last night in Grande Prairie. The Flyers scorers looked rusty in their ‘AAA’ games, but that’s to be expected, and will be remedied (even the guys who don’t play NPHL regular season games all have somewhere to play to stay sharp). The coaching staff has seen where improvements needed to be made, and they have made them.   In years past, the emphasis was on aggression and physical play. This year, it’s more about puck possession, which means allowing the skilled guys they have the opportunity to do their thing.
 
The only thing that remains is to get as much ‘AAA’ competition as they can. And while the Bentley Generals sound like they want nothing to do with Fort St. John (which admittedly hurts – if you want a yardstick, you need to take on the best), there are other teams lining up to take on the Allan Cup hosts – with an eager reply – ‘bring it on’.
 
Jon Zacks.

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