Archive for April, 2013

FHL In 2013-14? Nope.

April 30, 2013

As far as public developments go, there really isn’t a lot to report in the ongoing Trenton hockey saga.

In communications with the ECHL, it’s clear — in case it wasn’t to anyone else — that the Titans franchise is dead.  Just as the release said, they’ve ceased operations and no longer exist in the eyes of the league.  And, despite Titans management making it clear that they’d like to return in 2014-15, that ‘s exactly how the league should approach it.

There is no hold in Trenton for an ECHL team.  There is nothing preventing the Sun National Bank Center, which lost 36 guaranteed gates, from bringing in another team in another league.  That league, however, will not be the Federal Hockey League.

The A-level league, which has a strong footprint in the Northeast, told me today that there’s no interest in the Trenton facility.  The reasons are what you’d think they’d be; the building is too large and the costs would be prohibitive in their business model.

As far as the ECHL goes, there are two ways a team can return to Trenton at this point: Any ownership group can apply for an expansion franchise — and would subsequently have to pay the undisclosed franchise fee to do so — or can purchase an existing franchise and apply for relocation, with both scenarios needing to be approved by the league’s Board of Governors.

ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna’s comment that the Trenton market might be better off without hockey for a year or two was universally panned by what’s left of the Titans fan base…and, while I’m not sure I would have said that on the record…I don’t disagree with him.  It wasn’t working here.  Not now.  Mediocrity was acceptable, and like he also told me, while there was a small uptick in attendance, it wasn’t enough to sustain the franchise.

3,000 fans in a building that can hold over 8,000 for hockey became OK.  3,000 fans in a building that did hold over 8,000 for hockey on a routine basis in the early days of “Titans 1.0” became OK.  Saying that it was 3,000 fans when it was actually substantially less became OK.

And until a group can come in and somehow completely change the culture of hockey in Trenton, that’s exactly what’s going to happen when and if a team returns to the capital city right now.

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

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Titans Cease Operations

April 23, 2013

(PR) Princeton, NJ – The ECHL and Trenton Titans announced on Tuesday that the Trenton Titans have ceased operations and the team will not compete in the 2013-2014 season.

The last 14 seasons have seen numerous great players and moments, including several playoff appearances and a Kelly Cup title in 2005. Trenton also has had the privilege of working with many great NHL franchises, such as the New Jersey Devils and the current affiliate in the Philadelphia Flyers. These relationships were vital in the growth of Trenton hockey.

Most importantly the team would like to thank the fans for their support over the last 14 seasons. The Trenton organization fully intends to reimburse our loyal season ticket holders for their 2013-2014 season tickets. In the next couple of weeks there will be more information on how that process will proceed.

Again we would like to thank the fans, the community and our partners for their support. You are the reason the Trenton organization and Titans Nation were a strong and vital part of the ECHL and the New Jersey community in particular.

2012-13 Report Card: Goalies

April 18, 2013

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#30 Cal Heeter

It was kind of a mixed bag from Heeter this season, and it’s hard to evaluate him on just an eight-game stint. As is the case with all four goalies who played for the Titans in 2012-13, the numbers aren’t exactly glowing — A 3-3-0-0 record with a 3.18 GAA and .900 save percentage. But a relatively porous defense that, combined with the goaltending, allowed the fourth-most goals in the conference surely doesn’t help there.

Let’s be honest here. When Trenton fans think of Heeter, the numbers aren’t the first thing that will come to mind. Instead, an incident in which he angrily flung the puck over the glass after a goal and was subsequently issued a game misconduct and suspension by the league is likely the first thought. There were several maturity-related issues that marred the first pro season of the 24-year-old netminder, who has since returned to Adirondack and even earned a brief one-game call-up to Philadelphia after some shuffling at the trade deadline left the Flyers shorthanded in net.

On the ice, Heeter performed as well as could be expected given the difficult circumstances that any goalie who comes to Trenton faces. He’ll have a chance to stick in the American Hockey League with Adirondack next year, and could emerge as the first option to head back to the NHL if his play warrants it.

Grade: C+

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#30 Niko Hovinen

Similar to Heeter, the first thought Titans fans have when Hovinen comes to mind may not be one related to his on-ice play. Instead, talk of the Flyers organization being fed up with the 6-foot-7, Finnish-born netminder for a perceived poor work ethic and aloof nature ultimately made it an easy decision for Philadelphia to rid their hands of Hovinen midway through the ECHL season.

Although many of the issues surrounding the 25-year-old had been kept under wraps, things began to publicly come to a head when Vince Williams, rarely critical of individual players in a public setting, took Hovinen to task after the December 1 game in which he was pulled after just one period of play. Despite Hovinen not having played in two and a half weeks, Williams was clearly expecting more than the lackadaisical effort he received on two loose pucks in front of the net that ultimately led to Elmira goals.

“I didn’t think on the last two goals…it’s one thing if the rebound is laying there, but (I want to see) a little more fight in it,” he said after the game.

“I don’t think there was enough fight in the last two goals. There’s a compete factor on loose pucks in front of you. That’s something that we’ve seen, and you know what, these games are important. Our urgency to win is important. It’s something I felt we needed to do, and we did it…I don’t know what rust means, he’s a professional hockey player. He’s a professional hockey player. He’s a third or fourth year pro. I just felt the last two goals, we needed a little bit more fight.”

On the ice, Hovinen showed flashes of why he was highly regarded by the Flyers, but it was typically little more than that. Amid rumors that he was going back to his homeland of Finland, Hovinen was instead put on waivers for the purpose of his unconditional release by Philadelphia, and was subsequently claimed by the Edmonton Oilers. Sent straight to the AHL, an opportunity he wasn’t going to get with the Flyers after a very poor training camp, he was underwhelming in nine games with Oklahoma City (3.26, .884) and posted numbers similar to what he put up in Trenton (3.14, .889).

Grade: C-

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#35 Brooks Ostergard

After Scott Wedgewood got run into the ground following the departure of the aforementioned Hovinen, it was finally decided that the Titans would need to acquire a legitimate backup goalie who wasn’t chained to the bench by the ECHL’s emergency backup rules. Enter Brooks Ostergard.

Ostergard was rotting on Kalamazoo’s bench behind ex-Titan Joel Martin, who started somewhere in the vicinity of 32987248956437 consecutive games for the Wings. In essence, Ostergard became Trenton’s Sunday starter, typically getting the third game of a 3-in-3 when it made no sense to play Wedgewood. The 25-year-old played well in his limited action, but did have one poor outing in which he lasted just 17:41 in a game against Elmira in which he allowed four goals on seven shots.

I’d need to see more of Ostergard to get a better feel for what he brings to the table. I’m not sure he’s a starter at the ECHL level, but he has proved that he’s at the absolute very least capable of competing for a backup job. He might be one of those fringe goalies better served by going down to a lower level so he can develop at a quicker pace with the benefit of more consistent playing time than he might get up here.

Grade: Incomplete

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#1 Scott Wedgewood

Scott Wedgewood did absolutely, positively everything that was asked of him this season. His team-worst 3.22 goals against average is far more indicative of what was in front of him rather than his ability to keep pucks from gettind behind him. He’s a far better goaltender than his 20-22-3-2 mark shows, and there’s no telling what Trenton’s 32-32-4-4 record would actually be without some spectacular performances from him. In terms of pure talent, he may be the best goalie in Trenton hockey history.

Just 20 years old, Wedgewood is considered a possible goaltender of the future for the New Jersey Devils, but was trapped behind Keith Kinkaid and Jeff Frazee when it came time to finding a spot in the AHL. So, for the majority of the season, he was in Trenton to get his first pro year under his belt. If you’re looking for downsides to Wedgewood’s game, he did struggle when playing on back-to-back days, unable to earn his first victory in that scenario until he earned his first professional shutout on February 23. But those are the kind of speed bumps you’ll hit in your first season, and he’ll be better prepared to encounter a heavy workload when he likely spends next season with Albany.

A good kid off the ice, and a premier talent on it, Wedgewood is easy to root for, and should have a bright future ahead of him.

Grade: B

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com (All photos: Mike Ashmore)

Vince Williams: Should He Stay, Or Should He Go?

April 9, 2013
Head coach Vince Williams led the Titans to a 32-32-4-4 record in his second season behind the bench.

Head coach Vince Williams led the Titans to a 32-32-4-4 record in his second season behind the bench.

There were times this year where I thought for sure that Vince Williams would be back for a third season as head coach of the Trenton Titans. There were inarguably more occasions in which I just knew he wasn’t.

Right now? Who knows…

After a miserable first season, a year in which Williams was forced to deal with all the growing pains of a team that had been hastily put together just weeks prior to the start of the 2011-12 campaign, the leash was long heading into 2012-13. But GM Rich Lisk also made it public knowledge on several occasions that, if the team were floundering in February, things would be re-evaluated.

As the season began, expectations were high. There was an overall talent level on the ice that hadn’t been seen in the capital city in years — perhaps ever — and the Titans got off to a 5-1 start. As early as after the first 60 minutes of play, players were casually throwing around words like “championship.” And then reality struck.

Propelled by a five-game stretch against division rival Reading in which they managed just one point, the Titans went on a nosedive in which they lost 14 out of 18 games. As many a Trenton team has learned, you can’t make the playoffs in November and December, but you can definitely miss them then. Ultimately, that’s what happened. But how? How, with the group that the Titans had on the ice, was this team so bad?

There were, of course, leadership issues. Ray DiLauro, a popular Bensalem native, was the captain. But his on-ice performance had suffered with an increased level of play, and his off-ice methods raised many an eyebrow that go far beyond anything that was ever printed. After an embarrassing 6-2 loss to Elmira on December 2, Williams came as close as he would to letting any of that out of the room, all but naming DiLauro when going on a rant about how status didn’t mean anything when it came down to who was going to be on his team going forward.

“We’re done with whatever the status is for anybody; older guys, young guys,” he said. “The 20 guys that come on the road are the 20 guys who give us the best chance to win. I have a lot of options…we’re not going to accept losing. I’m not going to accept losing. As a staff, we work very hard putting everything in place for these guys from a preparation standpoint…if you can’t execute what we’re putting in place, and we have some guys that are some that aren’t, we’ll bring in who we can to make this team better.”

Three days later, and DiLauro was gone.

The Titans appeared to be digging out of their hole, but just as they were, the NHL lockout ended. The infusion of talent they’d received from the Flyers had largely vanished. Many players who would have been in the American Hockey League had there not been a lockout ultimately got that chance. And then the excuses started.

The main company line that was used to explain a 4-12 stretch from January 19 to February 22 is that the vastly overhauled team simply didn’t have enough time to gel. A fair point? Sure. A point that any of the other teams that were actually successful didn’t seem to use? Sure. Life’s tough. Get a helmet. Trenton got hit hard by the lockout, harder than any other team. But, as Williams himself said often, his job was to win with they had. And they didn’t. He didn’t.

This is not to say, however, that the team or Williams gave up on the season. Acquisitions like Jacob Cepis and Mike Ullrich paid huge dividends, and Williams’ relationship with the Devils bore the fruit of Scott Wedgewood (among others) for the entire season, without whom many a bad night would have looked much, much worse.

The Titans ended the season hot, winning nine of their last 13 games. Remarkably, they ended up at “hockey .500,” posting a 32-32-4-4 mark. But, for the fourth consecutive year, the Trenton hockey franchise would lay dormant during the months of April, May and June. The on-ice case for the dismissal of Williams can be a strong one. But perhaps the off-ice case to keep him is just as significant.

Even this season, Williams put out many, many off-ice fires — well beyond anything that will ever become public knowledge in this space — that come with working with an organization that seems to still be struggling to find its legs. Beyond delving into any of that, his ability to make transactions and facilitate relationships with other organizations proved to be very beneficial to the Titans, with the aforementioned Cepis and Ullrich deals and Devils “affiliation” coming to mind. On the other side of that coin, there are the deals that don’t pan out, which were numerous this year. But in general, those were low-risk trades.

All of that is fine and dandy. But it doesn’t ultimately answer my own question: Should he stay or should he go?

Yes.

The long answer is that I’d understand either way. As Herm Edwards once said in ridiculous fashion, “You play to win the game.” And under Williams, the Titans simply aren’t winning enough games…not enough to get into the playoffs, anyway. The fans of Trenton deserve a winner, and it’s the only way that the arena will start being anywhere near full on a consistent basis again. If the past two seasons (and arguably the past four) cost Williams his job, I’d understand.

But I also still believe Williams could deliver a winning product to the capital city. He’s a smart hockey man, likely way moreso than he lets on, and as I’ve alluded to, conditions haven’t necessarily been optimal for winning on a consistent basis. But he does shoulder some of the blame for the failures over the past two seasons, just as many in the front office should. I value my relationships with the front office, players and coaching staff — despite being universally loathed at times by many in all of those groups, which is a well-deserved “honor” at times — but ultimately, this is a results-based business.

And, Williams or not, those results need to change in 2013-14.

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com