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?
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