Success of late youth infusion gives Jacks ideas for next season

April 07, 1992|By James H. Jackson | James H. Jackson,Staff Writer

The just-completed 1991-92 American Hockey League season was like a roller-coaster ride for the Skipjacks.

They accelerated to an early lead, hit the doldrums at Christmastime and continued to sink until they reached bottom with a 10-game losing streak in February and March.

They lost only twice in their last six games, but the damage had been done and Baltimore finished out of the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in three years and the second time in the four years they have been affiliated with the NHL Washington Capitals.

Coach Rob Laird didn't last the ride. He was replaced after 60 games (23-30-7) by assistant Barry Trotz. The team was 5-12-3 under Trotz.

"Any time you don't make the playoffs, the season is a bust," said Jack Button, director of player personnel and recruitment for the Capitals. "Let's just say we didn't do a very good job. There were several deficiencies, and we [the Capitals] have to take some of the blame. We plan to correct these for next season."

Despite the losing season, the Skipjacks had their second-highest season attendance. A total of 154,655 attended 40 games at the Baltimore Arena, second only to the 156,321 in 1989-90.

Principal owner Tom Ebright said he was disappointed that more fans in the seats didn't result in more success at home.

"To get off to such a good start and see it fade away really got to me. I hate to lose. We're planning on getting it right next year, and a lot of planned changes have already been instituted, what with the influx of the younger players at the end of the season. I think we would have broken our attendance record, maybe even put 170,000 people in the building, if we had still been in contention at the end of the season."

The Capitals called up eight young players from colleges and junior leagues and assigned them to Baltimore to play the final three weeks of the season. Most of them displayed talent, an ability to go to the goal and toughness.

Several reasons have been given for the Skipjacks' demise. One is that the team got complacent. Another is that players lacked incentive because, the way the Capitals were going, there was little chance they would be called up.

"This was a unique season in that we had hardly any injuries with the Capitals and had very few call-ups," said Washington general manager David Poile. "We had great consistency on the Capitals. I think this could have been counterproductive as far as the Skipjacks were concerned because it could have taken away from the players' incentive.

"Next year, we plan to go with more of a development-type [Skipjacks] team with more young players. We have already started this with the youngsters we called up at the end of the season. We have four excellent young goalies in our system, several outstanding young defensemen and, from what I've seen in the last couple of weeks, many good, young forwards."

Goalie Jim Hrivnak was called up to Washington when Mike Liut was sidelined with a bad back, and center Tim Bergland and defenseman Ken Sabourin shuttled between the clubs as injuries occurred.

Center Simon Wheeldon, 25, one of older players on the Skipjacks, led the team in scoring with 38 goals and 53 assists. Right wing John Purves, 24, led the team in goals with 43, one more than right wing Reggie Savage, who missed the final three games of the season with shoulder surgery.

Purves and Savage joined the Baltimore "40-goal club" along with Mitch Lamoureux, who leads with 57 goals, Mike Millar (47), Mike Richard (44) and Alain Lemieux (41). Sandy McGregor had 44 for the Clippers and Howie Menard and Marc Dufour each had 42.

The Skipjacks held a team meeting yesterday at Piney Orchard Rink in Odenton, and then went their separate ways.

"Some guys will hang around a while to see if the NHL strike is settled, others will stay in the area this summer and others will go home or on vacation," said right wing Steve Seftel, who is recuperating from an injured knee. "I'm going to stay in the area and work out every week with Frank Costello [Capitals strength coach]. If I'm close to the training facility I know I'll use it and I want to be in shape for training camp next August."

One player who will not be around this summer is Wheeldon. "I plan to leave in the next couple of days for my home in British Columbia and I will get married next month," he said.

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