Kitchener Rangers coach-GM Steve Spott (OHL Images)The Kitchener Rangers' issues go seemingly deeper than not being able to bury. So Steve Spott couldn't trot out the we're-getting-chances cliché on Sunday.
Even in light of their season-opening eight-game road swing, the Rangers looked beset by more than bus legs during a desultory 6-2 defeat against the Ottawa 67's, one of only three teams the MasterCard Memorial Cup hopeful is ahead of in the Ontario Hockey League standings after four weeks. The Rangers plunged faster than Felix Baumgartner during the final two periods, allowing six unanswered goals while prospective Team USA starting goalie John Gibson got a mercy pull midway through the second period.
"We got soft mentally, we took some bad penalties and ultimately turned soft," Spott stated evenly. 'It starts with our leadership. We've got five guys that wear letters on this team and other than Matt Puempel, the other four are not playing to their level of expectation."
The numbers are unflattering: four even-strength goals through eight games. Seven games in a row of scoring two goals or less, despite a lineup that includes three NHL first-rounders, rushing defenceman Ryan Murphy, centre Radek Faksa and left wing Puempel. Murphy, the Carolina Hurricanes choice who has been all-everything when healthy the past two seasons, had had more D partners than points (one).
"We're getting chances, we're not putting the puck on the net when we could," Spott added. "We're overhandling the puck. But for me, it starts with our five leaders. When you go into tough situations you need from those five guys. Matt Puempel has delivered. He's done everything we can ask. The other four guys who have letters [captain Murphy and rotating alternates Ben Thomson, Tobias Rieder and Ben Fanelli], in my mind, have not lived up to expectations. It's frustrating. I know that they care."
"The Faksas, the Rieders, the [Matia] Marcantuonis, the Murphys, they're not working hard enough. We're playing too fancy."
The Rangers' PDO number of 97.2 per cent indicate that they probably have been somewhat snakebitten during their stumble out of the gate. (The theory of the PDO number is that a team's shooting percentage and save percentage will add up to 1, or 100 per cent; ideally that factors out power plays, but that statistical breakdown is unavailable in junior hockey.) Kitchener has been outshooting teams regularly, including 40-31 on Sunday, the only evident traffic on Sunday involved getting on Hwy. 417 after leaving Scotiabank Place.
"The main thing is we have to stay positive and work as a team," Murphy said prior to the contest. "We have to win our battles. Overall, the attitude is pretty good in the dressing room. If you start getting on each other and letting all this go to our head, it won't be a good things. The older guys have to stay positive and have that rub off on the younger guys."
The expansion of the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium necessitated a season-opening stretch of eight road games, which is unheard of in the Ontario Hockey League. Even having an eastern swing this weekend piled on top of a Sault Ste. Marie/Saginaw northern trip cannot explain away the sluggishness. Kitchener spent Friday night and all of Saturday in the nation's capital.
"That [travel] is a big factor when you're going to the Soo and Saginaw [the OHL's northern outposts] and Ottawa [the eastern-most team]," said Puempel, the Ottawa Senators first-rounder who has eight points in as many games, which seems modest until one realizes that means he's factored into exactly half of the Rangers' 16 goals. "But that's part of the business and you have to find ways to win in those situations. I don't think there's too many excuses for our record.
"We're trying to find chemistry," he added. "It's been just over a month since training camp, there's a lot of new faces, there'll be more faces throughout the season. We're in the chemistry business."
Along with Puempel and Dallas Stars first-rounder Faksa, Kitchener's cadre of forwards also includes Pittsburgh Penguins third-rounder Marcantuoni and an 85-point scorer in Rieder, an Edmonton Oilers pick. Spott overage slots are filled more with grit — centre Dominic Alberga, 6-foot-6 wing Nick Czinder and defenceman Ryan Hanes — than goal scoring.
A scary thought is to wonder where Kitchener might be if Anaheim Ducks second-rounder Gibson (2.39 average, .927 save percentage even after Sunday's early exit) and Franky Palazzese (2.27, .922) were not among the OHL's most proficient puck-stoppers. A team with that calibre of goaltending is bound to run off some wins eventually.
"We're just on the cusp," Fanelli said. "After each game Spotter always says we're doing a lot of good things, I think there's some bad mistakes, but it's tough to come back when you're not at home. We're at the cusp, getting a lot of shots and chances. Once we do, the floodgates will open."
It's unclear when that will come, but Spott was clear it is too soon to talk about a shake-up. It's just that it's never too early for people to be impatient toward a highly touted team.
"There's not a [general] manager in this league that's willing to give up a front-end centreman," he said. "Teams are going to wait until the 15 or 20-game mark to make assessments. Seven, eight games in, that's too early."