The times they are a-changing — and it is high time the U of M Bisons men’s hockey team changes with them.
With the conclusion of the 2018-19 Canada West season, the Bisons said goodbye to eight major club pieces, including multiple members of the team’s core.
Captain Brett Stovin, alternate captains Nick Zajac and Sean Christensen, goaltenders Byron Spriggs and Dasan Sydora and forwards Brett Brooks, Liam Bilton and Zach Franko have all graduated from the program.
Aside from losing leadership and both its longtime goalies, the herd also loses important players who fit the team’s ethos perfectly.
In the long tenure of head coach Mike Sirant, the team has had the identity of being big, physical and hard to play against. For many years, if you wanted to win at Wayne Fleming, you would pay for your points with bruises and hard work.
Now, as hockey across the globe transitions to a speed- and skill-based game, the Bisons need to change with it.
For inspiration, Sirant and company need only look west across the provincial border.
Running with the pack
The University of Saskatchewan Huskies may have more in common with a pack of wolves than the cuddly house pets from which the club gets its name.
Watching the Huskies play, you immediately see the fluidity of movement contained within a rigid positional structure. The team moves as a unit more than as individual pawns pouncing on opportunities, with each player seemingly always in the right place and doing the right thing.
For example, when Saskatchewan gets a powerplay, they quickly set up in an umbrella — like most modern powerplay units — but as the puck is cycled around, you see the Huskies go to work.
If, say, Jesse Forsberg walks the line and skates to the right through a pick set by a forward, the entire unit rotates to compensate for Forsberg now being out of position. Now Forsberg slots into the right side and a strong shooter like Collin Shirley mans the point until they can rotate back.
With a system like this, each player knows who is on the ice and where they are because movement is contained in a consistent set.
In contrast, in the current Bisons system, if a player like Adam Henry moves left or right toward the boards, he will run too close to the forward along the wall who is not moving. Then, a player — typically the far side winger — will cover Henry’s vacated spot at the point but nobody covers for the winger.
By leaving a position along the half-wall open, the Bisons effectively cut the playing surface in half, closing off the space needed to move the puck and giving the opposition more coverage on defence.
Further, without any systematic motion, wide gaps open up which can be exploited by aggressive penalty killing units. In the Huskies system, meanwhile, the positioning stays more-or-less the same and the shorter distance between players allows for safer outlet passes under pressure.
Then there is the speed. Even when there are lapses, Saskatchewan has done a great job of recruiting and developing players with immense closing speed, which when turned the other direction allows them to burn slow-footed opponents.
Sure, physicality and bruising play are great, but in the immortal words of Herb Brooks, “Legs feed the wolf.”
Where hockey was once an arms race for the biggest and meanest enforcers, the current arms race is for speed and youth. Speed allows you to win foot races, push the pace of play, control the puck in motion and make up for defensive lapses.
Saskatchewan does this better than most teams in the nation and Manitoba should take note.
What the Bisons need is to re-evaluate the team’s current system, along with make some changes in recruitment. Size and grit should be substituted for speed and skill, bringing in players who can move the puck and have sound positioning.
Too often in 2018-19 teams caught the Bisons flat footed, or were able to find gaps in Manitoba’s positioning. If the team wants to improve and contend once more, these issues need to be addressed.
Even then the herd already has players who fit the mold of a Huskies-type system, but their deployment in a grit-focused system stymies their effectiveness.
Huskies in Bisons clothing
A complete culture and system change may seem like a daunting task but a glance at the Bisons lineup shows the team is closer to a retool than a full-blown rebuild.
Working from the crease out, the herd already possesses a potential all-star netminder in Tyler Brown.
Although the Bisons have yet to see Brown in action due to offseason surgery, the Winnipeg-born netminder has the pedigree to make most coaches salivate.
During his Western Hockey League (WHL) career Brown had 80 wins in five seasons, twice eclipsing 1,300 saves while playing for the Regina Pats. He also led the Pats to the WHL finals in 2017, losing to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
In 2017, the goaltender had a 33-8-1 record and was second in the WHL in goals-against average and third in save percentage.
On the blue line there is the future top pair of Lucas Skrumeda and Mackenzie Dwyer.
Skrumeda impressed in his rookie season in 2017-18 and in his sophomore campaign the local product took another step forward. He possesses the offensive tools — shot and puck distribution ability — to fill the void Henry will leave when he graduates next season.
Dwyer, meanwhile, can fill the defensive defenceman role perfectly. His responsibility and mixture of physicality and foot speed makes him a nightmare for forecheckers, while he can be relied on to be the first pass in a strong offensive transition.
Rounding out the new-look Bisons core are Jeremey Leipsic, Keaton Jameson and Devon Skoleski.
Leipsic is the undersized skill player teams across the hockey world covet in the modern game. He is shifty, has a wicked release and can almost disappear in coverage, only popping up to snap a shot home.
Jameson and Skoleski meanwhile are two-way machines in the faceoff circle who seem on track to develop into complete players knocking on the professional door. The two possess great puck distribution skills and are possession drivers, but need to develop their finishing ability a bit more next season.
Jameson in particular was given a major role for the Bisons in 2018-19, slotting in as the team’s top centre while Stovin was dealing with an injury.
With these pieces in place, and more including newcomers Colton Veloso and Ryan Carlson, the Bisons could be contenders in a conference championship again very soon.