A few thoughts and observations on the South Carolina Stingrays season

I know the South Carolina Stingrays season ended rather abruptly on Friday night for most of you, but, and I realize this will get some pushback, I felt like the team overachieved for most of the season.

To be honest, I thought this was as good a coaching job as I’ve seen from the Stingrays in a while. Maybe since the 2009 championship season.

Considering the talent level the Stingrays had to work with I thought that HC Spencer Carbery and JB Bitner got the maximum amount out of this group of players. Now, I will agree that some of the issues that the Stingrays had from a personnel standpoint were self-inflicted.  Some of his signings just didn’t seem to fit the Stingrays defensive system. Guys like Matthew Pistilli, Dylan Clark and Mike Ullrich, who flourished in other more-offensive minded systems, struggled to get going with the Stingrays.

However, the moves that Spencer made to get guys in here that bought into the defense-first mindset paid huge dividends from the middle of January on as their record reflects. Getting goalies Ryan Zapolski, the league’s MVP, and Jeff Jakaitis were brilliant pick-ups.

In the end, however, injuries and the affiliation, doomed the Stingrays during the regular season and in the playoffs.

I ran a story before the playoffs about the 5 Questions the Stingrays had to answer if they were going to make a deep run in the Kelly Cup playoffs.

Here’s  recap with my thoughts.

1. Can the Stingrays stay healthy?

The answer to that question was a resounding, no. The Stingrays came into the playoffs limping, and left on life support.

Mike Hamilton (concussion) and Ryan Lowery (concussion) didn’t play the final four months of the season. Cameron Brodie (concussion) and Ryan McGinnis (knee) fell the final week of the regular season. Then Ryan Grimshaw was hurt in Game 2 against the Gladiators. And Luka Vidmar missed the first three games of the series. That’s a huge loss for a team that was built from the net out.

No team could have overcome those injuries.

2. Will the Stingrays get their players back from the American Hockey League?

The Stingrays did get Ryan Button and Alden Hirschfeld back from Providence. Grimshaw was sent down just before the playoffs, but lasted four periods. Button appeared to be disinterested on the ice. It appeared to me that he was counting the days before he’d return to Providence. I thought Hirschfeld had some really good moments, especially in the Game 4.

But Hunter Bishop and Tyler McNeely never returned and those were the top two scorers despite the fact that they missed the last two months of the regular season. That’s a huge void in your lineup in the playoffs when goals are at a premium.

3. Will the Stingrays score enough goals?

No.

The Stingrays scored just six goals in the four games. That’s not good enough.

Without Bishop and McNeely (an no Matt Beca either), the Rays had to put makeshift lines together. There were too many SPHL players on the ice for the Rays in the playoffs. Nothing against those guys, but there was a reason they were not on ECHL rosters when the season began.

Chris Langkow, Robbie Dee, Peter Boyd and Hirschfeld, did the best they could, but to win a Kelly Cup title, you need depth on all three lines.

4. Can the Stingrays special teams get it done in the playoffs?

Really until, Game 4, the Stingrays power play was non-existent. The Rays finished the playoffs converting on 3 of 16 chances for 18.8 percent, which isn’t too bad. But Before Game 4, they converted on just one of 11 chances.

On the flip side, the Stingrays penalty kill is currently last in the league in the playoffs at 60 percent. This was considering a strength of the Rays, whose PK finished second in the regular season.

5. Can the Stingrays goalies hold up under playoff pressure?

This was the one area where I felt like the Stingrays had a huge advantage. With ECHL MVP Ryan Zapolski, and the 2011-12 ECHL Goalie of the Year in Jeff Jakaitis, the Rays should have dominated this match-up.

But give Louis Domingue credit, he got the job done. I didn’t think Domingue (4-0, 1.50 GAA, .947 save percentage) wasn’t very sharp during the series, (he gave up a ton of rebounds) but his numbers speak for themselves.

Zapolski looked out of rhythm from Game 1 and Jakaitis hadn’t played very much down the stretch during the regular-season, so it’s hard to judge him on one start.

So many factors go into winning a championship.

You need to be healthy, you need to get your players back from the AHL, you’ve got to have good goaltending and you need a little bit of luck.

Stingrays got none of that this month.

Just a few more thoughts. …

It was tough talking to Rays captain Kevin Quick after Game 4. He put his heart and soul into the series and this team. I think he was definitely the correct choice for the Rays captaincy and I hope we see him in a Stingrays uniform again next season.

My philosophy on affiliations is that you can’t have enough. Many of you complained about Washington/Hershey affiliation, but now you see the other side of it. Look at Reading. No coincidence they are having a great season. The Stingrays had two Providence contract players on their roster in the playoffs. If I was Spencer Carbery I’d be looking for a second affiliation and maybe even a third if I could get one.

I’ll be interested to see what you guys think?

See you next season,

APM

33 thoughts on “A few thoughts and observations on the South Carolina Stingrays season

  1. Excellent assessment of the season. Opened my eyes on some points and I hope we can get another affiliate added so we aren’t so short handed, so to speak, at the end of next season.

  2. I’m really proud of the players we had at the end of the season. They were obviously out manned against the majority of the other teams, but they worked their tails off. We won during the regular season because of superior goal tending, and because we outworked the other teams. Unfortunately for us, ALL teams put out maximum effort in the playoffs. And when we faced a hard working/focused team, our lack of skill was exposed.

    As far as coach Carbery goes, I’m not sold. After watching his teams for two seasons, it appears that he has trouble getting highly skilled players to buy into his grind em up style of coaching. IMO he’s trying to run systems that go against the direction hockey is headed. It too often puts us on our heels, and produces a boring product to watch. It’s kinda hard to be a top level team when the majority of the games is played on your end of the ice. And if you need perfect games from your goalies to win, something needs change.

    JMHO YMMV

  3. Andrew, this team was decimated by concussion. I would be curious to know how the number of concussions compares with other teams in the ECHL. This team lacked collectively toughness, save for precious few. Having an enforcer on the squad might have been helpful in preventing the beatings incurred game in and game out.

    You mention the self inflicted personnel decisions from the beginning. Agreed. If the head coach wants a defensive minded squad but the GM goes out and signs guys better suited in a more open, offensive style, then there will be tension. Is it time for the team to go in another direction and dismiss either the coach or GM? (I know people, they are one in the same)

    Anyone out there in Stingray nation concerned about the future of the franchise? Looking at the attendance figures over the past few years, I see decline. Will this be a case whereby the team will exist forever, despite Texas WIldcatter, Johnstown Chiefs numbers? Anyone care as to why the numbers stink? Boring product? Grossly inflated prices for tickets/concessions? Anyone?

    I’ll be back next fall, presuming there will be a team. I understand it’s a developmental league but hoping to see a more exciting team. Hoping to not lead the league in concussions, hoping to not have to read the coach dismayed his team wasn’t prepared to compete, hoping to see the franchise return to its former proud ways.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with the assessment entirely but here is my take on this after watching a lot of games this year.
    The nemesis all year was the lack of scoring and that reared its ugly head in the playoffs as well. I thought the defenseman that were supposed to be leading the team in the playoffs might have been their worst players. Button and Quick turned the puck over at the worst possible times and yet they seemed to be rewarded with more ice time. Quick is a very good skater, but I don’t think he sees other players when he is on the ice. He carries the puck a great deal but he consistently caused offsides because he was trying to stick handle through a tough defense rather than getting the puck in deep. Quite frankly I found him to be a bit of a selfish player and not captain material. The decision to start Jakaitis in game 4 was baffling. There was nothing wrong with Zapolski in the first three games and in my opinion it was a huge risk to start a guy who had not played a lot in the last month or so and the risk did not pay off. The other decision in the final game which wa baffling was the decision to not play Courtnall. In the case of both Courtnall and Zapolski I would have followed the approach of you go home with the person who brought you to the dance and if I had to guess I suspect both players would be pissed at the coach. X’s and O’s are very overrated when it comes to most sports when it comes to coaching, it is far more important to be a good manager of men. He didn’t win any awards with those decisions. I think the bottom line is the good goaltending was probably masking other problems, the biggest of course being the inability to score when opportunities were presented. Losing Bishop and McNeely were killers late in the year. Double affiliations can be useful but they can also play havoc with personnel decisions during the year as well. Players who come to the team with no affilliation ties can get pushed aside at a moments notice regardless of how well they are playing and that is just not right and leads to poor morale.

  5. All,
    Interesting comments by everyone so far.
    I think as long as the Zucker family remains interested in hockey, the Stingrays will be here. I certainly hope they are here for a long, long time.
    As far as ticket prices and concessions, obviously, I don’t pay, so I have nothing to compare it to. I do that there’s only so much the Stingrays can control. The Stingrays are at the whim of the North Charleston Coliseum because of the lease. I’ve always felt like the building was too big for the Stingrays. If someone ever decided to build a 6,000-seat facility that would be perfect for the Stingrays.
    I’m not sure I agree with the assessment on Kevin Quick. If anything, I thought Kevin tried too hard to make things happen by himself. A lot of had to do with the skill of the forwards he was working with most of the season.
    I agree with that goal-tending did mask a lot of the Stingrays other flaws, but that was by design. This is essentially the same system that Jared Bednar ran in 2008 & 2009 and that worked out pretty well.
    And if I were the head coach, I would have started Jakaitis in Game 3. Zapolski never looked comfortable out on the ice during the entire series, which shows you how good he really was.
    Keep the comments coming.

    APM

    • I’m not sure I agree with the Jakaitis game 3 start idea. There is no question Zapolski looked a little shaky in Game 1, but to be honest the whole team looked awful. Game 2 was a different story. I thought he actually played quite well and the game came down to 2 critical plays. After the Stingrays tied the game late, they were handed a gift when Gwinnett took a penalty with 3 minutes to go. Shortly after they took the penalty, the Stingrays also took a penalty. The problem with the penalty was it occured behind the Gwinnett net and the last time I looked it is very difficult to score from 200 feet. This was just a horrible decision on the players part and could very well have changed the entire complexion of the series. If the Stingrays score on their power play they come back tied 1-1 and in a much different frame of mind. Adding to the frustration was the defense giveaway with 20 seconds left which led to the winning goal. Zapolski was not the issue, bad decisions were the issue. Zapolski was solid in game 3 and basically kept them in the game in the first period. It was a mystery as to how the players could be so flat in that first period of game 3 but they did do a 180 in the second period. Another bad bounce in the third period caused the winning goal with again no fault of Zapolski. Zapolski deserved a game 4 start, he was not the issue and now you left a bad taste in his mouth.

    • Rumor has it the ownership group originally planned to build an arena adjacent to the Ice Palace. Would be nice to see those plans resurface and break us free from the city’s grip, so the team has more options regarding pricing.

  6. The best comment so far seems to be that sports are not so much about X’s and O’s, but about managing men. In this regard, the product over the last two years has been low scoring and boring. I actually lost interest in going to games and took a pass on Friday night. That is a first for me. The Rays seem to be coached not so much for dump and chase (which is boring in itself), but dump and change! So often these past two years we would seen a potentially exciting odd man rush only to see, as they approach the blue line, the players dump it in and head for the bench. Who scores like that? What championship team plays like that? No one. Disciplined? Yes. But also routine. And boring.

    The Rays need to recruit some shooters. They have not scored enough, save for brief spurts, in memory. Just take a look at the plus/minuses column on the roster.

    And then they need one clear-cut enforcer, reminiscent of the great Number 5, to keep the other teams in check. Kiser had at least another year in him. Cutting him loose sent a statement, even if inadvertantly, that the Rays could be beaten down with hardly any consequence to other team. His presence has been missed, and it has been obvious. Find another like him, please, and do it now.

    Scooter Vaughn was outstanding all year. I admire his spirit, hustle and tenacity. It spoke volumes to me that, during that game of the racist incidents in West Virginia, Vaughn had to fight the culprit not once, but twice. It was so hard to believe that not one teammate stepped up and cleaned that guy’s clock. But then, that lack of heart was also emblematic of what I perceived to be an overall lack of toughness on the team. Again, boring.

    Also superb was Mr. Patrick Gaul from the SPHL. He showed more heart than most, and I hope we see him next year, taking the body, winning in the corners, and setting up the shooters (who still need to identified, recruited, and signed; we don’t have any right now).

    Changes need to be made, or we will continue to see 1,500 seat nights at season-on-the-line playoff games. We can do better, and should. Turn the page.

  7. Mike,
    When you have 2 goalies as good as Zaps and Jakaitis, I always liked Jared Bednar’s approach — you start until you lose.
    That’s what Jared did in 2009 during the playoffs.
    Not saying Zaps didn’t deserve to start Game 3 or Game 4, but you give up 8 goals in the first two games, no matter what the issues are in front of you, and maybe it’s time to give the other guy a shot.
    APM

  8. Hockey is evolving into a more wide open game. And if the crowd cheers just because you have a 2 on 4 rush, you’re obviously not generating enough excitement to entertain them. Charleston doesn’t have enough hard core hockey fans to support the team. They can put a more exciting product on the ice. or they can hope and pray Mrs. Zucker continues to write off the losses.

  9. The above comments have been very insightful . Surprisingly, no one has mentioned the consequences of zero returning players at the start of the season. Obie , Johann, and Matt had given Coach Carbury a ready leadership corps the previous two seasons.I think that their deserved retirements put the Rays organization behind the 8-ball from the gitgo. Look at any successful NHL team and at its center are unheralded players who make the team each year, not because of their scoring prowess or fan appeal, but because they are the internal team leaders. Spencer didn’t have anything close . While he downplayed this, I think it doomed the team. As Andrew mentioned, I totally agree that Coach did a terrific job with the hand he was dealt. He just was missing a vital wild card so necessary for teaching young players to play an adult game.

  10. Andrew: While I am still on my high horse, I hope you will continue to elicit suggestions or opinions at least monthly during the off-season. You’ve just received ten or eleven really good inputs to your query / observations. I think you have more than enough knowledgable bloggers willing to continue providing interesting input during the summer doldrums. Interest fills seats. I know you always say you are going “on vacation ” ( deservedly so) and won’t be updating this blog, but hey….in this age of the computer , we don’t go anywhere without at least a smart phone at our disposal and I strongly feel that we all owe the Rays organization our individual support at maintaining fan interest all year long. You probably do more than your part in doing this during the regular season. Let us help you do it 12 months of the year! Together we may be able to fill a few more seats next season. Have a great summer!

  11. I will also have to agree that Coach got a lot out of what he had to work with. As much as I hate to admit it but I think Andrew you were right with the starting Jakaitis in game 3. I also wonder why the Goalie was not pulled earlier in game 4. We held the puck in the Gwinnett zone for over a minute. Then as soon as play stops he pulled the Goalie.
    As far as returning players it was my understanding that contracts were not extended to the retired trio this year and Nate last year. Then we signed all the CHL players. I sure hope that quite a few of this years final team come back next year.
    Andrew the ticket prices and the cost of concessions are among the highest in the league. That doesn’t help get in the young family of three or four. Most places that have concession prices as high as ours also have a major sports team sharing the facility.

  12. Great assessment indeed. But most fans don’t know about the behind the scenes actions and are not made aware of them either. For instance..Earlier in the year, we traded not only our Captain, but an assistant as well. Fans are going What the heck. No reason was or is ever given by team policy. At this level, it’s good not to get attached to any players as this is a stepping stone in their career for the gifted few. But..as a fan, you do get attached. Most of the time unintentionally. I have been tough on Spencer, but I agree as far as personnel moves this year, he did his best. But as a coach, should he not bear most of the brunt for the lack of intensity in the playoffs? They were lackluster at best until game 4 which is unacceptable in my book. The were outplayed buy a team they had beat handily a few prior. Ryan (Zippy) Zapolski could not win on his own.

    • I don’t know that it’s team policy so much as league policy. The ECHL has been traditionally closemouthed about…well, everything, and I think it holds its member clubs to the same standard. As far as Weller getting traded mid-season, the writing was pretty much on the wall there – he’d been held up at the AHL level with an injury for almost two months, leaving us bereft of both an experienced forward and the team captain. We got Cam Brodie (and “future considerations”) in return, who finished the season with a +7 to Weller’s -4, so it was a smart trade, at least.

      But I do agree that it gets frustrating for us as fans when things like that happen seemingly out of the blue.

      To PDDuke’s point regarding the attendance, one bright spot is that it actually increased by an average 277 fans per game, which is the largest season-to-season increase since 1998, and the first time attendance has gone up since 2008. The numbers aren’t great, but at least they’re going in the right direction now, and if Robby and crew can build some momentum, we may climb out of the basement. Unfortunately, they have to overcome high school football and the ever-affordable RiverDogs, not to mention the fact that it’s currently cheaper to take the family to the movies than to a hockey game. I think a smaller arena with cheaper prices is the way to go, but the question is, are the owners willing to make that investment? And can they break the lease with the city without paying too hefty a penalty?

      • Apologies – it’s actually the largest season-to-season attendance increase the team’s ever had. Attendance only went up 228 fans per game between the 1997 and 1998 season. So it’s a good sign – but can they sustain it?

  13. What is disappointing is that other than Zapolski, the only guy we had on the league leader boards for the season was Tyler Johnson – in 4th place for shootout-winning goals. Yeah, we were a great defensive team, but a good deal of that can be laid at Zap’s feet (the guy had 8 shutouts, for Pete’s sake). Even being a strong defensive team, we had no defensemen on the leader boards.

    In terms of goals for, we were 12th in the East and 18th in the league., out of 14 and 23, respectively. The only teams that had fewer goals than we did were Orlando, Wheeling, San Francisco, and Bakersfield – all of which had substantially fewer wins than we did and 3 of which did not make the playoffs (SF made it because, well, they’re in the West). So while it’s a testament to our team’s defensive capability that we finished as high as we did and made the playoffs, clearly that’s not something that can take us all the way.

    We did win the vast majority of our home games (24/36), which is good because it puts out a good product for our local fans. However, judging by some of the above comments, even the wins at home weren’t necessarily 60 minutes of exciting hockey. Add to that the issues with ticket and concession prices, and there’s a lot of food for thought for both hockey ops and front office folks.

    We were also 2nd from the bottom in total PIM, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it. I’ll let you guys hash that out.

  14. The Weller trade was addressed at one of the Monday Coach’s Shows. He violated a team rule and the result was a trade. That was one of the most interesting Monday Shows as Coach explained quite a few things that go on without the fans knowing. He also answered many questions from the people in attendance.

    • Ken,

      Interesting. I missed that show and was unaware. I thought we traded him because he was stuck in St. John’s with an injury and wasn’t going anywhere soon. I wonder how he violated a team rule while called up?

      Thanks for the update, and the reminder that Coach Carbery makes himself extremely accessible at the Coach’s Shows.

    • Interesting question. He has two straight playoff appearances and winning records. Hard to argue there. However at Coach’s shows the players were always quick to credit JB with the defensive play and special teams success late in the season. Exciting scorers like Ullrich, Pistilli and Clarke excelled in the league. Why not here? Are the systems and coaching style that Carbs brings to the locker room and ice that inhibiting on players that are used to playing a more open game and scoring more? Would those guys have stuck around if there would have been a veteran player in their to ease their fears? Why would a high scoring player want to stay in a system that would keep his stats low, thus reducing his chances of getting called up? From a fan perspective I think a coaching change in philosophy or personnel would be best. No fights + no goals can’t keep butts in seats for a non-traditional market like this.

  15. After 2 years of less than thrilling hockey, it is time to go another direction. If you all recall the type of teams that Jason Fitzsimmons and Jared Bednar had on the ice, ones that were exceptionally difficult to play against, is where we need to go. The Hampton Roads Admirals, the first ECHL team to win 3 league championships, was brutal to play against. It was a war for each game. You paid a high price to play against them. That is the same way that Fitzy and Jared built their teams and it worked. That has not happened since their departure – either under Cail or Spencer. Time for a change. If that type of team is built, the fans will return to some degree. JB is from the same mold as Spencer.

    Spencer did terrible in trades and value obtained. FLA took it to the Rays in every trade. We lost in every count. I see maybe 7 players holding over from the current team. The rest did not have the commitment needed to greatly excel. Just look how the Gwinnett team was built. Big strong defense, forwards with size and speed.

    Need to get the NCC to give the team a financial break. With the influence, power and money the Zucker family has you would think the NCC would do them better. Get with Summney to get the ball rolling. Then the ticket prices can come down and the fans will come back. Take a good look at the Cincinnati, Ontario and Ft Wayne business plans. Absolutely solid plans, community involvement, good informative websites, lower ticket prices and better attendance. Recipe for success? Yep!

    • You are exactly right…We need more guys that will play hard and not put up with crap from Fla and Gwinnett. We have been out played, out worked,out muscled, and out hustled for too long…

  16. If Carbery stays, then I go as a STH. If he leaves, then Im on board again as a STH. His trades he has made the last 2 years have not been very good. When he was first hired, I was excited and even in his first year coaching, the first half of the season was entertaining as all with the toughness, tenacity, and skill they displayed, but then Pacquette got traded and James McEwan got hurt. After that, they went to a more defensive minded approach which led to some boring hockey ever since. Out of my 5 or 6 years as a STH, this was the most boring season out of the bunch. I didnt attend any playoff games this year because I knew how it was going to turn out. The only players I want to see come back are the goalies, Scooter, Gaul, and LUKAAAAAAAAAA!

  17. Y’all can cancel your season tickets and slam Coach Carbury all you want but the fact is that Coach has another year on his contract and will be with us for the 2013-14 season. The Ray’s owners/management group have never failed to honor a coach’s contract by early termination. Do you really feel that they are dissatisfied with Spencer’s performance? Zucker Award recipient for community service; first time coach; playoffs both seasons; and unfortunately saddled with a virtually new team this past season. It will never happen and personally I am very happy to have Spencer Carbury back behind the bench for another season.

    • That being said…….
      here’s hoping the personality conflicts, dead end trades, and less than inspired hockey, were the results of bad luck, injuries, and the NHL lockout.
      Don’t know if we have time to raise a coach. Even if he is a great guy.

    • It was sort of a tale of 3 seasons for this team. Early on the team was inconsistent and it is my understanding Carberry had a meeting with a few players and the fortunes of the team turned around. The goaltending was superb and the team went on a role. The latter part of the year showed a team that was Ok but not great. Scoring was an issue all year, but it became magnified in the playoffs when horrible decisions were made by key performers especially defensemen who were supposed to be keys to a teams success. Carberry seemed to continue to reward some of these players with increased ice time which to me indicated he had fallen in love with them and was turning a blind eye to their mistakes and poor play. Injuries to the defense certainly hurt but when you look a little more carefully it really came down to the teams best players not being the best players in the playoffs. I have mentioned it before but I thought Zapolski was fine with the possible exception of game 1. The one baffling issue and I think both the coaches and players have to take some blame for this is how could the team come out so flat in game 1 and even worse in game 3 back home.

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