Next year, they’re playing for keeps.
That’s the message Surrey Eagles head coach Blaine Neufeld will deliver to prospects next week, when the team holds its annual spring camp, where a handful of players will likely be identified and invited to main camp at the end of August.
For Neufeld – who is entering his first full off-season at the helm of the BC Hockey League team after taking the reins as head coach last summer – the off-season has already been too long, as he and the rest of the organization have watched the BCHL playoffs from afar. The Eagles – who rebuilt their team last year with mostly local players – missed the playoffs after finishing a league-worst 9-45-1-3 (win-loss-tie-overtime loss).
It was a tough season for many reasons, Neufeld said. For starters, the team struggled defensively, especially early – they routinely gave up 40-plus shots on goal – and offensively, they finished with the second-worst offence in league history, scoring at a clip of just 2.33 goals-per-game. Only the Quesnel Millionaires of 2010/11 scored less.
However, rather than dwell on the negatives of the recent past, Neufeld is instead choosing to focus on the future, and is intent on steering the ship back to the post-season – starting now.
“Last year, everybody came into things knowing it was going to be a rebuilding year, and that was our mindset. We had to be patient, and let the team (grow), but we’re not in this to go through that again,” he told Peace Arch News Wednesday.
“The leash is shorter now. Now, we need to win, and shame on us if we don’t improve in Year 2.”
Though the losing of last year would wear on just about anybody with a competitive bone in their body, Neufeld – who admitted that “everybody was tired of losing by the end of the season” – said it was also easy to be patient, knowing that the entire organization was taking a long-view of team-building with a local core.
Last year, 14 players from Surrey and Cloverdale dotted the roster, and though the coach said they could have chose to build slower – say, with a few top locals each year, rather than more than a dozen – he doesn’t regret their plan.
“Potentially, we could have, and maybe we’d have won a bit more, but I don’t know if that gets the point across about what we’re trying to do here, building with local players,” he explained.
“You don’t want to throw away a year, and I still don’t think we did, but we started to establish our plan, and really put roots down in the local minor-hockey associations, letting those young players know that we’re the best option for them.”
Besides, going through the growing pains has only helped those young local players, many of whom will return next season.
“Last year, we had a lot of rookies, now we’ll have a lot of veterans,” he said.
Going forward, Neufeld said he hoped that the team would be able to gain commitments from “the top five” or so local players each year.
“We don’t want all the local kids, we want the best ones.”
Recruiting players from elsewhere is also a priority, Neufeld added, as he aims to replace departing goaltender Christian Short – who will play in the NCAA in the fall – as well as add to the forward ranks.
Among the key returnees up front will be Darius Davidson and Minnesota native Tyler Harkins, but more will be needed to improve upon the 2014/15 output.
“We have to find some firepower, definitely,” Neufeld said.
“We’re recruiting some high-end guys – both from here and other places. Also, for our guys coming back, they’re going to have to improve. If you’re supposed to score goals, then score goals. Or find another way to contribute to the team.”
Neufeld said he didn’t take much of a break after the season ended before he began planning and recruiting for next year – perhaps getting a jump on other teams still in the playoffs. As well, he didn’t think the team’s poor season has affected recruiting efforts.
“It might actually be the opposite, because the local players know what our plan is now, and for everyone – no matter where they’re from – they know there are opportunities here,” he said. “And even though we’ll have a lot of players returning, we only won nine games last year, so (roster spots) aren’t guaranteed.”
Looking back on his first year behind a BCHL bench, Neufeld said there was a learning curve, but the biggest challenge he faced was figuring out how to motivate his team daily when, realistically, they were out of playoff contention months early.
“We struggled so much early, we fell out of the playoff race earlier than I thought maybe we would, so there was no real playoff push for us down the stretch,” he explained. “So you have to find new goals, and new things to focus on.
“But now, we want to make the playoffs. That’s our goal for next season – make the playoffs, win our division. We’ve learned from our mistakes, and we know it’s a lot more fun when you’re winning.”