The Bottom Line
The Johnstown Chiefs finished 30-26-16 with 76 points in 4th place in the American Conference North Division. After sweeping their playoff play-in round against 5th place Trenton 2-0 they were swept by Toledo in the first round of the playoffs 3-0. The year was a marked improvement over the 2004-2005 season when the Chiefs finished 7th in the North Division, out of the playoffs, with a 22-36-14 record and 58 points. The Chiefs offensive production improved this season by 32 goals while their defense relented 15 less goals.
What Went Right
The Chiefs' first season under partial ownership by the Tampa Bay Lightning appears to have gone off as a significant success. On the ice the Chiefs improved in all areas thanks partly to the influx of more Lightning contract players. In all, 13 Lightning contract players appeared in a Chiefs uniform this season, up from the 3 official contract players and two unofficially placed players (Jeremy Van Hoof and Paul Lynch) who appeared for the Chiefs in 2004-2005. 18 Chiefs players, both Lightning contract and non-Lightning contract players, played in games at the AHL level this season as well.
The talent level on the Chiefs improved this season and, after a tough start to the year, the positive coaching style of Head Coach Frank Anzalone got the Chiefs to believe that they could compete and win on any given night. The biggest upgrade for the Chiefs came between the pipes where in 2004-2005 David Currie and David Cann split the lion's share of the team's starts. Cann was not retained for this season and split time between Pensacola and Toledo of the ECHL as a backup this year. Currie started the year as backup to Jonathan Boutin and was traded once Morgan Cey returned from a groin injury suffered in camp with the Springfield Falcons. Currie split 29 games between Johnstown, Victoria and Dayton of the ECHL this season as a journeyman backup.
This year, however, the Chiefs had four NHL prospect goaltenders appear between the pipes for them, a significant upgrade over the 70 or so appearances made by ECHL backup caliber goaltenders last year. Morgan Cey made the most appearances for Johnstown going 17-9 with a .922 save percentage and 2.75 GAA. Johnstown was outshot in most games they played this season, but Cey helped provide the solid backbone the team needed to compete and win hockey games. Jonathan Boutin made 19 appearances going 8-9 with a .920 save percentage and 2.93 GAA. Boutin was one of the few bright spots in the team's tough first month of the season and was the Chiefs' lone representative at the ECHL All-Star Game. Josh Disher (Devils) and Brian Eklund also received starts in Johnstown this season. In total, the club's goaltenders had a 17 point higher save percentage than their opponents this season.
Up front, the addition of center Justin Kelly provided the Chiefs with a bona fide star at the ECHL level. Kelly, who spent last season with Adirondack of the UHL, led the team with 31 goals and 71 points in just 59 games this year. A year ago, Johnstown's leading scorer had just 56 points. Veterans Dimitri Tarabrin and Randy Rowe also helped to significantly upgrade the offensive punch of the club. Tarabrin, a dimiutive Russian who has spent many seasons at the periphery of Johnstown's roster, went from 8 goals and 25 points in 2004-2005 to 21 goals and 50 points this season. Rowe was nearly a point a game player with Johnstown with 28 goals and 43 points in 45 games. On defense, where the club was in flux throughout the year, the one constant was Doug Andress who had 6 goals and 37 points in 64 games. Significant strides were also made by Brett Peterson who nearly doubled his production from the backline from a year ago.
What Went Wrong
The Johnstown Chiefs got off to the worst start in the league and were the last club to record a win nearly 3 weeks into the season. From the outside, it appeared that the team struggled to adapt to the Lightning's system particularly because non contract Lightning players were not in condition to play it. In the Fall, the Lightning might consider inviting some of Johnstown's ECHL level players to Lightning camp for a day or two to experience the level of conditioning that the Lightning go through to get ready for the season.
Throughout the year, the team struggled to consistently generate forecheck and were routinely outshot on a nightly basis. The Chiefs had a huge advantage in size which helped them bridge the gap offensively and manhandle opponents once they did gain puck possession, but that size came at the expense of speed. Head coach Toby O'Brien should consider dedicating his offseason talent and recruiting efforts on finding more speed for the Chiefs lineup. Johnstown should know they are going to get plenty of size down from Springfield, they need the quickness to compliment it.
On defense, the team juggled lineups throughout the year through no fault of their own. The only constants throughout the year were Andress and Peterson. Beyond those two, Ian Manzano got much stronger in the second half of the season after a slow start to the year. Lightning contract players Brady Greco and Jay Rosehill started the year with Johnstown, but Rosehill was recalled quickly to Springfield where he spent most of the season and Greco made just 29 appearances before being shelved for the season with shoulder surgery. In November and December the team received Gerard Dicaire and Mike Egener from Springfield, but Egener missed significant time with a knee injury shortly after his reassignment. Both were promoted to Springfield at midseason after the Falcons shook up their roster, leaving the Chiefs to acquire Jim Hakewill in exchange for the inconsistent Tyler Kindle.
Up front, the productivity of forwards Joe Tallari and Jean Desrochers fell from a year ago although Desrochers found a groove late in the season playing on a big line with Lightning prospects like Adam Henrich, Zbynek Hrdel, Dennis Packard and Andre Deveaux as well as non contract behemoth Justin Kelly.
What Happens Now?
Because the nature of the ECHL is that as situations roll downhill, the league is in a higher degree of flux than the NHL and AHL levels, this isn't always an easy question to answer. It's clear Frank Anzalone is building a solid program in Johnstown, but will he be back with the team? He might be a candidate for the Lightning's vacant job in Springfield. If he stays, he and GM Toby O'Brien have some significant pieces to work with if they can lock them in with the team.
Undoubtedly the team needs to lock up Justin Kelly, their star player. Kelly has yet to find an inroad to the AHL but at the ECHL/UHL level he is one of the best forwards in the game today. Around him, players like Randy Rowe and Dimitri Tarabrin need to be back in Johsntown as well as Jean Desrochers who showed signs of dominance in his second half performance. Beyond this core, O'Brien needs to find more speed to mech with the size he has in Kelly and Desrochers and the size he has gotten from Springfield consistently. On defense he has a budding all-star in Doug Andress and improving veterans in Brett Peterson and Ian Manzano. He must work with Jay Feaster and Bruce Landon to determine whether or not he can get a contract prospect or two on the backline or whether or not he needs to recruit another non-prospect defenseman to help round out the corps.
Between the pipes, the situation looks good. If Karri Ramo signs with Tampa, the Chiefs should start the year with two Lightning prospects between the pipes. Whether it's Cey and Boutin or Cey and Ramo or Coleman and Boutin etc, remains to be sorted out in training camp competition in Tampa. No matter what happens though, Johnstown should be good in this area again next season. The Lightning have raved about the developmental time their goaltenders received in the ECHL this season and are strong believers that the league is exceptional in that regard. Whether or not it is as strong at cultivating forwards and defensemen remains to be seen in the progression of players like Henrich and Greco.
If Anzalone stays in place, there is no reason to believe his program can't continue to make strides next season. Were it not for a terrible first month of the season, Johnstown would've been in the lead pack with Toledo, Wheeling and Reading in their division. They still have some talent upgrades to make if they want to defeat those teams, but they're at the point where they could be competitive with them next year. If he doesn't, there might be another transition period to traverse, unless Toby O'Brien decides to again go behind the bench.