KALAMAZOO — With the Kalamazoo Wings’ season entering the second half of the schedule, the team finds itself in fourth place in the North Division standings, just one point ahead of the last place Evansville IceMen and 13 points behind the division leading Cincinnati Cyclones.
If the season ended today, the K-Wings would miss the playoffs for the first time since joining the ECHL in 2009-10. While the current standings are not sitting well with the fans, the team, or head coach Nick Bootland for that matter, the panic button has not been pushed as of yet.
“We were in this place once before, in January of 2011,” Bootland recalled. “We were under .500 as well. Everything seemed to click at that point.” The K-Wings went on to capture their second consecutive North Division crown before falling to the Alaska Aces in the Kelly Cup Finals.
This year, however, things are a little bit different in the world of hockey with the NHL lockout making waves in the ECHL. The lockout, which has been resolved after 113 days, gave several teams the opportunity to stack their rosters with players to whom they most likely otherwise would not have had access to, which has helped them out to this point.
Bootland said that he built his team based upon the lockout ending in December, which was the best “guesstimate” that he was hearing. By opting to keep his team at a “post lockout” level, Bootland said he is well aware that it may hurt them in the immediate, but he feels that once all is said and done, his team will be better off for it.
“I feel that, with the lockout resolved, and once the dust settles here and we get healthy as a hockey team, we will be in a better situation than we were in while the lockout was on,” Bootland said.
Firmly believing that his team does have the heart and desire to play and win games, Bootland feels that what his team is lacking is consistency and confidence, and without those, the team does not have the level of composure that is needed to win.
“You look at the type of losses we had this year in that tough stretch in November,” Bootland recalls. “How we were losing games and what that can do to a mental mindset, that was difficult for us. That’s difficult for anyone to go through. It was difficult for me to go through and I’ve been at this for 15 years and I’ve never really been a part of teams losing the types of games, playing the way we were playing, and losing the games the way we were.”
Call-ups and injuries have forced the K-Wings to make several roster moves over the course of the season, which is not unusual, especially in a development league like the ECHL. But bringing in new players, whether assigned by the AHL or signed by the team, does not guarantee wins.
“When you lose eight players out of your lineup (in just over a week) that was still struggling to be consistent, it is not easy to find that parity and get everyone on the same page as quickly as possible,” Bootland said.
It is not uncommon for players to arrive in town just mere hours before a game.
Teaching the systems and getting those new players up to speed is no cake walk either, but between teaching on the ice, video, whiteboard meetings and a newly designed “New Player Handbook,” Bootland and his staff work as hard as they can, to get all the players to gel and fast.
It is not as simple as skating and shooting the puck. Every team has many different plays they do, whether it is a controlled break out in the defensive zone, with the puck, without the puck, face-off plays on all areas of the ice, and the list goes on.
“Our team, for example, we have five or six different face-off plays just in our D-zone in general,” he said. “With new guys in the lineup, we try to stay away from the more complex plays and try to simplify things and get them moving in the right direction as soon as we can.”
Finding capable players is another can of worms, especially this time of year. The K-Wings signed former Western Michigan University alums Jeff Pierce and Brian Bicek last week, which Bootland said is rare this time of year.
“They are pretty established fourth and fifth year guys that have played in the Central Hockey League and just happened to not have a job at the time,” he added. “We were pretty fortunate for guys like this to be available.”
Regardless of availability, Bootland is always scouring the market for potential players.
Bootland said that they are constantly calling guys and watching the transactions in Europe to see if there are guys leaving and talking to guys in Europe to see if they want to come back to play in North America. “We’re touching base with those guys all the time. Other leagues where other guys are doing well, we are watching those leagues as well,” he added. “We look at every possible avenue. January is not an easy time to find quality players; they aren’t just sitting around doing nothing.”
Heading into the second half of the season, Bootland is well aware of what his team faces, but the resolve is the same as it has always been: to win it all.
“We want to win the whole thing, we’re not going to give up on that,” he said. “Our goal isn’t just to get in, our goal is to get in and put ourselves in a good position.”
“Once the consistency picks up, we will be a more confident team,” he added, “and that will bring the composure that we’re talking about and these things will lead to better results and more wins.”