By all accounts and advanced metrics, the Erie Otters should have been a playoff team last season. But they fell just short in the end.
It was a disappointing end to a promising season. The Otters stayed in the playoff race for most of the season. They came up with some great efforts at different points, including a victory over league-leading Ottawa. The signs were there. But they couldn’t overcome both a tough end to their schedule and their brutal penalty kill.
The Hockey Writers got to sit down with Otters’ head coach Chris Hartsburg to talk about the current state of the team. We discussed everything from getting over the disappointment of last season to what we can expect to see this season. Does he feel the pressure of higher expectations surrounding the team? Just like in last season’s Q & A, Hartsburg was great.
The State of the Team
The Hockey Writers: How happy were you with what you saw from players when they came in for camp from a putting in the work perspective?
Chris Hartsburg: “We challenged a lot of them at the end of the year, certain guys. And certain guys responded and came in the way they needed to. And other guys took it upon themselves to improve and they did that.”
THW: Do you now feel that you have the team around you where you can play the speed game?
Hartsburg: “Absolutely. I don’t think that’s really a question. It’s going to be just a matter of guys being willing to continuously do it because it’s hard. It’s hard. I think we do. I think we have enough bodies that can handle it. Certainly throughout our four lines, we’re going to have at least two guys on every line that can really skate.”
THW: Two games down, two to go in preseason, what specific things are you looking in these final games?
Hartsburg: “The first two (games) was just getting out there and working and skating. Once we get into these two against London, we’ll have a little more structure in place and certainly want to see some growth in that area. The biggest thing for me is maintaining our tempo of play and making sure we’re competing in the areas we need to compete in.”
Improving the Penalty Kill
THW: In my eyes, the difference between making and missing the playoffs was the penalty kill. What are you doing to ensure that there is improvement in this area?
Hartsburg: “That was a year-long battle. BJ (Adams) is responsible for that. There’s things we talked about at the end of the year where there’s areas we can clean up and get better at. It comes down to execution more than anything. It can’t get worse. That’s the good thing. I expect it to be a strength of our team, no question. I think we have more guys capable of killing penalties up front and on the back end. I think with our group, we won’t have to rely on just one or two guys which I felt we did a little too much last year.”
THW: What are you looking for early from Connor Lockhart?
Hartsburg: “I think it’s going to be important for him to see how he’s able to play against better players. I think for him that’s going to determine what role he plays for our team early on.”
THW: What are you going to be looking for on the power play to ensure you have two balanced units going out?
Hartsburg: “First off, you want to figure out where guys fit in best on each unit. You lose guys that played in certain areas last year. You have to figure out guys that can fill those roles and maybe be better in them. Certainly Jamie (Drysdale) is always going to be in his spot up top. It’s about who can play where and what position suits them best on the power play.”
THW: How do you envision the goaltending split working out between Daniel Murphy and Aidan Campbell?
Hartsburg: “Early on, more so than anything else, it’s going to be a matter of you hope both guys are going so then you go with the hot hand at the moment and let them go. Dan (Murphy) now being in his third year in the league you expect him to take a bigger step and I expect Aidan (Campbell) to push for playing time. Early on, we have enough games in the first couple of weeks where we’ll be able to get Aidan into three games at least and see how it goes.”
THW: Is this the year Emmett Sproule breaks out?
Hartsburg: “I think he had a good finish. I think Sprouler is growing. I think it’s going to come down to how badly Emmett wants it. He has the ability. He can do things. The way he finished last year left me with an excitement about where Emmett’s going to be this year.”
THW: From a distance, the player that I have been impressed with is Chad Yetman. What can we expect to see from him and do you see him taking a bigger role leadership wise?
Hartsburg: “With Chad, from day one, he’s done whatever we’ve asked of him. He played defense for a while his first year. And then last year, he got thrown into the center ice position out of necessity. He just did it. He’s a kid that is very mature and handles things extremely well. He’s a confident guy. When he’s confident, you can see it with his play on the ice because he can make things happen. I expect him to be a complete player for us and be a guys we can count on in every situation. The leadership thing for me, it’s unfair to expect our group to have guys that be there because we have no one really that’s been through it. If anything, it’s going to be a group of guys that we’re going to lean on because we have a large group of 19-year olds that have been here that understand what the expectations are. I expect that group to really be our guys that lead this team. Some of our guys that have been here three years, Hayden Fowler, Dan Murphy and those guys, they care. They are tired of where we’re at. The leadership thing for me is going to be a group of them.”
THW: The kids, the Noah Sedore’s, Brendan Sellan’s, Elias Cohen’s, how excited are you about them and how good can they be?
Hartsburg: “The biggest thing for me is that they understand the way we want to play. They’re here because of that reason. They’re all guys, especially with Brendan and Dan D’Amato and guys that were here last year that earned ice time, they’ve showed up ready to work. That’s one thing they bring everyday. With Elias, for him it’s going to be a matter of consistently competing because we know he’s talented. We know he’s smart. The biggest thing for him is going to be playing away from the puck. Our young group of players are good. They can play.”
THW: Do you feel pressure yourself knowing that the level of expectations around your team is much higher this season?
Hartsburg: (Laughs) “No. This is why you coach. You want to be in the playoffs. If anything the last two years, it bothered me more than anything this summer especially, it took me about a month to get over this last year just because I knew we were a playoff team. We had a lot of things happen that we had no control over. I think that as a coach frustrates you more than anything because if there’s something you can pinpoint you could have done differently maybe it would have made a difference. There just wasn’t. It was frustration. I was mad. It took me a while to get over it. After I got past it and started looking ahead and being excited about this year for me it’s been nothing but excitement. This is why you coach. If you worry about pressure you shouldn’t be in this job.”
Guys on the Bubble
THW: There’s a couple of guys I’m interested in. First is Ryan Martin. He’s coming back from an injury. What can we expect this season?
Hartsburg: “Certainly he has to get back to playing and we are hoping that happens here but we got a logjam back there. We have an idea of what our group is going to look like. But at the end of the day, we need to make sure that one, we are developing our younger players still and two, we have a group that can help us night in and night out. With Luke (Beamish) being healthy and acquiring Jacob (Golden) at the deadline, we’ve added two guys that essentially can add to our skating ability back there and ability to move pucks.”
THW: Both Joseph Mack and Alex Gritz were involved last season. What do you need to see from them this season?
Hartsburg: “Both of them bring different games. The biggest thing for both of them is being consistent in what they do well. For me, both of them have struggled at times in being consistent in those areas. When they are consistent, they’re effective. We need them to be that consistent player night in and night out in order to help our team. That’s what it comes down to.”
THW: And finally, with moves being made around the league, can we expect the Otters to look at adding someone before the season starts?
Hartsburg: “No. I think we’re happy with the way our group is sorted out. We need to get down in numbers so that’s what we’re going to be concerned about.”
We thanks coach Hartsburg for taking the time to speak with us. Stay tuned throughout September leading up to the start of the OHL regular season as we will have a series of Otters’ Q & A’s for you.