The Erie Otters had to do something. At 3-7-1 going into the weekend, the club was sitting in dead last place in the OHL. Despite a few close calls in some of their early games, they haven’t been able to consistently find a winning formula.
Ultimately, that cost head coach Chris Hartsburg his job.
While it appeared that the Otters were starting to turn the corner at the end of the 2019-20 season, the early part of this season have shown that they’ve regressed. In the past when the team was struggling, management led by general manager Dave Brown didn’t pin the issues on Hartsburg enough to make a move then. The belief was that once they get a couple seasons away from that championship season of 2017, they’d be heading back up.
For a few reasons, that upward trend has stopped and it seems like the Otters are in a holding pattern. The 3-7-1 start signaled to management that a fresh voice was needed. Luckily for them, that voice was already in their locker room and someone who is very familiar with what the Otters are about.
Enter B.J. Adams
Adams was named the ninth head coach in the history of the Otters on Thursday to replace Hartsburg. Adams has spent the last six seasons with the Otters as both an assistant and associate coach. He’s been a part of the Otters during the highest of highs (winning an OHL championship) and the lowest of lows (the seasons after that championship.)
In all, Adams has been a coach for 11 seasons in professional, collegiate and at the Major Junior level. He also played for 10 seasons prior to that.
Adams has earned this opportunity thanks to his patient approach. He came on as an assistant coach when he first started. Then he was named associate coach in June 2017. And now he runs the bench.
The one thing that has always stood out about Adams is the way he handled the defense and specifically the penalty kill. On three occasions during his tenure as an assistant/associate coach, he’s run a top-five PK unit in the OHL.
In the back of my mind, I wondered if a change was coming. But I didn’t expect it on Thursday before their weekend’s games. I spoke to Hartsburg over the phone on Tuesday for our weekly chat and there wasn’t anything unusual about it. We talked their 1-1-1 weekend, injuries, performances and we looked ahead to the games in Guelph and then back in Erie against London.
Then the word came out Thursday that a change was made.
It signals to me that while they may have been thinking about it for some time, the decision wasn’t made until the last day or two before the announcement. If they were going to make the change, they needed to have someone on the ready to replace him. Adams was right there and he has their full confidence. So the move that many fans wanted for a long time finally happened.
There are two sides to this story. First, was Hartsburg given a fair chance? Second, was there clear evidence the team was heading in the right direction? We’ll discuss both now.
Hartsburg Had Many Hurdles
All throughout his tenure, Hartsburg didn’t have the benefit of a complete roster. By that, I don’t recall a single game in his tenure where the team was at 100% health based on what their projected lineup would be. He constantly had to mix and match players and adjust on the fly.
When you have a roster that’s already watered down because the prospect cupboards were barren, it’s makes things that much more difficult. The Otters were not expected to do much of anything playoff wise in his first two seasons. But to his credit, his teams were always competing. It wasn’t easy coming to Erie. Those games weren’t an automatic two points.
Then in the 2019-20 season, there was some progress. The Otters finished the shortened season in a playoff spot. It seemed they were ready to look ahead. But with the canceled season and losing some very important players, Jamie Drysdale among them, there were some serious questions about what this season’s Otters would be.
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But then the news came out that Aidan Campbell, the team’s starting goalie, had surgery and was out indefinitely. That pressed 17-year old Nolan Lalonde to the starter’s role. They then brought on Marshall Nichols to be his backup. Things went about as expected. While the goalies each looked good at times, they couldn’t overcome a lack of offense from their team.
So yes, Hartsburg despite many hurdles was given a fair chance. This season was a prove it season. It fell short. Now to question two.
Was There Evidence of Improvement?
The Otters are the lowest scoring team in the league with just 30 goals scored in 12 games. On the other side, they’ve allowed 42 goals in that span. So on average, they’re being outscored 3.50-2.50 on a nightly basis. That’s simply not good enough.
This regression ultimately cost Hartsburg his job. Unless the Otters are able to find more offense in short order, we could be looking at a long season in which they miss out on the playoffs yet again. Adams will be tasked with finding goals within the group. It will be interesting to see what kinds of things he’ll try to find that offense.
This feels like a rock bottom for the Otters. At 3-8-1 overall and staring at a tough schedule upcoming, they needed to do something to try to kick start something now and for the future. Brown is normally patient with these kind of things. It tells you everything you need to know that they decided to make the change on a Thursday as opposed to a Monday or Tuesday. Patience ran out. There was no evidence of improvement. Now we’ll see how the team responds to the move.
To their credit, they were a crossbar away from getting to overtime in Guelph on Friday. They started that game with an expected energy boost. But the Storm are a very good team and responded. The Otters hung tough though. They’ll need much more of that if they hope to make something out of this season.
It’s Truly a Fresh Start
This coaching change is a fresh start for everyone from management all the way down. There was a clear level of frustration within the team and something had to be done. That something is now done. It’s up to the players and the coaches now to respond the right way and show that they’re heading in the right direction again.
The Otters play their first home game Saturday night in the Adams’ era against their rival London and their outstanding 10-1-1 record. No matter the records, this game always means something to the Otters. So expect them to come out flying in front of their home crowd on Military Appreciation Night.
Now looking ahead, management is going to have to evaluate everything from top to bottom to see what else needs to happen for them to get back on the right path. There is good, young talent on this roster. But they need much more coming in. Depending on how this next stretch goes, we might start thinking about them in the conversation for the number-one pick in the 2022 Priority Selection.
But until then, the Otters have 56 games left to try to make something out of this season. We’ll see in quick order if Hartsburg was the reason for the struggles or if there’s something bigger in play taking place. No matter what, there won’t be any shortage of storylines with this team now that they’ve made the coaching change.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.