The Erie Otters were hoping New Year’s Eve would be a festive atmosphere inside Erie Insurance Arena. Instead, it ended with the team being booed off the ice by their home fans after an embarrassing performance.
Jonathan Yantsis scored twice while Jacob Ingham made 35 saves to help the Kitchener Rangers to a decisive 6-1 win over the Otters. The loss was the second in as many games for the Otters against the Rangers. On Sunday, the Rangers won 6-2 in perhaps one of the worst games the Otters have played under Chris Hartsburg.
The Surreal Postgame Waiting Game
To say things are uneasy in the locker room would be a major understatement. After the game ended, the assembled media took their position in the media area to wait for Hartsburg to come out. Generally after a loss, we don’t ask for players. We get them during the week.
But this night was different. Very different. So different in fact that the chain of events that happened has never happened in my time covering the Otters. I began covering the team in Connor McDavid’s draft year of 2014-15. Let me try to set the scene for you. It was very surreal.
We (the media) get down to our normal position. In the room was myself, Mike Copper from the Erie Times-News and two of the local TV sportscasters with cameras. They each had to go on air later that night.
This game was a 6:00 start. Being that it was New Year’s Eve, it’s generally tradition to start the game an hour earlier than expected. That’s nice. We get home an hour earlier. The game ended around 8:20. We’ll get Hartsburg’s thoughts and we’ll be on our way by around 8:30. For me, I’ll be home by 9:00.
Except I wasn’t home at 9:00. I wasn’t even home by 10:00. No I didn’t get into my driveway until almost 10:30. What in the world happened?
To start, Hartsburg didn’t come out right away. That’s not unusual though. There are times when the team has a postgame meeting or some variation of that. In my time covering the Otters, I’ve never waited more than 10-15 minutes for the coach to come out. After a brutal 6-1 loss, it was not a surprise to think some sort of meeting was happening.
But then 15 minutes by and still no sign of the coach. In fact there was no sign of the team anywhere. This was starting to get very unusual.
The Otters’ players as a team go to the main hallway on the other side of the arena to go their postgame cool down. On this night however, no one came from the locker room.
Then 30 minutes went by. Still nothing. Then 45 minutes by. By now, the Rangers were packed up and on the bus back home. It was basically an empty arena sans a couple of people. The media still waited, but that didn’t last long. One by one, thanks to either deadlines or having to go on the air, they left without speaking to coach. We were approaching a full hour of waiting for someone to appear from the locker room.
Then finally, at about 9:20 or exactly an hour after the end of the game, Hartsburg emerged from the locker room. He spoke to myself and the Otters camera feed for about three minutes. Some interesting things were said. You can watch the interview below. Hartsburg paused for over 10 seconds before answering the first question about the overall frustration level. You won’t see the pause on the video.
Coach Hartsburg’s Thoughts
“I don’t know if we’re as frustrated as I think we should be,” Hartsburg said. “I think if anything what’s happening right now is individuals frustrated at other individuals and that’s starting to show in our play, our team play. That’s why our team play hasn’t been very good the last two nights.”
Not long ago, Hartsburg said that some players wanted it so easy that they weren’t willing to pay the price. Now we have players mad and frustrated at each other. This is not a good sign at all at this point of the season. The trade deadline is Jan 9 for overage players and Jan 10 for everyone else. The question for the Otters is not if they’ll make moves, it’s how many and to whom. We’ll address this more later on.
On Sunday’s game in Kitchener: “We were brain dead. We were sloppy. Even saying that, the expected goals for and against were in our favor. Couldn’t be the same said after tonight truth be told. We wanted to clean up some things but we ran into a goalie that plays the way he does. It frustrates your group because they’re not getting rewarded offensively. But what happens now is you start cutting corners and you start cheating a little bit and everyone does something they’re not capable of doing.”
The key part to this is the cutting corners and cheating a little. It’s a sign of a frustrated team. It’s also a sign of individuals going away from the team concept. If the Otters are going to turn things around, everyone has to be on the same page. Another question I asked Hartsburg was if it was fair to think not everyone is on the same page.
“Not necessarily. I think there’s just some things that for me, it’s reassessing what’s important, putting the importance on certain things as opposed to others. I think everyone cares and everyone wants this team to be successful. I think some guys it shows in different ways but I think certain things need to change.”
Hartsburg did not elaborate on what needs to change exactly. But the main takeaway I’m having based on these comments is that things are not working both at the player level with performance and at the coaching level in trying to implement their game plan.
Not on the Same Page
It’s pretty clear this team is not all on the same page in my sight. It’s not that they don’t care or don’t want to be successful. They want nothing more than to win. But it is clear that the players aren’t seeing eye-to-eye with each other. With just 14 wins in 35 games this season, the Otters have the fewest wins in the loaded Western Conference and sit on New Year’s morning in eighth place in the 10-team conference.
While the Otters are in the middle of the pack in the overall standings, they are in danger of missing the playoffs thanks to being in the West and the weaker teams being in the East. It’s a bad position to be in for a team with higher expectations. Can this ship be turned around in a quick manner?
Their upcoming schedule doesn’t give any favors either. With a home-heavy early schedule, the road games now come fast and furious. Their next eight games include six on the road including trips to Peterborough, Kingston, Ottawa, Sarnia, Windsor and London.
Now consider that once this season ends, the contracts for the coaching staff and Dave Brown run out. There is pressure to at least make the playoffs. Until we hear news of new contracts, there’s no guarantee anyone comes back. This along with the current circumstances around the team make this deadline an interesting one.
What Moves Could Come?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s a matter of what and not a matter of if on moves. What could happen? The obvious move to me is help up front that comes at a cheap cost. They need to find a way to have a threat to score on multiple lines. They also need a veteran presence to help bring some stability to the room.
As to who that could be, it’s hard to say. With World Juniors still in motion and teams bunched up in the standings, teams still have to decide how to proceed. You can expect Brown and the Otters to add to this roster. I also think it’s reasonable to expect some other moves involving those who could be an OA next season. If we assume Max Golod, Chad Yetman and Jack Duff are back, there’s your three OA’s. Or maybe one of these players are moved for futures if a bigger change is needed.
The bottom line is this. Brown and the Otters have a tough decision to make. With players not on the same page, can they afford to hold steady? If they decide to make moves, which ones do they pursue? These next nine days will be critical to the direction this team goes.
They know how critical this part of the season is. An hour-long postgame meeting is proof of that. It was surreal waiting for them to emerge from the room. Now they have three games in four nights coming up against two of the East’s best and the team with the next phenom in Shane Wright.
Let’s see how they respond. Can they find common ground? Will they turn it around? Will other changes be considered? As of this writing, I still haven’t heard of any plans to change the coach. Obviously that could change if they continue to slide. Stay with the Hockey Writers as we’ll keep you up to date on all things Erie Otters now and as we approach the trade deadline. These next three games could determine which direction the Otters go.