NORTH BAY, Ont. – Stan Butler made no bones about it: The North Bay Battalion’s season was frustrating and disappointing.
North Bay finished with a won-lost-extended record of 24-38-6 for 54 points, fourth in the Ontario Hockey League’s Central Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the Niagara IceDogs, who claimed the eighth and last conference playoff berth.
The Battalion, beset by injuries in its fourth season in the Gateway City, missed the playoffs for the third time in its 19-year history. The Troops failed to qualify in their expansion season of 1998-99 and battled injuries in 2001-02, when they missed the playoffs in the last of four seasons in the Western Conference’s Midwest Division.
“This was probably my most frustrating year as a coach,” Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach since the club’s inception, said Tuesday. The season ended Sunday with a 5-4 loss to the visiting Kingston Frontenacs.
“We lost games to teams below us in the standings and we lost games we needed to win, and the lack of focus and effort in practice caught up with us as the season progressed. It was a really tough season and a little bit humbling. When you’ve always made the playoffs, you assume you always will.
“Our fans in North Bay are extremely disappointed, and so are we. We put a lot of hours into this job and work really hard. It’s been a long time since I haven’t been in the playoffs, so to say this is tough to deal with is an understatement.”
Butler had 17 players return from a squad that was swept by the Barrie Colts in a conference semifinal a year ago.
“We had high expectations. In our first three years here, we went to at least the second round. I thought we had, on paper anyway, a decent team going into the season. I didn’t have a crystal ball; I didn’t know the type of injuries we were going to have.”
Injuries struck the defence and goaltending hardest, starting in earnest Dec. 9 when rearguard Cam Dineen, a first-team all-rookie choice in 2015-16, was run by Robbie Burt of the host Oshawa Generals and required season-ending knee surgery. Defenceman and captain Riley Bruce incurred a season-ending shoulder injury Jan. 15 in a fight with Curtis Douglas of the visiting Barrie Colts. Brady Lyle missed 10 games with a cut to a leg suffered Jan. 12, and fellow blueliner Eric Allair played only 16 games, largely because of an ailing back.
Rookie goaltender Mat Woroniuk was unavailable for 23 games after incurring a knee injury Nov. 24, and overage partner Brent Moran didn’t dress for the next seven games after leaving an eventual 4-2 road loss Nov. 26 to the Erie Otters with a shoulder problem.
Butler used rookie forward Daniel Walker in spot duty on defence, also drawing on Eric Nagy, Bo Peltier and Dayton Murray of the affiliated Powassan Voodoos of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League. Goaltender Julian Sime was signed Nov. 29 from the Mississauga Chargers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League and stayed the season, making 21 appearances.
“With so few players, you’re pretty helpless,” noted Butler. “You learn how good a player Dineen is. We lost Bruce, and Lyle was out for a while. We still don’t know what’s wrong with Allair; we think he’ll be a good player.
“We had some challenges and we had so few players there was nothing we could do as coaches. We might have three healthy defencemen, Walker and three guys from the Voodoos, and it’s hard to win when your goalies have save percentages less than .890.
“You expect the big save when you need it, and we were probably spoiled a little bit with Jake Smith here for three years. Our guys this year tried really hard, but it was tough on them too. A lot of games we dressed five defencemen, and you don’t even have partners. We talked to the kids yesterday, and they mentioned how it’s hard to get continuity when you’re always going on the ice with a different guy.”
As frustrating as events on the ice were, Butler acknowledged that some off-ice issues require correction.
“We need to change the culture of the team to get it back to where it was the first three years here, and some of that will happen just by people moving on. We need to make some other decisions that will make our room and team understand the type of work it takes. I tried to warn them all season that, if they cut corners in practice, it will come back and haunt them in games. It didn’t seem to get through.”
Butler said he’s always been able to count on veterans to help a team regain focus.
“I felt there were times this season where we had guys who looked at practice as punishment. To me, elite players have a special talent to work hard. Maybe last season, when guys like Mike Amadio, Mathew Santos, Kyle Wood and Smith were here, players knew they had no choice but to work hard. This season, I didn’t understand the logic of some guys. I felt there should be more motivation.”
Butler said he now will shift attention to the OHL Priority Selection on April 8, in which North Bay has the third pick, the first OHL Under-18 Priority Selection for players who played midget this season, where it also will have the third choice, and the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, in which it will pick seventh.
“I’m going to work hard this summer to make sure we do our best in each of the three drafts and that we have a culture on our team that’s the Battalion culture we’ve had since I’ve been there.”