The Espanola Express may still sit at the bottom of league standings in the NOJHL, but head coach Dave Clancy believes his team is taking strides in the right direction.
“It’s a complete rebuild for us,” Clancy said of his team, owner of a 7-28-0-0 record and 14 points prior to Thursday’s contest in Elliot Lake. “I’m real happy with how things are going. We’ve been competitive all season, just haven’t won that many hockey games.”
Expectations were tempered entering this season, as the club looked to complete a near full overhaul of its roster.
“Every team wants to make the playoffs and for us, it’s no different,” Clancy said. “We’re still shooting for it. That’s our goal in the long run. But the biggest thing was to rebuild the organization, getting some assets, helping this team build towards the future.
“We’re really happy with the team we have for next year and the year after. We need to persuade players to stick around for the next year or two. I think the outlook looks bright for the organization.”
As the Express prepared for 2018-19, Clancy said, they had only three returning players.
“And very little assets to work with,” Clancy said. “When you’re trying to find 20 hockey players, it’s a tough chore to do. So, next year, if we can talk eight, nine, 10 of our guys into coming back, which I’m pretty sure we can, then I’ll only be looking for 10 players for next year, which is a lot easier to do.
“We have players we can also trade off and acquire new players.”
For the most part, the Espanola roster is built around 18-year-olds.
“But we have some really good players,” Clancy said.
Clancy pointed to young talent in forwards Chase Lammi, a Sudbury native, Mitchell Lee of Elora, and goaltender Joel Rainville of Sturgeon Falls as some of the pieces the Express will look to lean on going forward.
Lammi, who played last season with the Sudbury Wolves minor midgets, has nine goals and 13 assists, good for 22 points in 32 games, while Lee has scored seven goals and added 12 assists, for 19 points in 34 games.
Rainville, a goaltender for the North Bay Trappers last season, has six wins on the season.
“We have some really good assets who are playing really well in the league,” Clancy said. “Hopefully, we can have them go for another season.”
Clancy said the Express need to learn how to play as a cohesive unit.
“All 23 guys need to take part in becoming a whole group instead of individualism,” Clancy said. “They’re really starting to buy into playing as a team.”
Case in point, the Express’s 8-3 dismantling of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians last week. The offence is coming, Clancy said.
“It’s about learning to get pucks in deep, getting pucks into the other team’s end,” Clancy said. “At the beginning of the year, we were averaging something like 20 shots on net a game, and we’ve bumped that total in the last month to about 30. And we’re starting to put more pucks in the net.
“I’ve got a hard-working group. They never take the night off, which is a good thing. Do we have all of the skill in the world? No, we don’t, but learning to play as a group, sometimes it’s not skill that wins, sometimes it’s learning how to play as a team, as a group, and that’s starting to get done.”
While the Express learn to play as a solid unit, also Clancy expressed his desire for the team to step up its play late in games.
“The third periods have been our downfall,” Clancy said. “We have to learn to close out games.”
Clancy, a Sudbury native with over 25 years of coaching experience, decided to step down from his head coach duties with the Canadians early last season. He viewed the rebuilding Express as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I had never coached outside of Sudbury,” Clancy said. “My brother had coached in Espanola about 20-some years back, so I took a look at it. I was looking for a different opportunity.”
And he’s enjoyed the experience so far.
“I have a strong staff with me, which makes all the difference in the world,” Clancy said. “It’s a complete staff effort, from the trainers, right up to the coaching staff. With the group, we’d grown with this team, and we hope to grow a bit further with it.”
The rebuilding Express caused Clancy to adapt.
“I had to adjust to not winning as many games as I’m used to winning,” Clancy said. “At times, it gets frustrating as much for the coaching staff as the players, so we have to move on and work past that, realizing that it’s more of a process, more of looking towards the future.
“It’s patience and an understanding of where the team was and where we want to get it.”
Leaving Rayside is a decision Clancy doesn’t regret.
“I have no hard feelings towards Rayside at all,” Clancy said. “I was hoping they would win last year. I recruited a lot of those players. There’s no hard feelings there. It was a choice I made with Adrian (Gedye, former owner), to go in different directions.”
The Express will host the Soo Thunderbirds on Friday at 7:30 p.m.