Seventeen games into the 2019-2020 QMJHL and the Saint John Sea Dogs have already experienced their fair share of ups and downs.
You could say the same for the last two seasons in the Port City.
One could go crazy fixating on the sheer numbers and stats behind the Saint John Sea Dogs rebuild.
The numbers are brutal. Nevertheless, that’s life in the Canadian Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when you are a team in junior hockey’s dreaded cycle.
Ups and downs are expected, it’s almost a guarantee, but is what’s happening in the Port City different?
Josh Dixon was hired to right the ship and bring the organization back to respectability and championship calibre. The 2019-2020 season was supposed to be the pivot point, the year in which the organization turned the corner.
So far that hasn’t been the case.
From a far the Dogs appear stuck in neutral, Dixon doesn’t see it that way.
A Growth Year
Sea Dogs Head Coach Josh Dixon sees this year as a ‘growth year’ for a young team full of potential.
So is Dixon feeling any pressure regarding job security and winning?
“I show up every day doing the best I can,” Dixon said.
“I put long hours in to make sure I’m doing everything I can to help this team have success.”
“Perspective is everything,” stressed Dixon.
“As a coaching staff, management and ownership group that this was going to be a growth year with ups and downs.”
Dixon believes his team has showed signs of turning the corner.
“Less than a week ago Saturday night, I thought we played our best game of the season beating Halifax four to one at home.”
The Sea Dogs followed their best game of the season with a stinker.
“As a young team will do, I think we took Victoriaville a little bit too lightly. We took unnecessary penalties, all four of which ended up in the back of our net.”
Dixon looks at the third period of that game being a real eye opener for his team.
“We outshot Victo 21 to 5 in the third period, they couldn’t even get out of their zone, so we certainly showed that we can more than play with them, but penalties have hurt us.”
Again the numbers aren’t good.
The Sea Dogs have the worst PK in the league at 63.2%
That’s not clearly not good enough.
The Sea Dogs dropped yet another game last night in front of the TD Station faithful,
losing 6 to 1 to the Rimouski Oceanic.
“Last night it was the same thing,” Dixon said referring to the undisciplined and untimely penalties.
“Even strength it’s a 1-1 game.”
Rimouski’s amazing trio of Cedric Pare, Alexis Lafreniere and Dmitry Zavgorodiny, had a 107 pts combined coming into the game. They left the Port City with fifteen more.
“They had thirteen points on power plays last night,” Dixon said.
“For us it’s the penalties we are taking and our inability to kill them off.”
So what’s causing the Dogs to take so many penalties?
Is it disrespect or selfish play, being out matched physically or is it not being ready to play?
“I don’t see as a disrespect thing, I think we get caught on the wrong side, not on the D side of the puck or we have a lack of control of our sticks,” admitted Dixon.
“A lot of the penalties were stick penalties, just careless use of the stick. It’s both a learning opportunity for us as coaches and it’s also emphasizing the need to have discipline.”
“We seemed to control that against Halifax, and our penalty kill in that game was a hundred percent and against Victoriaville when we turned it on we didn’t take a single penalty.”
“That shows we have the ability not to take penalties and kill them off when we really need to.”
Obviously, Dixon hasn’t liked the penalties his team has taken and said the team will address that aspect in upcoming practices.
Growing a winning culture while mired in a rebuild has to be extremely difficult for any coach especially when you have so much player turnover.
That’s par for the course for the Saint John Sea Dogs over the past three seasons.
“We have talked about culture basically every year since I’ve arrived here,” confessed Dixon.
“Every year is a different year based on the personnel, we have had a complete turnaround with regards to players,” explained Dixon.
“There’s not one player here that was here when I first took the job.”
“I look at the number of new players we have this year which is eleven, which is another big year with regards to turnaround,” admitted Dixon.
“With those new players comes setting a new culture and our focus this year is playing with a “pack mentality” and all about the strength of the group is the strength of the individual and vice versa and that’s something we have spent a lot of time working on.”
“I’ve seen some great results and I’ve seen outstanding performances and some things that make me very proud of where are culture is at and typical of a young growing team I’ve seen times when we can be better and we get away from our strengths,” explained Dixon.
“When you have perspective, you recognize you are going to have ups and downs throughout the season.”
“There are challenges every single night, no doubt about it, but that’s par for the course when you have a team as young as our team and learning how to win and fight off your own demons sometimes.”
For now it would appear the Sea Dogs have solidified their core group of players moving forward.
It’s clear the turnstile approach that happens with a rebuild can have a ripple effect on culture and the win column.
Leading the Way
Leading the way in any rebuild can be difficult especially the one in the Port City.
Some critics look at the wins and losses and question the developmental side of the current rebuild process.
The current edition is 5-11-1 through 17 games.
So the question remains, how do you develop players in a rebuild environment and as a coach what has Dixon learned about himself as a person and coach over his time with the Dogs?
“I can tell you that I really do feel I’ve grown tremendously,” Dixon said.
“I’ve experienced a number of different challenges that I couldn’t have foreseen and adversity that I hadn’t experienced prior to taking this job and literally every day it’s coming to work with the right attitude making sure I cover everything I can in terms of, not just the X’s and O’s, but player relationships, the sports psychology element of a young group and having that group refocused to learn from a tough loss or ready to learn from a game that didn’t go our way, so we can be ready to play the game the right way the next day.”
Dixon admits every season behind the bench has been dramatically different.
“The first the season was essentially a tear down in terms that we didn’t have any returning players from that team that went to the Memorial Cup, the ones that were, were traded away.”
Dixon is quick to point out that Sea Dog team lost twenty-five one-goal games that season.
“We competed hard that year, but we weren’t just good enough to win. Last year you saw a team that was extremely young, the youngest in the CHL really have a hard time in the early part of the season adjust to the league.”
Dixon believes last years group took tremendous strides in early Decemeber.
“After the 68th game we were in the playoffs waiting to see what happened with Shawinigan,” Dixon added.
“I think we showed a tremendous amount of growth.”
We all know what happened next.
The Cataractes made the playoffs and beat the Huskies twice in their first round President Cup Playoff series only to fall to the eventual President Cup and Memorial Cup Champions in 6 games.
So what about this years version of the Dogs?
“We have seen some real ups and some real downs at the same time,” confessed Dixon.
“We have played really well, but our inability at times to follow up on strong performances and to put those together in consecutive game after game stretches needs to improve and at the same time we have bounced back from really tough losses to play some really good hockey.”
“Overall this season, I feel we are better than our record,” Dixon said.
What needs to change?
Josh Dixon points to the absence of Maxim Cajkovic as being a major blow to the current Sea Dogs team.
“It hurts us,” Dixon said.
“You have to think conservatively if he would even have five goals to this point, five more goals equals probably two or three more wins for us.”
“There’s always factors, we are continuing to stay focused on getting better every day despite the factors that exist.”
So with so many new faces and young talent coming into the organization how difficult is it as a coach to ensure they all have success and fulfil their role?
“As a coach you have to recognize you are obliged to make sure you are developing players that are young players having a great amount of potential that we see as being able to help us win a championship down the road.”
Dixon believes you have to give young players the opportunity to grow and development in all situations.
“You have to give them some rope and allow them to make a mistake and then allow them to get back out there and try to learn from those mistakes, we don’t have the luxury of having a team full of 18 and 19-year-old players with a lot of experience in the league who can cover for those young players.”
“There is some trial by fire, but ultimately we understand that as a group.”
“We are developing these young players and the young core we have. That doesn’t mean if they have a bad game or play to their potential over the course of three or four periods that we aren’t going to play them, we are going to continue to play them and continue to develop them and that’s my job as the coach.”
So to date would Dixon have done anything different to this point in his tenure with the Dogs?
“That’s always a hindsight answer.”
“Of course when things happen and you see the result you think ok, which I do on a daily basis you reflect and think in that situation maybe I would have tried this or we could have done that.”
“I have no doubt in the preparation to ensure we were ready to go for this season, it was a very long off season and a lot of time was spent trying to make myself better and trying to make the coaching staff better and trying to ensure we had a system that would allow the personnel we have based on a young team to be competitive in hockey games on a nightly basis and have success,” stressed Dixon.
“I feel we are prepared and that every day we do our best to ensure it’s a positive environment, a development environment and we challenge the players every day to bring their best and to be at their best and continue to get better.”
“That’s the biggest thing you control is that every day we have that mindset to continue to get better, this is a journey we are all on now, a journey to build a championship calibre team with a championship calibre culture and that’s going to take time.”
“It’s a growth year and with any type of growth, progress isn’t always as quick as you would like to see.”