While it has not been a satisfying year for the Smoke Eaters, the club was tantalizingly close to contending for a playoff spot despite the fact that the existing points deficit has put that idea away.
The team was competitive, as well as entertaining, in the first weeks of the season and it is arguable key injuries have made the difference between the Smokies being in the thick of the battle for a post-season spot and being consigned to another also-ran performance.
Trail began the season with its best contingent of local players – the core of the team, really – in about a decade. Unfortunately for the staff and the roster, two high quality junior A calibre players went mostly missing for two months. Given the Smokies were oh-so-close in so many games during that period it is likely that with a little luck on the injury front they would still be in the hunt.
Craig Martin and Dallas Calvin have missed a combined 40 games of the 39 played to date by Trail. When he has played, Martin has been the best 200-foot performer on the club. Calvin is large and skilled and often a force in the offensive end. Both are point-a-game players, despite working around physical and team familiarity issues for much of the season.
During the recent malaise, the Smoke Eaters have been involved in seven one goal losses and half a dozen others where they were tied or within a goal late in games in which they also came up short.
It is reasonable to think that the missing pieces could have been the difference in at least some, conservatively four or five, of the close contests. That’s 10 more standings points for Trail and fewer for some of the interior division rivals that have outlasted them at the end of things.
No other team has lost the services of premier players for anything like the length of time the Smoke Eaters have been missing Martin and Calvin. While some will say, “every team has injuries,” and be correct, no team has been missing top performers for so many games, and at the same time, and many teams have the wherewithal and population location to access a much deeper core of quality players when their stars drop out for a while.
Given that a major problem for Trail during an almost two-month drought in wins was a lack of scoring outside the two top-ten first liners on the squad, it is actually more-than-reasonable to think the presence of Martin and Calvin could have had a major impact on the standings table.
Early in the season the Smoke Eaters, with their top tier depth intact, were among the league leaders in special teams play. They currently sit 10th.
All of the above is to say I believe the current staff had Trail set up for a vast inprovement in play and outcomes and much of what has disappointingly transpired was really unavoidable. The team has played entertaining hockey, despite the frustrating finishes too often on tap, while helping several players achieve scholarships. Without the key injuries, and a surprising mediocrity at goaltending, this could have been a much more successfull, and extended, season.
It is mildly encouraging that tentative plans for 2015-2016 are on the table, but the books have yet to be done, so tentative is the proper word.
There are a lot of people (even some who attend games) who enjoy and benefit from having a junior A franchise operating here. I hope that remains a thing, but facts are the club does not make profits sufficient to sustain the situation.
There are still nine home games left in the Smoke Eater season, beginning with tonight and tomorrow. Just in case strong attendance – and the games are well-price local entertainment, whatever the standings – can make a difference in the year-end results, you should get out and enjoy those nine events.
You know, “Go Smokies Go,” and not to another city.