It has been an interesting and entertaining first half of the season for the Trail Smoke Eaters and their fans.
Following two tough losses to the Cranbrook Bucks Dec. 17 and 18, Trail sits in sixth spot in the Interior Conference with a 12-10-1-0 record, just two points behind Cranbrook and Prince George.
“I thought up until this weekend we were right in the thick of things, and we still are,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Tim Fragle. “But definitely, extremely disappointed with our last two games against Cranbrook. I thought Friday’s home game was our worst performance of the year.”
Despite the losses to their Kootenay rival, there are several good reasons for fans to remain positive heading into 2022.
The Smoke Eaters’ offensive output is fourth best in the Interior Conference, with 86 goals scored, an average of almost four goals per game. Trail has seen a potent group of snipers emerge led by Zach Michaelis (18G-12A-30Pts), Brady Hunter (10-20-30) and Teddy Lagerback (13-11-24) with 11 players in double-digits for points.
“Offensively, we have pretty good depth, we can score throughout our forward group, and our defence has helped that as well.” said Fragle.
Special teams have also been a bright spot for the Smoke Eaters. The power play has performed well scoring at a 26.1 per cent clip, good for seventh best overall, as well as the penalty kill, fifth best in the league, at 81.1 per cent.
Points-wise, the Smoke Eaters are in the middle of the pack, 10th overall in the BCHL, but have competed in every game. They forced the league-leading Penticton Vees to overtime in their first meeting and played them tight in the first two periods of their second game tied 3-3, before losing steam in the third. It happened again on Saturday (Dec. 18) when they held a 3-1 lead in the second only to succumb 4-3 to the Bucks.
Which brings us to the head coach’s Christmas wish list for the new year.
“Number 1, we have improve our 60-minute effort,” said Fragle. “I’m finding in games we are playing a good 40 to 45 minutes but there’s these lapses in the game, even in some of our wins, but in the losses where you just can’t recover from. We need to play more of a 60-minute effort and we need an improved committment to team defence.”
Coincidentally, they’ve also allowed 86 pucks into the net for a goal differential of zero, eighth in the conference and 12th overall.
Goaltender Evan Fradette has carried a heavy load starting 20 of 23 games this season and posting a respectable 3.58 goals-against average, and a .907 save percentage.
The Saint Albert native has played the second most minutes in the league, 1,172, behind only Cooper Black of the Nanaimo Clippers, who has played 15 more minutes. Fradette has faced more shots, 753, than any goalie in the league, for an average of 37-plus shots per game; a number the Smoke Eaters coach would like to see reduced in the new year.
“It’s not necessarily our defensive core, but our team defence in general,” said Fragle. “We need a better commitment to playing better defensive zone coverage and better play without the puck. That’s what I’ve been harping on prior to the break, we weren’t able to make strides, our hope is to improve overall team defence.”
As for the first-half performance, Fragle likes the way the team has competed and is confident the Smoke Eaters can make the adjustments necessary for a deep and successful playoff run.
“You don’t want to peak in November and December, we want to play our best hockey in February, March and April when it really matters,” said Fragle. “We’ve seen some snapshots of really good hockey from our team that we like – we would be a hard team to beat in a seven-game series.
“That’s still the mindset, but we’re not going to win a playoff series if we’re not committed to playing good team defence, and that’s the biggest thing I come back to, and that’s just a buy in – we need a buy in from the boys on that front.”
Other than forward Christian Lowe and goalie Cayden Hamming, whose status is still uncertain, Trail has avoided the injury bug; still, the holidays will be a welcome break for both players and coaches.
“This is a mental refresh, more than a physical,” said Fragle. “I’m hopeful we will have a renewed energy level when everyone gets back from the break.”
The Smoke Eaters return to action on Dec. 31 in Cranbrook vs the Bucks, before returning on Jan. 1 when they will host the Bucks with a special 5 p.m. start time at the Trail Memorial Centre.