Beseeched by injuries and at times relying on affiliate players to fill out a full lineup, the Tri-City Americans had one of their most challenging seasons in the last seven years.
The Americans finished fifth in the Western Conference with a 40-27-2-3 (85 points) record, five points behind fourth-place Spokane.
Tri-City then dropped its first-round playoff series to the Chiefs, 4-1. It was the first time since 2007 that the Americans lost in the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Americans general manager Bob Tory said. “We lost a lot of high-profile players. We knew when they left it would be a transition year, but we came into the year having some high standards and expectations. I’m really impressed with the development of some of our younger players, and we faced a lot of adversity with injuries. The message to the players is that’s part of hockey and you have to play through that, and for the most part I think we did that.”
The Americans tied a Western Hockey League record with 40 or more wins in seven consecutive seasons, and they advanced to the playoffs for the 10th year in a row. But with the high expectations from winning four U.S. Division titles in five years, bowing out in the first round is not acceptable.
“I told the coaches, the training staff and the players, the expectations are very high and we can’t let that slip,” Tory said. “We can’t be happy with losing in the first round of the playoffs. We made some critical errors on some things in the playoffs that cost us goals. Credit to Spokane, they were the better team in the series, but our expectations going into the series were to win it and we fell short.
“When a player puts the jersey on here, we expect a lot of them, we ask a lot of them and we all have to take responsibility that we aren’t playing today.”
The Americans got off to a good start to the season, winning nine of their first 14 games, including a 5-1 record on their Eastern road swing.
Then the injuries hit. Phil Tot played just 15 games before suffering a concussion Oct. 26 at Seattle. Myriad injuries limited forward Ryan Chynoweth to just 37 games, then the big blow came in mid-January when starting goalie Eric Comrie was shelved with a hip injury that required season-ending surgery.
“It starts off with Phil Tot. People forgot about him, he was injured so early in the year,” Tory said. “He was brought in to play on that top line with (Justin) Feser. He was a point-a-game guy, and that was a huge blow to our lineup. A number of guys had injuries, but the biggest one was to Eric Comrie.”
Luke Lee-Knight already had replaced Brenden Fiebelkorn, who quit in early November. But it was past the trade deadline, and Tory couldn’t make a deal of any kind. He brought Troy Trombley up off the affiliate list, and the two finished out the season.
“Credit to Luke Lee-Knight and Troy Trombley, who came in and won 20 games for us after we lost our starting goalie,” Tory said. “They both gave us everything they had. If you look at the last game, Troy played as well as he possible could to win that game. Unfortunately, Luke got hurt (dislocated shoulder) in that overtime game and we had to put a goalie in cold.
“Those are things that test the character of your hockey club. We had some guys play an awful lot of minutes, not only down the stretch, but in the playoffs. We just didn’t have enough to get past Spokane.”
The Americans lost the equivalent of almost 200 games to injuries during the regular season and playoffs. Tory bought in 13 different affiliate players to plug the holes, which will pay dividends in the future.
“For those kids to play, and play significant minutes, and for some of them to be around for the playoffs and see the intensity and what you have to take your game to, (that) will prepare them for training camp,” Tory said. “We know those players a little bit better, and they know what they need to do to get stronger and better.”
The Americans lose overage players Feser, Jesse Mychan and Drydn Dow. They also released Lee-Knight, who will be an overage player next season.
“It’s only fair to him,” Tory said. “We wouldn’t carry him as an overage goalie. We will put him on waivers when that time comes. Not many guys would have come back to a team that released him. We can’t thank him enough. He was a great teammate.”
Feser, the team captain, set the WHL Iron Man record at 321 consecutive games. He also scored 106 points and was named a Western Conference first-team all-star.
“He’s very soft spoken,” Tory said of Feser, who played five full years with the Americans. “He comes to the rink everyday, goes about his duties and gives everything he’s got. He plays hurt, plays tired, plays forward, plays defense. He did whatever he could to help the team win. Hopefully he will get a tryout with an AHL team, but he has five years of education in the bank and a lot of high-profile schools in Canada pursuing him.”
The Americans return a plethora of talent, including overage defensemen Zach Yuen and Mitch Topping, and forwards Connor Rankin, Malte Strömwall, Parker Bowles, Brian Williams and Beau McCue.
“We’ve got a good core coming back,” Tory said. “We return most of our blue line, and add in (Brandon) Carlo, (Parker) Wotherspoon and (Riley) Hillis into the mix, there will be some battles. And Brodie Clowes (separated shoulder limited him to two games) will be back. Probably 10 defensemen competing for seven jobs.
“In goal, Eric will be the guy, but Troy and Evan Sarthou will be battling for the backup job. I told Troy it will hard to be a backup at 19, and that he has to come in and fight for ice time.”
The only hiccups in the plan could come if Yuen signs with the Winnipeg Jets and they pull him up, if Strömwall doesn’t return from Sweden, and the possibility of upgrading the overage position.
“We don’t know if Zach will sign or not,” Tory said. “With the Europeans, you never know what their plans are going into the summer. We would expect both back, but there is a chance Malte could sign in Europe and stay and play. We expect Michal (Plutnar) back. We will analyze that as the summer goes on.”