Wranglers still looking for initial victory

Wranglers still looking for initial victory

As they approach the midway point of their inaugural season in the Northern Pacific Hockey League, the Rogue Valley Wranglers have experienced a taste of most everything a typical junior hockey club goes through in the course of a season.

There have been injuries, major and minor, player turnover, exhausting road trips, practices that began before dawn and others that go well into the evening, and even a coaching change. The one thing the team has yet to experience, however, is a victory.

In 22 starts, the Wranglers have an equal number of losses entering tonight's game in Seattle against the first-place Totems. Those losses have come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from an overtime defeat earlier this season to a 23-1 blowout loss in their last time out.

They've squandered a three-goal, third-period lead one night and trailed by eight at the first intermission on another. They've been outshot and outshot their opponents. But the end result has always been the same.

"It's definitely difficult," says Nate Schursky, the team's leading goal scorer with 15 goals and 22 points. "Frustrations are at their highest."

Depth and inexperience have been the team's biggest downfalls.

"We have a total of two years of (junior) experience on our team," says Kevin Schwartz, who added the coaching duties to his general manager title eight games into the season. "The average team has 16 years of experience."

"I don't think we have a problem with the skill level on this team," Schwartz adds. "We're talented enough to win as individuals. It's just a matter of putting it together."

A look at the league statistics provides a glimpse into the Wranglers' shortcomings. The team is allowing 9.4 goals per game — far and away the most — and leads the league in penalty minutes at 1,004 (45.6 per game), meaning the team is shorthanded more often than not.

"We're really struggling on defense," admits Schursky, a natural forward who has played some along the blue-line this season. "You shouldn't have to score six goals to win."

Goaltenders Nick Cafrellli (0-10, 7.00 GA, .853 save percentage) and Josh Powell (0-6, 8.29 GAA, .839 save percentage) have had their moments, but all too often are left naked against odd-man rushes and face multiple shots when defensemen fail to clear the puck out of their own zone.

"Our goalies are seeing 60 shots a game," says Schwartz. "If they're seeing 20-30 shots, they can keep us in any game."

Such futility, while rare, is not without precedent. The 2005-06 Kent, Wash., team went 0-44, failing to win a single game all season.

This season, Yellowstone, of the America West Division, is 2-17, while Coeur d'Alene is just 3-20, with two of its wins coming against the Wranglers, one of which included rallying from a 5-2 third-period deficit for a 6-5 victory. That came less than a week after the Wranglers lost another lead late at Puget Sound and were beaten in overtime.

"I'm not surprised that a first-year team has an 0-22 record," says captain David Giguere, who is second on the team in scoring (11 goals, 21 points) despite missing two games last month with a broken hand. "But there were games this year we could have won, should have won.

"Sometimes it's a lack of heart. As soon as the opponent scores one goal, everyone lets up."

The bright spots have been the scoring of Schursky and the all-around play of Giguere and Clayton Lewis (seven goals, 17 points), who was acquired in a mid-October deal with Eugene.

"We haven't had any consistency on our lines," Schursky says. "We're always trying out new lines."

The team has added three new players to bring the current roster to 22, which should help address the issue of fatigue that cost the team in several games earlier this season. And Schwartz said there could be more additions during the holidays.

"We do need some more defensive players," Schwartz says. "We're playing with five. I'd like to see seven.

"We need to play a more defensive style of hockey, forwards included."

Schwartz, who is the team's co-owner along with Ron Brett, will stay behind the bench for the remaining 26 games, but may look for a new coach during the offseason.

"The two jobs make it tough," Schwartz says. "Regardless of the win-loss record, it would be detrimental to bring someone else in (this season)."

In spite of the record, Schwartz insists the club is making progress, citing improved passing and puck movement in recent weeks.

"We've taken a pretty basic step, but it's something we couldn't do at the beginning of the season," Schwartz says.

Perhaps Schwartz's biggest task may be keeping the players belief in themselves as the losses mount.

"No one's given up hope," Schwartz says. "They've all seen that they can compete. It's putting together an entire 60 minutes of hockey, which we haven't been able to do yet."

And what will it take to break through to score the franchise's historic first victory?

"It'll take everything we've got," Giguere says.

Reach Mark Vinson at 776-4499, or e-mail

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