The leadership of the Florida Junior Blades had a vision for a key change, even after what would generally be considered an incredibly successful start for the franchise.
In its first three years, Florida won three regular-season championships and made it to nationals twice. But the Junior Blades felt the disappointment of a semifinal elimination from the Empire League playoffs last year and tried to come up with a plan on how to avoid having that happening again.
“Last season, we had a very strong team, but we were front-heavy,” said Junior Blades general manager Tad O’Had, who was the coach last season. “As we got deep into the playoffs, we had a few players who worked very hard. They logged a lot of minutes and scored a large majority of our points.
“We had a double-overtime loss to the Boston Junior Bruins in the playoffs, and one of the reasons was we were relying so heavily on a small group of guys to contribute offensively.”
When O’Had moved up to become assistant coach with the professional Florida Everblades, Todd Pococke moved up from assistant coach to head coach of the Junior Blades and Tyler Carlston came on as assistant coach. Together, they formulated a plan to create a team that was harder to defend and less susceptible to wearing out key players.
“That was one of the things Todd and Tyler discussed early in the year in training camp,” O’Had said. “In the past, the guys that we had on the power play maybe would also be on the PK and play a regular shift.
“We had regular-season success, but maybe people burned out a little bit. One of the things we looked at was let’s have our power-play guys and let’s have our PK and let’s work on really sharing some of those minutes throughout.”
Pococke stayed committed to that ideal and the players have produced to make it work remarkably well.
The Junior Blades set a series of franchise records, including a late 21-game winning streak and finished up the first season of the Empire Division of the United States Premier Hockey League as the Western Conference champion. Their 37-1-0-2 record was the best among the 24 Empire teams and their 61 goals allowed, with the help of workhouse and division statistical leader among goalies Eric Sugrue, was by far the best.
“Eric has been with us the last few years and he has continued to blossom,” O’Had said of the 21-year-old from nearby Naples, Fla.
Florida also built the Empire’s third-highest scoring team, despite not having any of its top 26 individual scorers.
“We have four lines contributing,” O’Had said. “You always have a strategy or plan, but it doesn’t always come to life. The players have done a great job of all carrying the load at different times.”
The Junior Blades had four players within two points of each other at the top of the team scoring list. Chaise Howard led the way with 18 goals and 24 assists in 39 games. Trevor Mullaly added 41 points. Austin Hefferin, who had a team-high 20 goals, and Shane Visnick, who tied Howard for the assist lead among forwards, each added 40 points. Defenseman Jacob Leonard had a team-high 27 assists while also contributing four goals.
Howard is a hometown player from Estero, while Mullaly, Visnick and Leonard are also from Florida. Hefferin came to the program from Maryland.
While no one on the team was relied on for more than 42 points, the Blades got at least 30 points from six players, at least 21 points from 11 players and at least 14 points from 17 players.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Pococke said in a story on the league website after the Junior Blades produced a pair of shutouts in the final weekend of the regular season. “We prepare for every game with intensity and a desire to win. The players know what it takes.”
That attitude and the team’s make-up has O’Had looking forward to the postseason, which begins with the USPHL Empire playoffs in Wayne, N.J.
“The whole focus is that, hopefully, come the playoffs and nationals, we’re able to be cruising on all cylinders to go as far as we can,” he said.
O’Had said Pococke and Carlston have stayed true to the team’s preseason vision.
“To Todd and Tyler’s credit, they’re doing a phenomenal job balancing out the responsibilities, and it looks like we’ll continue to have legs into playoffs and hopefully into nationals,” O’Had said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.