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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ravens Getting Used to the Glare


February 7, 2013
By Clive Turner, Brampton Chronicle

When Rock Ryan intercepted a cross ice pass from Jason Spezza to Jordan Eberle with the Ottawa Senators on a late power play that could have tied the game, the Ravens knew they had officially turned the corner.

“It used to be that we couldn’t hold on to those leads,” explained Ryan’s teammate, captain Nicklas Backstrom. “We’d always been able to score, but when it came time to defend those leads…we’d be running around like headless chickens. Which is why having Rock has been so great for us…he acts like a third defenceman, helping protect our net and plays with a lot of poise, so we don’t worry about leads anymore. You saw that against Ottawa.”

…and the Buffalo Bills…and the San Jose Sharks…and MODO HC. Add to that an already impressive East Cup first half that saw them achieve a 17-2 first half record (on track to smash Brampton’s high water mark for wins at 25 and already bettering the team’s historical average of 16), with wins over the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders and suddenly the hockey world is starting to take Brampton seriously, and not just as the butt of hippie jokes from our “Flower City” moniker. For a team that had been far too long caught in the long shadow of their geographic rival the Leafs, not helped at all by a constant mediocrity in the team's 30-plus year history in the East, the success is a welcome change of pace.

For a time, it used to be just you guys, said Daniel Cranston to me, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Sun...heck, not even the Caledon or Mississauga press gave us any ink before this year. Now we have half the globe covering our stories. Cranston finished with a smug smile. I like it.

Cranston isn't the only one enjoying the notoriety that comes with success. Ryan, who has always been outgoing, mentions that now he doesn't have to wait in line to get into any of the Greater Toronto Area's best nightclubs. Daniel Briere mentioned that now bakeries are sending him free cookies after learning that his son likes to search the house for them. Todd Marchand said the area's top steakhouses don't ask him for ID anymore as they already know who he is. Finally, Martin Rucinsky, who cashed in with a new contract last summer, said that the team's new windfall has allowed him to explore his newest hobby- rearing cougars.

Even though they could bite my head off with one bite, said Rucinsky, stroking Bear, his newest cougar, they're really soft and cuddly, he explained.

We were lucky to get to two-thirds capacity, said Ken Bryant, the Ravens' longtime play-by-play announcer for local broadcaster Rogers TV. Now the stadium fills every night...it's a beautiful arena. It already boasted a plethora of fluara but the team's success has meant we can add more plants...it really adds to this neat jungle vibe you get in the arena, and one of the reasons I love coming here to work. Oh, and yes, finally we have fans who are engaged and cheering the team on wildly...just yesterday I saw someone wearing a Raven costume proudly flapping his wings, and at one game, someone else dressed as Edgar Allen Poe. Of course, I could never forget the lady who flashed her breasts for the TV cameras and showed us her Raven tattoo she had across her chest, which provided adequate 'coverage'...TV had fun with that, Bryant finished in his dulect baritone, smiling.

Much of the turnaround this season can be attributed to the signing of Ryan and similarly rock-like Mattias Loppi in the offseason to identical $9.45 million, three-year deals. The team already had a young nucleus of offensive weapons in the form of Backstrom, Cranston and Mike Richards, so the focus of the offseason was shoring up the defensive side of the game. Ryan and Loppi, although accomplished at the lower league level, were darkhorse bets by coach and General Manager Perry White, with many thinking the price tag for those two was too high considering neither had proven themselves against elite talent.

“When you’re us,” explained White, “constricted in your resources because you’re not a Toronto or a Buffalo, you have to search for those hidden gems. It’s a gamble, and one I wish I didn’t have to always make…but it’s reality for us. Fortunately, we snagged ourselves some great impact players and they even look like bargains.”

Arguably, the value of Ryan and Loppi can’t be measured in pure dollars and sense, although it’s being reported that, for the first time in its East Cup history, the Ravens are scheduled to make a healthy profit. That’s because both players bring to the team what they’ve lacked for years, and that’s character role players who are willing to do the dirty work so the offensive guys can have the room to operate.

“Both Rock and Matti give us forwards who are deep-lying,” explained White. “They’re made out of the Bob Gainey/Mike Peca mould in that they’re defence-first, offence-second type forwards that help out our blueline clear pucks from the front of the net or along the boards. It helps that both have the size to make life difficult for opposing forwards and while neither are that great of skaters, they are quick enough to engage on the offensive side if need be. They’ve been real gems.”

To wit: the Ravens boast the stingiest defence in the East, allowing just 50 goals for an average of just barely two and a half goals per game, and least the East in plus-minus differential with +56 on the strength of 106 goals (or roughly five and half goals per game), second in the East. That the team had reached the lofty offensive heights are not surprising, but the defence is. In the five years prior to this one, the Ravens hovered around the even +/- mark, allowing and scoring roughly five goals a game with the worst year being 2007-08 when they averaged four goals a game and allowed an average of six. Repeating their remarkable two-way play in inter-league play only underscores that this team really *is* for real.

We really believe that we can beat anyone, said Briere. That's the first time in a long time that we can say that with a straight face and not have it be a boring cliche.

The Ravens certainly have a history with cliches. Before White took over in 2006, the Ravens oscillated from years of respectable competitiveness at best to middling insufficiency at worst, with more of the latter occuring. That's because, even with Brampton's limited budget, previous Raven management believed they had to spend with the Leafs in order to beat them, leading to a zero sum game. White changed that, focusing on youth and player development as a method to get ahead, a move that has allowed Brampton to operate far more cheaply and effectively.

Everyone knows young players are less expensive than veterans, explained White, who started the transformation process with the signing of Backstrom as his first move. However, if you cultivate them from a young age, you can foster a sense of loyalty to the team and, hopefully, when the time comes for them to negotiate their next contract, their loyalty will keep them from making exorbitant demands. Players are all about winning, and if you can foster an environment where players believe they can win, they'll buy into whatever system you're running, as long as you're reasonable.

White's cautious approach has paid dividends, as Brampton's win totals have improved every year and so have the profit margins. It's allowed White to work in a few more veteran moves every year because now he can finally afford them, although he acknowledges the team still has a long way to go.

We're still not yet at the point where we can convince just about anyone to come here, said White. Financially, while we can finally offer veterans competitive contracts, we still have to do quite a bit of convincing to get them to sign, since we can't offer the most dollars. White then lamented. It sucks, since teams like us work our tails off but teams like the Sabres can post $200 million budgets without much effort...but that's the way the hockey world works. There's not much we can do to change the system since it's a worldwide thing, so the only thing we can do is work within it.

For now, though, White is content to ride out the success. The Ravens' core is fortunately signed through the next few seasons, so the team has the opportunity to stay intact. Still, the financial disparity is something White hopes gets addressed soon, since he can't justify spending the entire player budget every year.

In the meantime, though, at least Brampton has something growing that isn't a flower- and the team hopes it keeps on going.

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