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Published: Friday, 1/23/2004

Despite moves, Toledo just very average

BY DAN SAEVIG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Second-quarter grades for the Toledo Storm, wondering when the organization will officially lift the word interim from the title of head coach Nick Vitucci.

• Nothing ever changes at the Sports Arena.

The scoreboard still breaks down, fans get plunked by pucks that fly over the short glass along the side boards, and the Zamboni is Hockey Hall of Fame material.

The same can t be said when discussing its primary tenant.

In a little more than two years the Storm has gone from out of the playoffs, to a Brabham Cup championship, to a club that would again miss postseason play if it were to begin today.

After a 9-8-1 record in the first quarter, Toledo went 7-10-3 - including a five-game losing streak - to sit two games under .500 at mid-season.

In between grading periods, team management fired coach Steve Harrison, named assistant coach Nick Vitucci as the interim bench boss, and last week traded three members of the 2002-03 team: Brandon Fleenor, Wes Mason and Grady Moore.

Toledo plays 19 of its remaining 34 games at One Main Street, but the club is a pedestrian 8-8-1 on home ice so far this season.

Here s how Vitucci and The Blade s beat writer assess the second quarter:

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Vitucci: “Personally, my year so far. I m happy to have a job, but maybe disappointed I wasn t hired in the first place. As an assistant coach I was happy to have a job and helping a team try to win. I went from being an emergency backup goaltender in a 6-1 loss [to Trenton on Dec. 19] to the next day, trying to find a new backup goaltender.”

Saevig: It didn t take Storm vice president and general manager Mike Miller very long to admit he made a mistake in hiring Harrison to replace Claude Noel, who advanced to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League during the summer. Miller pointed out - correctly - that the team had quit on its new leader and made a change.

The players never accepted Harrison. They liked him as a person but didn t respect him as a coach. Publicly, they questioned his ability to motivate players. Privately, they raised doubts about his ability to break down the technical side of the game and point out mistakes as they happened. Invariably, one of the returnees would mention Noel. The sentence would then end with, “He s the best coach I ve ever had.”

BIGGEST

DISAPPOINTMENT

Vitucci: “Overall team defense, especially our defensemen. Not a knock on the guys we have now, but Harrison and I, starting the year knowing that we d have a Fleenor and a Grady Moore returning from last year s team, that, with the addition of a couple of young defensemen, would be a pretty solid core. As it turned out it wasn t the case. We ve relied on Jason Jozsa and some of our other younger defensemen to be our top guys.”

Saevig: The power-play, which has stunk all year. The new acquisitions - three-time ECHL defenseman of the year Tom Nemeth and forwards Jim Abbott, Marco Charpentier and Chris Gignac - should make a difference when they have time to practice together. If Toledo s man-advantage unit was better than 27th out of 31 teams, its record would be too.

Fleenor and Mason were mentioned here last time, and they re gone. Key components of the Brabham Cup squad, both at times seemed like they weren t as interested this time around.

Like the hockey club, attendance has fallen off. After totaling an announced average of 3,758 in the first quarter, the number has fallen to 3,679. It s pretty simple: If you win a lot and fight a little, the fans will come. If you fight a lot and win a little they ll be there also. If you re like this year s team and don t win while standing 29th overall in major penalties, well, that might help explain all the empty chair-backs.

TEAM MAKEUP/

RECRUITING

Vitucci: “I think we re one hard-nosed defenseman away from where I want to be.”

Saevig: The acquisitions Toledo made last week immediately improved the talent level. A forward with speed can take Nemeth wide, but what a difference he has made already in every area of the backline. The other three can snipe, and as long as they take care of business defensively, should be positive additions.

Talent goes a long way, but as was proven Sunday when full-roster Toledo lost to Cincinnati and its 12 skaters, effort is still crucial.

Assuming the forwards come together, the team needs a tough, experienced defenseman. Fleenor didn t fill that role and that s why he s gone. When Dayton started to run around on Saturday, only forward Landon Bathe was there to answer the bell. A healthy Kris Waltze will help in that regard, but he s a forward. Toledo still needs a stay-at-home, crease-clearer who will drop the mitts.

OVERALL GRADE

(Quarter/Year to date)

Vitucci: C+/C-. “With the new acquisitions we have tremendous upside. The unfortunate part of it is that we haven t had a lot of time together. I look forward to that opportunity.”

Saevig: C-/C-. With the addition of a tough defenseman, anticipated production from the new players and consistent work ethic, this team could still make the playoffs. The key word here is could. It s going to be a struggle.



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