As Medveščak’s 2015/16 campaign in the KHL approaches, with only 100 days left until puck drop, GM Aaron Fox shared his insight from the 2014/15 season, his thoughts and opinions, what is next for the team and what Medveščak will look to change for the better this offseason.
How satisfied are you with this season?
Obviously, not very satisfied. You’re hoping to be a playoff team every year, and we weren’t. It wasn’t good enough. There were some good parts to the year, but for the most part we didn’t live up to our expectations as a whole. It wasn’t a great year.
How much of it is roster related?
I’m not so sure that it’s all roster related. If you look at our team on paper from this year to last year, I still believe that our defence corps were better this year than they were last year, we had the same two goalies coming back. We failed to bring in that number one scoring line that we lost. You see what Ellison, Linglet, Cheech and those guys are doing up in Minsk right now. We weren’t able to replace that. For the amount of money we have, it’s not easy to replace that year after year after year. You kind of need to do some team scoring. It’s hard to find that superstar line that’s going to carry you for the type of money have have. We got some really good value out of some guys. There are some guys that maybe I missed with, that I wasn’t very happy with. And then there was, you know, we had some injuries, we weren’t consistent as a whole, you know what I mean? We went through games where we won three or four in a row and then we’d lose three, four in a row. There was no consistency and we never got that groove. What I’m saying is that, most organisations only have to replace five, six players every year because you keep the nucleus of the guys that you have and then you just mix in a few key parts here and there. We just don’t have the financial capability to keep the players we want to keep, players that are good enough that we want to stay, they end up going making more money somewhere else and the players that we weren’t that satisfied with, we’d move them anyway. We’re replacing 15, 16, 20 guys every year. You know what I mean? We had a lot of team chemistry the first year, this year we might have missed a little bit on the chemistry. That’s something you can’t pay for, you don’t know how that’s going to go. And then, the goalie tandem that we had last year, they were a top 10 goalie tandem in the league. Brusty didn’t have a great start to the year for us, he played well for a stretch there, that’s why there was interest somewhere else. We ended up moving him and we were hoping that Dex was going to round back in that form from last year, but he just didn’t seem to be ready this year. Going into the way he played last year, he was fifth in the league in save percentage. You kind of feel you’re bringing back someone that’s a real asset, and if you don’t get that out of him, that makes it tough as well. That’s probably the most important position on a hockey team. If you’re not getting a great effort every night, you’re not going to win a lot of games. But there’s a lot of things that go into wins and losses and success in a season. I could name a whole bunch of them. I mean, our powerplay wasn’t as good this year as it was last year, our penalty kill wasn’t as good this year as it was last year, our goaltending wasn’t as good this year as it was last year. It’s one of those years, you know. There’s 28 teams in this league, 16 of them are fortunate enough to make the playoffs. Only one of them is actually going to win the championship and everyone else is going to rebuild and focus on next year. Unfortunately for us, we’ve had a little bit more time now, the last month or so when we knew we were kind of out of it, you kind of finish the year the way that you can, but you’re already thinking of what we can improve as an organisation, what we can improve on our roster and how we’re going to move forward as a club.
How important is it to think outside the box, given your small budget?
Yeah, I think it’s very important. Again, the biggest problem we have as an organisation is we’re competing with Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, all those countries can pay their imports the same amount of money that we can pay our imports, and they get to sleep in their own bed every night. Obviously, the upside for us is that we’ve moved eight players to bigger contracts in the KHL, so I try to use that as one of our main selling points as you can come in and play for us, get yourself known and make big money somewhere else. It’s hard to keep the team that’s here happy doing that as well, when you’re selling your best goalie or when you’re selling your first line centre. There’s give and take there. It’s not an easy situation, that’s for sure. We’ve done it two years in a row, we haven’t exceeded our budget two years in a row, all our players were getting paid two years in a row. When you are a small budget team, it’s important that you keep that rolling in the right direction, or else you’re not going to have anyone that’s going to come play for you for this type of money if they’re not getting paid. We’re really focused on making sure that the money, that we don’t go over that and trying to find as much value as we can out of the guys. The Edwin Hedbergs, Bjorki, those guys we’re getting some pretty big time value out of for what we pay them and what they bring to our organization. So there’s definitely some, I don’t know if you want to call it thinking outside of the box, but it’s value oriented. I don’t have the money to go and find my favourite player. I go to America, watch three weeks of games, there’s a whole bunch of players I love and there’s a whole bunch of players I know I can’t afford. I’m looking for guys that are maybe in a bad situation, that I can still afford, that are good players that I think can help us. You know what I mean, the Bill Thomases, the James Wrights, guys that we were able to go out and really really like and still get them for the right price. I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that as well. You’re not going to hit a home run you’re up to bat. You bring in 15-20 guys, there’s going to be three, four guys that don’t pan out, that you’re not that happy with. Looking at the other side of that, I don’t know if people understand it, for the type of money we have, there’s usually going to be something missing from that player. You’re not going to get someone who’s young, big, strong, fast, a great character in the dressing room. You’re going to be missing something, somewhere, which is the only reason we could get them for this money. With Vesce, Linglet and Ellison, let’s just use those three guys for an example. Linglet from Minsk to Switzerland, had a tough time in Switzerland, left two clubs that weren’t happy with him, he didn’t have many options. Vesce went from Sweden into Finland, fired from Finland, nobody wanted him a year ago. Ellison got bought out in the middle of the season because they didn’t think he was a good enough player, and now he’s a 70 point guy in the KHL this year. Those are guys that obviously had something wrong with them before we brought them, but that’s really the only way we can bring guys in here. You’re never going to get the guy that’s leading the Swiss League in scoring to come play here for 150, 200 thousand dollars, it’s not possible. They’re going to have a half million in Switzerland or a million in the KHL. You’ve got to find those unique situations and those unique players. You might get someone that is a great player but is a different personality. You’re taking a chance, for the money we have, because we know we can bring one side of it and we’re hoping the room takes care of the other side of it. It’s tough. It will be tough this summer, too. Again, I think, every year that we keep moving players into other KHL teams for more money, and every year that we can get through a year with paying all our players and having that side of things taken care of, we’re always going to be a great destination for players because we’re full North American, North American staff, I run the sports management. There’s always going to be that, to sell to guys, that leverage to sell to guys with the opportunity to make more money somewhere else. It’s tough, but it’s rewarding when the guys play well and outproduce what you’re paying them. That’s also fun, too. It’s the beauty of business, right?
How much will last year’s team reflect next year’s team?
Right now, we’re trying to make sure we keep as many nucleus guys, worried about trying to make sure that we can bring back, and negotiate with players we want to bring back, and the guys that are coming back, that’s the PR side of things. They have that kind of stuff on their own terms. There will be a lot of new players, a lot of new faces. I’m going recruiting here for three weeks in ten days, watch a lot of players, meet a lot of people, start the process all over again. Again, word is out that this is a great place to be, great place to play, great fans, great city, great organisation. We will find those, I really believe we will find those players that can come in here and help us and hopefully make us forget about this year and have some more success next year.
What’s your itinerary for the offseason?
I’ll go on a North American tour for three weeks. Mostly AHL. I try and catch as many games as I can. The trip is basically based on where I can get to the most amount of games and the player list that I’ve already put together. I have a list of all the free agents who will be available next year. I break that list down into guys by two criteria, by price and by can they play. I try and watch as many of those guys as I can live, set up some breakfast or lunch or some communication with the players that I like. I think it’s important that they know who they’re dealing with and when it comes to negotiation time that they say “I sat with Aaron, he seemed like a good guy, been over there a long time, understands it“, we talk about some mutual acquaintances that I’m sure we’ll have. The hockey world is very small. There aren’t many players that I recruit that don’t know someone that I know, which means you’re also able to use, you know, you go into Charlotte and watch somebody in Charlotte, you can talk about Floodie who was here this year, who had a great year, had eight goals. They give Floodie a call, ask him about Zagreb. It’s good to just get there and mingle a little bit with some of the players you like. You don’t really know what exactly it’s going to cost to get them or what their options are going to be. It’s so early right now. March is pretty early for North American guys to decide I’m ready for Europe, or you know, will I get another NHL deal. There’s a lot of that. Then I watch 10-15 European elite games on live stream per week. I watch as much as I can. Tonight after the game I’m going to go to the office and I’ll live stream an archived North American game from yesterday, or I’ll find a game going on with a couple players that I like. Now’s a really busy time for me in regards to just watching as much hockey as I can.
There, too, was a mention of young Russian skaters on the team?
Everything’s possible right now. Again, if we can afford to do it, and if they’re good players, we’re 100% willing to do that. If we can find guys that will help us in our budget, we’re not turning any resumes away. If we find a team in Russia that wants to help us out, send us a couple players to get more ice time, we’ll obviously find a way to make that work from our end because we are such a small budget team. If we can find, there’s a couple good Finnish players that don’t make a ton of money, from a scouting perspective, that’s not easy to do. It’s hard. Most Finnish guys, if they’re any good, they’re in a contract for two or three years with a KHL out clause, but the KHL out clause is usually more expensive than what we pay our players. There’s a Finnish guy I like right now, his KHL out clause is a 150 grand. He’s making 80 grand but his KHL out is 150 grand. Would I bring him in for a 100 grand, absolutely. But I’m going to have to pay him 250, and he’s not a 250 player for us. It’s tough, it’s not easy, but like I said, we’ll figure out a way to bring in some good players and hopefully get them all playing the right way together.
What about Medveščak’s prospects from the EBYSL team?
I think they’ve had a really good year. I think that’s a big step, obviously with the level of the KHL, but I think getting a team like this together to play in the U20 league with all the players from Zagreb, not just Medveščak, it brings in some Zagreb continuity and it releases a bit of edge from the Mladost guys to the Zagreb guys to the Medveščak guys and they’re all playing together, and it’s great. They’re having a great year. Obviously, things aren’t going great tonight, but Ljubljana sent down five or six players from the EBEL, it’s been a tough matchup. Again, I think this has been a great year, I think Danijel’s done a good job and I think that the players have played really hard and it’s been fun to follow.
What are the odds of seeing them in the KHL roster?
First and foremost, I’m excited for the National Team because we’ll have some KHL players there, some Austrian league level players there, so I think for me that’s going to be the first test for these kids who’ve been in those junior teams. They’ll feel the practices every day against some KHL level players and Austrian league level players, and then we’ll really be able to see where they’re at and how far they need to come still before being ready for the KHL. There’s definitely a possibility of us having a couple kids practice with us next year in training camp and giving a few guys a few looks. I’d like to see how they play at the National Team level and I’d like to see how they play at the National Team level against the Murrays and the Perks and the Glus and the Naglichs, against those types of players before we push them into a situation that isn’t good for them. It’s all about situation. I don’t want to push them into a bad situation and have them not ready for that challenge. Again, there’s a couple big, strong kids out there that you never know, if they keep developing the right way, definitely everything’s possible.
Finally, one word to describe the 2014/15 campaign?
Oh, boy.. One word to describe the season.. Frustrating.