A whirlwind. That’s the term that came to mind for Owner, General Manager, and Head Coach Brent Sullivan when asked to summarize the 2023 portion of the Carleton Place Canadians season in a single word.
It’s certainly hard to find one that fits better.
With a roster he built with a championship in mind, the Canadians find themselves at 16-15-2 after 33 games.
That’s good for second place in the Robinson Division, and seventh in the CCHL.
The parity across the league this season is evident. With only 10 points separating the 4th place Hawkesbury Hawks and the 11th place Pembroke Lumber Kings, all but one team have playoffs in mind as the calendar flips to January.
Reflecting further, Sullivan called 2023 “underwhelming,” and “disappointing.” He knows they can do better.
“It’s very rare you get the Bill Gourgon’s, the Aidan Cooper’s, the Masen Culley’s, the Will Soloway’s, the Caton Ryan’s, the list goes on, all these guys together under one roof. We need to maximize that,” Sullivan said during the league’s holiday break.
He also said he was pleased with forward Lleyton McLean, who was acquired in November from the Nepean Raiders. Sullivan says the ‘04 plays a polished and mature game, and while the reigning EOJHL MVP may not be putting up the points outsiders may have expected him to, he put up 51 goals and 92 points in 39 games, and then 18 more points in the playoffs for the Barkley Cup Champions Perth Blue Wings a season ago, the head coach says he brings more positives than negatives to the team on any given shift.
All that being said, work remains to be done to get the club to where they want it. The Canadians have allowed the second most goals (128) in the CCHL, behind only the last place Brockville Braves (144).
But the addition of Aidan Feddema has helped stabilize the net. Not only with his play, which already includes a shutout and Player of the Week honours, the addition of a third goalie as the trade deadline approaches has also propped up the play of Jackson Pundyk and Ian Vandenberg. Vandenberg’s allowed just one goal in three of his last five starts, while Pundyk turned aside 27 of 28 shots against Renfrew on December 10th, which was his first start in three weeks.
“We take a lot of pride in fixing that and becoming a team that’s allowed less,” Sullivan said of how team defence has been trending positively in recent weeks, adding they want to be “more predictable,” in the neutral zone and on breakouts so they can play fast, rather than defaulting to individual play.
A whirlwind is also a perfect description of the off-ice aspects of the season as well.
Sullivan accepted an assistant coach position with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting late into the offseason and tapped then-Assistant Coach Adam Lloyd’s shoulder to take the reins heading into 2023-24.
It was mid-November Sullivan made the choice to leave what he called a dream job with the Sting in order to return to Carleton Place to support his wife Kayla through her pregnancy.
“(That was) a very tough decision. But ultimately, my wife and my family are my main priority,” he reflected.
The timeline coincided with a five-game losing streak for the Canadians, leading to a mutual decision between Lloyd and Sullivan that he return as head coach, and have Lloyd stay on as an associate coach.
“It was a welcomed choice at the time just because of how (Lloyd) was feeling about things…But also I think it was an opportunity for everyone to look within and be like ‘Listen, we need to do better here. This is not on Adam,” Sullivan said.
The Canadians have gone 8-6 since his return to the bench.
Looking ahead to 2024, Sullivan said finding consistency from game-to-game is a priority.
“What we have shown is that when we (are) emotionally invested…you can see a team that’s bought in, where they’re vocal, they’re physical, they’re blocking shots and taking hits to make plays. Those are championship habits that you have to develop over the year.”
He added, “But then we’ve had moments where we’re like ‘Guys, these games matter.’ We’re one bad weekend away from ninth place, probably.”
In addition, their special teams play isn’t where Sullivan wants it and that will be a focus in the coming stretch of games.
“Our penalty kill’s kind of slid in the last couple of weeks here, and our powerplay’s just remained kind of ‘blah,’ since I got back,” he said.
The Canadians sit seventh in the league with a 17% powerplay, and rank sixth on the penalty kill at 83%.
Carleton Place has a steady schedule ahead of them, which includes a friendly six home games in February, and a makeup tilt against the Rockland Nationals somewhere along the way. Sullivan expects his club to be ready for it.
“We only have 22 games left. There’s no excuse here…I think for us it really becomes about righting the ship and really turning the page here, and becoming the team that can beat any team any given night when they bring their best.”