Fire still burning as first-place Everblades face midseason challenges

BY KEATON HANLEY
SPECIAL TO CSI

“We’re not going to be complacent; we’re going to continue to get better every day.”

That was the message from coach Brad Ralph to his Florida Everblades two days after their 4-1 home win Saturday night over the South Carolina Stingrays. The victory atoned for Friday’s 5-1 loss to the Stingrays at Hertz Arena, which ended Florida’s three-game win streak. 

The New Year has been anything but complacent for the Blades (12-5), who sit three points ahead of South Carolina for first place in the ECHL’s South Division. In January, Florida saw five players leave and several players get placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List for COVID protocols. But despite all the growing pains that have come with the COVID-defined season in the ECHL, the Blades have managed to keep growing as a team — mentally and otherwise — as they have had 10 new players from Jan. 5 until as recently as Wednesday.

 

For Ralph, it has been a lot to take on. Despite the Blades’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, not taking part in the current AHL season due to COVID concerns, they have informed Ralph that as of right now they are not sending back the six players that were called up on Dec. 28 (Patrick Harper, Josh Wilkins, Cole Smith, Tommy Novak and Tanner Jeannot) and Jan. 15 (Lukas Craggs). Those players will be playing with the Chicago Wolves as they take on a temporary loan of prospects belonging to the Nashville Predators (the Blades’ NHL affiliate).

With the removal of the AHL contracted players, Ralph and the Blades have had to find a way to become salary compliant while adding players that form the best roster possible. The ECHL has also changed the amount of players allowed to be dressed on game nights — 19, down from 20. As one might expect, it’s a tricky situation to manage.

“There’s just been a lot of moving parts,” said Ralph, whose Blades are getting ready to host a two-game set with Orlando on Friday and Saturday. “It’s not easy, but we’re just trying to continue to put the best lineup on the ice while managing a salary cap. It just takes some time. I think we’re moving in the right direction. It’s hard on the players, and it’s hard on the team with having new bodies coming in all the time and getting everyone up on the same page. But that’s a part of our job as coaches at this level. And I think the players understand. The guys that have been here, they understand that we have to sometimes continue to reiterate and go over a lot of the same things that we’ve been going over just to get everyone up to speed.”

On top of the roster turnover, the Blades hit another road bump (no pun intended) when their three games at Jacksonville on Jan. 22, 23 and 24 were postponed due to COVID safety protocols. The canceled games also led to the Blades having to cancel some of their practices to restrict the potential spread of COVID.

“I was actually hoping we were going to play that weekend up in Jacksonville,” Ralph said. “I thought we were playing well. And you know, we needed the game. And then as that two-week period progressed, we ended up having five players and two trainers get COVID. So, we shut down practice and we had one practice before the game against Orlando and then two before South Carolina,” said Ralph.

With restrictions on practice, the lack of conditioning can start to take a toll on players, which Ralph elaborated on.

“It really hurt us more than anything,” he said. “When guys are off the ice for more than one day, they start to lose their timing. And then we’re talking about three days off the ice, they’re starting to lose their conditioning to a certain degree. These guys are they’re like horses — they need to be running. My job is to make sure they’re conditioned and they’re feeling good for games. And when they’re not practicing, they don’t feel good. It’s a juggling act these days with COVID. Normally, we’ve got injuries and call-ups. Now we’ve got injuries, call-ups and COVID.”

Ralph feels that the players have handled COVID great so far and hopes to see them continue to do so as the season progresses.

“The players have been excellent. I think they all understand in order for us to keep playing hockey, they have to do their part with staying safe and really just trying to not put themselves at risk,” Ralph said. “So far, I’ve been really proud of our group. Let’s hope we can continue to play hockey and not let COVID affect us in a negative way. We’re all so tired of it. Any time we can step on the ice for a game it’s a win for us.”

With new players can come new attitudes and styles of play. During the hectic month of January, the Blades have succeeded in keeping the same style on the ice that they had before, while adding an element of grit that Ralph believed may have been lacking before the new signings.

“I think everyone that was brought in has shown tremendous work ethic,” Ralph said. “I think they’ve shown an element of jam, grit and energy that I thought we might have lacked before bringing some of these guys in. They have all had a positive impact.”

The one constant in the locker room has been the team’s character. Fans have gotten glimpses of it lately on social media with videos of players engaging in antics during practice.

It follows the team off the ice as well.

“The last two years, we won on character, camaraderie and chemistry,” Ralph said. “We’ve got such a great culture here and we’ve got great leadership. I think some of the antics that you’re seeing in practice are just a byproduct of guys wanting to be here enjoying playing for each other and having fun playing the game that we all grew up playing. So, it’s a great sign for us moving forward.”

And with the camaraderie and chemistry comes emotion — something Ralph wants his team to play with every game. On Saturday, you could see the emotion boil over a bit for the players and even coaches as the Blades were called for a slew of penalties. But that’s how Ralph wants the game to be played.

“From a coaching standpoint, this would be a fine line,” he said. “I ask my players to play emotionally, and a byproduct of playing emotionally is taking penalties. So yes, we need to be disciplined. If we have to stick up for ourselves or stick up for our teammates, we will kill those penalties as well. It’s the tic-tacky stick calls that we try and avoid. I think we can be a little more intelligent on how we manage the rest, and that’s myself included.

“So overall, I’m really proud of the guys for how hard they play, how emotional they play, and how they’ve responded in tough situations. They say you can contain the fire, but you can’t put it in them. And our guys certainly have a lot of fire in them. It’s a real positive thing from our team’s perspective.”