The San Francisco Bulls’ recent wins/loss record could give the impression that the Bulls took their foot off the gas as soon as they clinched a playoff spot. They have not won a game since before they did so. What is not immediately apparent in wins and losses is the fact that the Bulls have been running something like a playoff training camp for the past week. They have been exploring options for their roster and working on their defensive game while they await the likely return of some leading scorers.
Kris Belan returned from the AHL on Monday, while Peter Sivak and Dean Ouellet continue their stays in the AHL. In their absence, Bulls Head Coach/GM Pat Curcio signed a host of players to amateur tryout contracts. It was a luxury the team could afford, having clinched a playoff berth early:
We get the luxury of bringing in these guys. Can you imagine if we were battling still, if we had to win games? Sivak couldn’t go up, Dean Ouellet couldn’t go up, Belan couldn’t go up … So we have a luxury with clinching. That’s a good thing, we get to see guys in different situations, with the ability to make your team better going forward.
By Monday, Curcio will have to decide who to keep on his roster for playoffs. Possibilities to return from the AHL are: Dean Ouellet (who is expected any day), Peter Sivak, Daniil Tarasov, and Yanni Gourde. Those last three are with the Worcester Sharks who, as of yesterday, were still six points out of a playoff spot. The Sharks play again Saturday. That game may or may not seal their playoff fate, but Curcio hopes it will finalize which players are returning to San Francisco. Marek Viedensky, who performed very well for the Bulls early in the season, has missed several games in Worcester due to an injury.
Thomas Heemskerk was reassigned to San Francisco Friday, as Thomas Greiss went from San Jose to Worcester for a conditioning assignment. Forward Tommy Grant has also been reassigned to San Francisco as of Friday.
The Bulls hope that Tristan King will be back in the lineup Friday, though Bryan Cameron is still unable to play due to a lower body injury.
Players already loaned to the Bulls from other AHL teams include center Daultan Leveille and defenseman Antoine Corbin, both from the Hamilton Bulldogs.
The players who came to the Bulls on amateur tryouts include forwards Nick Czinder, Brett Findlay, and Andrew Hamburg and goaltender Travis Fullerton. Hamburg was released from his ATO today upon the reassignment of Grant.
Bulls goaltender Taylor Nelson, after seeing Nick Czinder in his first pro game, commented that there was a lot to like about his play even if he didn’t score in his first outing:
His ability to get pucks off the wall and out of the zone, and he had one today that I remember vividly, when he chipped the puck out and he created a two on one just off a chip.
Czinder did score in subsequent games. He has scored the team’s only goals over the past three games, with Brett Findlay and Daultan Leveille picking up assists.
Roster changes are something the team has gotten used to, Nelson explained:
Through the course of the season, we’ve had a lot of players … the core eight or nine guys that we have, having to blend with newcomers frequently. So I guess it’s just another day at the office.
These tryouts weren’t only for the 2013 playoffs. This was also an opportunity for the team to get a look at prospects for next season, prospects like Czinder and Brett Findlay. After their first ECHL game, Curcio was well pleased:
Czinder to me he’s an amazing strength player, smart, and Findlay’s the same thing. I mean those two guys are exceptional. I think they’re going to be great players in this league. They’ll start here next year and they’ll get they’re opportunities… We’re going to do everything we can to keep them on our playoff roster, barring something out of my control.
“Something” would include the Sharks signing players out of juniors and assigning them to San Francisco, or players being send back from the AHL. All of these things can change the Bulls’ roster which must be finalized Monday. As during the regular season, the team will be limited to 23 players. It is an inconvenience, but one that can work to a team’s benefit. Last week, the Bulls picked up defenseman William Lacasse off waivers from the Idaho Steelheads. Curcio explained:
When other teams that are at the top just have too many bodies, you can’t put someone on the IR for 21 days who’s not hurt. When you run into those numbers problems you have no choice but to waive a guy. He played really well against us, and we were happy to pick him up. I think he’s going to be a great depth guy for us. You’ve got to carry seven or eight D because guys go down like flies, you’ve got to be sure you have guys who can step in.
During last Wednesday’s game, the team also used a new goaltender, one not affiliated with the Sharks organization. Since Heemskerk was called up to Worcester, Taylor Nelson has been the only goalie Curcio used. Nelson was attending a funeral so Travis Fullerton, signed Tuesday, got his first professional start Wednesday. He stopped all 25 shots he faced in regulation. Curcio was impressed with the young goaltender’s debut:
He was outstanding. He battled the best goalie in the league … I thought Fullerton was every bit as good if not better at times and he gave us an opportunity to win.
The part of their game to suffer most conspicuously over this period has been the power play. As well as having new guys involved, the team was missing two of their power play stalwarts, Sivak and Dean Ouellet. No matter who they have, Bulls Captain Scott Langdon said that the team knows they have to work on this:
I never really play on the power play, but the power play’s supposed to get you a couple too, here and there. It hasn’t happened for a long time so we’ve got to sort that out really quick. That’s one of our main priorities right now, get that going.
Though the Bulls have been losing games and not scoring on the power play, their defensive game is thriving. Curcio admitted that if he had to choose, he would rather have the team playing well defensively:
Now we’re focusing so much on defense, we’re not scoring goals … We’ve got to find a balance and we’re running out of time to keep tweaking things we’re going to have to find some consistency. But if I’m going to chose one, I’d rather have a team that’s going to go into a war zero-zero and then whatever happens happens.
In addition to preparing the roster, the Bulls have moved forward with some changes at the Cow Palace as well. They set up an expanded beer garden in the place of raised seats on one side of the rink. It is a nice addition to the spectators’ experience for playoff games. Those games are scheduled for Thursday April 11, Friday April 12 and, if necessary, Saturday April 13.
Tickets are now on sale for the first playoff series against the Alaska Aces. Visit the Bulls’ website for more information.