Friday, 28 October 2016

Objective Career Options

In what will be one of the few pictures we'll see of her, the goaltender to the left in the Peoria Rivermen colours is none other than Shannon Szabados. You may remember that Szabados signed with the SPHL's Rivermen after playing with the rival Columbus Cottonmouths for the last couple of seasons in the same league. She posted respectable numbers for the last-place Cottonmouths last season, and her arrival to the defending SPHL champions this season was met with some fanfare. However, after a pair of games in which the Rivermen were blown out and looked lost on both nights, Szabados and two other players were shown the door by head coach Jean-Guy Trudel. Today, he seemed to vent his frustrations to the media via a CBC article.

The article, written by Doug Harrison, features Trudel speaking emotionally and without a lot of thought at times, but he reveals some rather interesting tidbits of information about the team, its management, Szabados' agent, and the coach himself.

Before we go on, though, if you haven't been following Szabados' story through her professional hockey career withy the men, she has maintained that she is just like any other goaltender and should not be treated differently just because she's a woman. She despises the notion that she's a sideshow or some sort of ticket-selling feature for teams, and has really worked hard at her craft to be taken seriously in the men's game. Again, she posted respectable numbers on the ninth-place team in a nine-team league where eight teams make the playoffs.

Szabados relieved Phaneuf in the second period after Phaneuf was given the hook by Trudel in the opening game. The Rivermen would drop the season opener 6-1 on October 21. Szabados, for the record, allowed two goals on 15 shots to the Huntsville Havoc. The following night, Szabados was pulled from her first Peoria start after giving up a pair of Huntsville goals in the first 4:05 of the second period to put the Rivermen down 3-1. Huntsville went on to win 5-1 in that game. Highlights for both games are below, so you be the judge on how Szabados performed.
Yeah, I'm not sure she could have stopped either of those two goals. One of a player standing at the back post and another that was wired in off the post? Those are the same types of goals that NHL veterans give up. The back post goal is entirely a defensive problem as opposed to a goaltending problem while the second goal is just a good shot, and good shots sometimes go in. It's that simple.
Ok, those last two goals are ones that I'm sure Szabados wants back, but I'm not sure that cutting her from the team is the appropriate response to a couple of bad goals. If we're going to be honest, the Havoc simply out-skated, outworked, and out-played the Rivermen in all facets of the games this past weekend, and made the reigning SPHL coach of the year in Trudel look bad in the first two games of his team's title defence. And what happens when coaches are embarrassed? A team shake-up is almost always the card that is played.

What struck me as odd, however, is that Trudel basically admitted that he never wanted Szabados from the start. Mr. Harrison writes, "Jean-Guy Trudel told CBC Sports that he only signed the 30-year-old as a 'package deal' in order to get defenceman Carl Nielsen, a friend of Szabados" - a damning statement from a guy who is supposed to be the best coach in the SPHL. It's shocking to read that since you wouldn't expect a pro hockey team to have much trouble trying to bring in a defenceman. Neilsen, in his defence, hasn't shown any sort of high-level talent to get him above the ECHL level in his career, but he has had a couple of solid seasons with the Florida Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears where he posted seven goals, 14 assists, and 202 penalty minutes. He was also named to the ECHL All-Star Team in 2014-15.

"I tried to do something to get this great defenceman that plays 25 minutes a game, and it didn't work out," Trudel told CBC Sports. The problem with that statement, however, is that Nielsen barely played last season. In their own press release, the Peoria Rivermen stated, "Nielsen, 28, comes to the Rivermen after he ended a preseason retirement last year to play 13 games for ECHL Orlando, where he was named a team captain." 13 games at 25 minutes a night? Sure, that's a nice total for a veteran player, but it's not like he's the Ryan Suter of the ECHL. He only played in 13 games!

Making matters worse for Trudel in his statement was his admitting that Szabados "was fourth on the depth chart after camp." Even minor-hockey coaches know that the fourth-stringer is probably never going to see the ice, but in pro hockey that's a death knell as a contract won't be extended and practice time on the ice won't be granted. Yet in one of the most inexplicable moves, Trudel kept Szabados in order to keep Nielsen! Perhaps he shouldn't have been named coach of the year after he had a major part in creating this debacle? What coach keeps a fourth-string goalie as the backup to the starter, and then cuts them both? And why is he so hung up on Nielsen as a defenceman when there are other players who would fill the void just as well?

It seems Trudel made his own mess in accepting this deal, and now he's trying to wash his hands cleans of the mess he's made. Trudel stated,
"It's the first time I've dealt with a package deal and I won't deal with it again. I think it's wrong for the game of hockey. Maybe I'm old-school but I like to coach players who deserve to be here."

Trudel said the Szabados-Nielsen deal is the "most different situation" he's been involved with in all his years coaching and 13 seasons playing mostly at the minor pro level.

"I'm paid to make sure my ownership is happy, that we win a lot of games, so I gotta do what I gotta do to make sure my team is in a good state of mind to win hockey games."
Trudel indicated that he tried to broker a deal with Nielsen to keep the veteran player in Peoria, but the defenceman ultimately stood beside Szabados and left the team as well. I have never heard of a "two-fer" signing deal before where a coach wants one player, but has to take a second player as well. According to reports, Nielsen and Szabados had forged a strong friendship since meeting at a hockey camp in Denver this past off-season. They expressed their wish to play together this season, and Szabados' agent Russ King worked with Trudel to make the deal happen.

Now, I've seen situations where two teammates will try to sign with the same team. Kariya and Selanne did it with the Colorado Avalanche. The NBA saw it done with Lebron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade in Miami. However, it wasn't like the Avalanche pursued Kariya to come and play only to be told by Kariya's agent that they had to sign Selanne as well. Each negotiated his own deal with the Avalanche through his own agent, and the two signed to play together on their own terms. It wasn't a "two-fer" deal by one agent.

In any case, it seems that Peoria never had any intention to sign Szabados had she not been part of the Nielsen deal. You have to wonder if Columbus would have taken her back as a free agent after she wasn't selected by Evansville in the expansion draft this summer. While it seemed that Jerome Bechard would have given her another opportunity to make the club, nothing was being promised after the Cottonmouth were the only team to not play in the post-season last year. In May 2016, the Ledger-Enquirer reported,
"At our end-of-the-year meeting, I wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page," Bechard said. "I told her that nobody on my team has a job for next season.

"Everybody will be vying for a position, and you're one of those. I don't want to block you from playing somewhere else. She told me she was not 100 percent sure whether or not she would play in the next Olympics (in 2018), but she definitely wanted to play another year."

After the meeting, she reached out to Bechard again.

"She e-mailed and said it would be best if I didn't protect her. She wanted to see what's out there," Bechard said.
In other words, she probably would have had a better shot in Columbus than she ever would have received in Peoria thanks to her history with Bechard and the Cottonmouths. You can't fault Szabados for wanting to explore her options, but sometimes the grass isn't greener. Would she be playing for the Cottonmouths now? It's hard to say, but she would have been given a fairer shake there than what she got from Trudel and the Rivermen.

According to Trudel, there were cliques forming in the dressing room as well. He told Mr. Harrison,
"They were always together and it became kind of weird," said Trudel of Szabados and Nielsen, a native of Lorain, Ohio. "Seeing the [other] players in the locker room, I just saw the situation being heavy on everyone. It was cancerous toward the team. I coach 18 players here so I need to make 18 players happy, not just two."

Storm Phaneuf, the other goaltender cut by Trudel in his three-man ousting, told CBC's Doug Harrison in a separate article that what Trudel saw was not what he saw.
"Shannon is very nice. She talks to everybody and is friendly to everyone," Phaneuf, 20, told CBC Sports on Friday, four days after Trudel released the goalies following a pair of weekend losses to open the season, and placed the 28-year-old Nielsen on indefinite suspension to retain his SPHL rights.

"Shannon is not the kind of girl who would make a situation awkward. In the [dressing] room she was a leader, talking loud and giving tips to the other guys."
This sounds more like Trudel was justifying the reasons for cutting Szabados than it was truth. While the other netminder may have seen it one way, perhaps there were players who approached Trudel about the Nielsen-Szabados friendship and how close the two are. If you're not aware, Shannon Szabados is happily married, so let's put this rumour and innuendo to rest right here and now. Storm Phaneuf stated, "It's not like they were holding hands or kissing each other, not at all. They seemed like good buddies. Cancerous is a very big word. I've seen way more cancerous situations [elsewhere in hockey]."

In essence, this entire debacle in Peoria is about honesty. Jean-Guy Trudel signed a deal that should have never agreed to in good faith, and Russ King, Szabados' agent, should have known better than to force this upon Trudel who had an interest in Nielsen, but not Szabados. Both men had to see the problems in making a deal like this, especially Trudel who already had three goalies in camp, yet neither man had the decency and honesty to level with one another or the players about what Trudel and the Rivermen needed. King is especially at fault in that he didn't do what his client pays him for, and that's to provide sound, intelligent advice regarding a player's career.

Nielsen and Szabados should have been honest with each other when it comes to their individual careers and career paths when it came to putting this deal together. While I get that they wanted to play together, neither are currently in hockey right now because of this wish. Trudel wanted to keep Nielsen on the team, but Nielsen walked out with Szabados and is now suspended indefinitely by the Rivermen meaning he is unable to sign anywhere else in the SPHL this season. Szabados should have encouraged him to stay - and she may have done that - but she shouldn't have let him walk out on the Rivermen only to be stuck in SPHL purgatory. I'd be surprised if Nielsen plays anywhere this season at this point.

Finally, Shannon Szabados became the one thing she never wanted to be. She has always wanted to be judged for her abilities and her skill, but by getting her agent to put this deal together she became the one thing she never wanted to be: the sideshow. Trudel never approached King or Szabados about a contract in the off-season, but her desire to play alongside her friend put her in a situation where she was expendable the moment that Trudel accepted the deal proposed by King. She is incredibly talented and deserves an SPHL contract based on those talents, but she can't just demand a team sign her because she wants to play alongside a friend. By doing this, she undermines everything that she's worked for in breaking barriers and earning her spot in the SPHL. Instead, she became a distraction for Trudel who never wanted her on the ice for the Rivermen in the first place, and he discarded her like a fourth-string goaltender would have been. She needed to be honest with herself when it came to this contract in that Trudel never wanted her in Peoria.

Do I think Szabados' playing days in the SPHL are over? No, not by a long shot. I think she took some bad advice from an agent who wanted to get her another shot, but I'm guessing she's smarter after this experience now. Will she play again this season? Based on her stats from Columbus where Jerome Bechard admitted "[s]he took a beating" thanks to the personnel in front of her, I'd say she has a good chance of catching on with another team, maybe even returning to the Cottonmouths this season. Evansville, Roanoke, and Pensacola have all given up a pile of goals in their four games, and all three might be considering a chance in the blue paint.

This Peoria situation doesn't look good for any of the parties involved, but I think Shannon did the right thing in taking the high road with her comments.
The story's already out there and I don't want to fuel the fire," Szabados told CBC Sports on Thursday. "My focus is signing with a new team. There's a lot more to [the Peoria release] and misleading information but I don't want to put [Trudel] in a bad spot, or the team.

"I don't know why he said some of those things," Szabados said, noting she had a good player-coach relationship with Trudel. "It was a very strange situation."
That's a classy response from someone who just got railroaded when it comes to her performance and season. Shannon shouldn't be too worried about missing a few weeks as I have a feeling she'll be back soon. There's going to be an SPHL team out there who needs to upgrade their goaltending, and Shannon Szabados will make a triumphant return to the SPHL. She just needs to remain objective about her career options going forward.

When it comes to looking our for number-one, Shannon needs to look out for #30 and only #30.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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