SAINT JOHN – Mike Kelly’s coaching career has included stops in the pro ranks and all three of the country’s major junior circuits.
All those years in the game prepared him for what many are calling a rebuilding year for the Saint John Sea Dogs. Kelly, however, doesn’t necessarily believe that’s the best way to describe his team.
“I think we’re a team in transition,’’ Saint John’s head coach and general manager said. “That’s the way I look at it. We’ve had so many guys move along. Now we’ve got so many guys coming in. To me, that’s a transition.’’
The transition is going well so far for the Sea Dogs, who split a pair of games with Acadie-Bathurst to open the season before a 4-2 win over the Moncton Wildcats.
But make no mistake. A lot has changed in the Port City. Gerard Gallant, Saint John’s bench boss for three memorable seasons that included a Memorial Cup championship and two President’s Cup titles, is now an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens. And many of the players he coached in Saint John have moved on to the pro ranks.
Still, whether it was working as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks or being part of Team Canada’s coaching staff at the world juniors, Kelly has a consistent approach.
“I learned a long time ago that it’s very important to be more concerned about the players you have than the players you don’t have,’’ the coach said. “These are the players we have, we’re excited about them and we’re going to work with them to help them get better.
“We’re equally as excited about the kids that we have this year as the kids we had last year. I think it will be exciting for the fans because they get to see these young guys come in and follow their progress from year to year.
“This group will seldom let you down with a poor work ethic. They have a terrific commitment to a work ethic and they compete hard. Like every team, things don’t always work out the way they want them to work out, but as long as they’re committed to working hard, they’re going to get better.’’
While the Sea Dogs have soared to unprecedented heights the past three seasons, Kelly doesn’t want his players to put extra pressure on themselves. He’s preaching patience while also expecting every player to commit to improving.
“We’re more inexperienced than we have been in the past,’’ Kelly said. “I think our young kids are very good, but they need experience and they need time. We want our kids to have fun here. We want them to come to the rink with a smile on their face every day and we want it to be an exciting brand of hockey, and I think that’s what will happen. I think as we become more confident as a group, we’re going to hopefully have a few surprises along the way.’’
Second-year winger Oliver Cooper believes the Sea Dogs will be better than many expect.
“I think a lot of people aren’t giving us enough credit just because of all the players that we lost,’’ he said. “But the young guys who’ve come in are all stepping up and we’re a pretty tight-knit group already. Everybody is getting along. I’m pretty confident with what we have and I think we’re going to do well this year.’’