Franky Palazzese is not where he wants to be. The veteran graduating No. 1 goalie of the Sudbury Wolves expected to still be playing Major Junior hockey right now and for the coming weeks as the team chased the franchise’s first league championship.
That expectation ended with a thud when the Wolves were tossed aside by the Barrie Colts in a first-round playoff loss in five games.
“It’s way too early to be at home,” Palazzese said from his home in Toronto. “It’s a huge disappointment. It is not good for anybody, from the fans to the coaches to the players to the management and ownership. We had high expectations and we didn't meet them and we failed.”
The Wolves were supposed to be contenders for, at the least, the Eastern Conference title. At the trade deadline, all signs pointed to success. The Wolves were battling Oshawa for first place in the conference. Sudbury had won 12 games in a row at home at one point. Sudbury president and GM Blaine Smith paid a hefty sum to bring in veterans Trevor Carrick and Radek Faksa to bolster the team’s chances, which looked stellar.
Instead, the team took a nasty nosedive in the second half, dropping from second place to fifth by the time the post season rolled around, and they were unable to capture any of the energy and magic they created in December and early January to bounce back.
It came to a sad end thanks to a 7-0 defeat in Game 5 in Barrie.
“We had the make-up to do it,” Palazzese said. “(But) our chemistry was off. Everybody has to take responsibility. Myself, in some games I didn’t come up with the big save at the right time. It didn’t happen because of one guy. It was a collective team thing. We were in a huge slump going into the playoffs and it killed us.”
Palazzese wanted it to be known he was not pleased with what he has heard about the team’s ownership and management. Palazzese understands there is frustration over how the season ended. Fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction.
“I know ownership and management are taking a lot of blame and I don’t think it is fair,” Palazzese said. “It makes me sick. Management was outstanding and they went all in for us to go far in the playoffs. At the end of the day, they are not the ones on the ice, the players are. Fingers are being pointed at the wrong people.”
He is also angered by the continual beating Connor Burgess, Wolves forward and son of owner Mark Burgess, has taken online and in the arena from fans.
“Connor Burgess being on the team was not the problem,” Palazzese said. “Everybody loves the kid. He works hard and is a great guy. We didn’t get the job done as a team. We are bitter over what happened and it is a tough time.”
Smith feels the right pieces were put together for the Wolves to make plenty of noise in the post season. The GM took a huge gamble on the future by trading away promising defender Stefan LeBlanc and three second-round picks to Mississauga for Carrick and Dominik Kubalik and two more second-round picks to Kitchener for Faksa.
“The team showed, at times, they were a contender,” Smith said. “The team didn’t gel as well as we hoped. A lot of factors contributed to the first-round loss to Barrie. Any time you lose in the first round, it is a failure. I felt we had the pieces to make the finals. I met with each player and the players felt it was up to them.
"They felt they could have gone deeper. We had a lot of trouble scoring goals and our power play was ineffective. Bottom line is we lost. I found the coaches prepared the players as well as anyone. They spent a lot of time with the players. We missed a great opportunity.”
Sudbury head coach Paul Fixter is a man who hates to lose. Fixter wants to win in Sudbury.
“I’ll take the heat for losing, but the players have to go out and perform,” Fixter said. “I am at fault, but we are all responsible. We all failed. We have to learn from the experience and move forward in a positive fashion. I love being here. I am a proud person. I am hoping to be part of the turnaround. It is our job to not be a laughingstock. Our culture has to change. I want to bring change to here.”
Smith is left to pick up the pieces and start putting them back together for another cycle of building towards a contender. Smith will have more important decisions to make in the off-season and pre-season with a plethora of potential overage players in the system. Smith will also have to see how next season goes and might be faced with moving top-calibre talent to recoup some or all of the second-round draft picks he surrendered as part of the Carrick and Faksa deals with Mississauga and Kitchener.
“We have the potential of 15 returning players,” Smith said. “We have work to do before next season begins.”
The Wolves' next move is to stock up on prospects at the 2014 OHL draft this Saturday and start the process all over again for a new season in 2014-15.