It was a new and exciting time for the Pirates.
After three successful seasons as the affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, the Pirates were embarking on a new affiliation agreement with the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Coyotes had big shoes to fill with the departure of the Sabres. They knew it as management promised to bring a winning team to Portland, and to their credit they signed several quality veteran free agents who they believed would help get that job done.
Unfortunately in a season of peaks and valleys, the Pirates found themselves in too many valleys.
A late season push over the last month and a half of the regular season brought the Pirates close to a playoff berth, but they fell short by two points.
Four more games, two more weeks and the Pirates fate might have been different. Instead, the players cleaned out their lockers the following day and prepared for a longer summer than most are accustomed to in the city by the sea.
It was the first time in five seasons the Pirates missed the playoffs.
“We’re not in the playoffs and that’s hard,” said Pirates’ coach Ray Edwards. “I understand people will be disappointed with that, and no one is more disappointed than this group. We know there are high expectations in this city and we have to get to work to fix what went wrong.”
Brad Treliving, the Coyotes’ Assistant General Manager, had a wider view of the season.
“There was some good, there was some not so good to the season,” he said. “That’s what we have to digest over the next little while.”
While missing the playoffs was bad, there was still plenty of good that took place with the Pirates this season.
There was an emergence of several players throughout the season.
Players such as Ethan Werek, Jordan Szwarz and Nick Ross all made strides this season, taking important roles in the Pirates success down the stretch as the team went 8-4-1-2 in the final 15 games of the regular season.
“All of our young players found a way to get better this year,” said Edwards.
Werek had a slow time finding his way in the professional game, but he finished the season with 10 goals, nine assists for 19 points.
Many of those points came over the last 16 games as Werek’s hard work began to payoff.
“We moved Werek to the wing and he took off,” said Edwards. “He had a heck of stretch of games when we were playing well and he was a big part of that success.”
“In the first half of the season he was struggling trying to find his way, but the in the second half you could see the light coming one and he got it,” Edwards added. “Once he was moved to the wing his game got a lot simpler and he just responded.”
“Over the course of the season there will be highs and lows, but you can’t ever get too high or too low,” said Werek. “I really learned that this season. I played a lot of different roles that I haven’t played before. It was a good experience. I felt like I grew as a player. It’s disappointing to not make the playoffs, but it was a good learning year.”
Szwarz was another rookie that progressed during the season. In fact, he had nowhere to go but up as he missed all of training camp and the first part of the season with a shoulder injury. Like Werek, Szwarz found himself in a different position on the ice as he was moved to center. The 21-year old finished with 20 points (7g, 13a) with a plus-6 rating in 58 games.
“To see the start of the season Szwarz had, missing camp and the first couple weeks of the season, and how the season wore on with how much he was trusted in every situation was remarkable,” said Edwards.
The start of the season for Nick Ross was not as he had hoped, missing 15 of the first 16 games as a healthy scratch, but by the end he was a part of the top defensive pairing with Nathan Oystrick, playing over 25 minutes a game, recording 13 points (4g, 9a) in the final 13 games of the season.
Ross finished the season with career highs in goals (5), assists (13), points (18) and led the Pirates in plus/minus with a plus-16 rating.
“Watching Ross improve after a rather tough start of the season, come into the lineup and be a top defenseman in the last 20 games was really special to see,” said Edwards. “He made some real strides this season.”
Andy Miele is another prospect for the Coyotes that underwent a season of growing. There was a lot of pressure on the Hobey Baker Award winner to perform especially in Portland where three of the last four AHL Rookies of the Year played.
At times, it was a struggle for Miele as he went nearly two month without a goal, but he found other ways to contribute and by the end of the season he found his groove, scoring six of his 16 goals in the final 16 games of the regular season. Miele finished second in team scoring with 54 points and played seven games the Coyotes.
“This is a hard league to play in,” said Edwards. “He battled through the ups-and-downs of the season and progress. He was playing really good hockey at the end.”
“I learned a lot of good things, and I learned a lot of things that I can improve on throughout the year,” said Miele. “It was an inspirational year. I think I became a little smarter as players so now my focus over the summer is to become stronger and faster.”
With Miele, Werek, Szwarz and Ross returning to the Pirates next season along with several other prospects, the Pirates have a foundation in place for success in the future.
“I’m not going to make excuses,” said Edwards. “We didn’t make the playoffs. I think we did a lot of good things and the footprint is here. We just have fine tune it a little bit.”