Bernie John – Offseason Q&A
The Fuel Head Coach evaluates the Fuel's summer so farAug 1, 2018
With the first wave of players under contract for the new season, and training camp just a couple of months away, the offseason is starting to heat up for Head Coach Bernie John and the Fuel coaching staff. Tasked with a simple goal – to build off of Indy's first-ever playoff berth – John and Assistant Coach Ryan McGinnis have been hard at work trying to piece together a roster that will both compete for a Central Division title and be ready to take the next step in the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
A couple of weeks before summer's final stretch kicks off with the Fuel Free Agent Camp at the Fuel Tank at Fishers, John sat down with IndyFuelHockey.com and chatted about the team's strong finish in 2017-18, his first handful of signings, and the challenges of competing for free agents with European leagues.
Q – Now that you have had a few months to reflect on what happened this spring and digest everything, what are a few things you are taking away from last season’s finish?
BERNIE JOHN – I think by the end [of last season] we were able to zero in on the way we wanted to play, and we got the right mix of guys that allowed us to do that. We obviously wanted to be a good transition team and a good offensive zone team, and I think in the second half we were one of the top teams in scoring, and were one of the top teams overall. That’s what we’re trying to build here, we’re bringing some of those guys back for 2018-19 and we'll go from there.
Q – How important was it for this organization to finally get a taste of the postseason?
BJ – It was huge. [Making the playoffs] is our goal every year. We were tired of being on the outside looking in, and this spring we made a strong push and got in. Had it not been for some key injuries, I think we would have had a chance to go further, but it’s something to build off of. Heading into this season, there’s excitement around the fan base, there’s excitement among the players that are returning – guys are excited to be a part of this and to get things going again.
Q – Looking ahead to this season, you already have several of the key contributors from the playoff run back in the fold with Logan Nelson, Johnny McInnis and Zach Miskovic under contract. How is your team stacking up in the first month of the signing period?
BJ – I like what we’ve done so far. We got Kevin Dufour who scored 20 goals in the league as a rookie last year – we’ve done a lot of homework on him and apparently he can fly and do some things. We’re excited to add some new pieces like him and [Olivier] Labelle who is going to bring another dynamic. But at the same time, you end up having to lose guys, but I like where we’re at right now. I know it’s now August, but it’s still early – American League teams are still taking care of their contracts, as well as the European leagues, so it will soon get a lot busier in the office for us with guys looking for contracts.
Q – What is a typical day in the summer look like for you and Ryan?
BJ – We spend a lot of time talking to agents, seeing if players are still looking for an AHL contract, a team in Europe, or anything else – we just want to make sure we are on their radar and the player knows that we are interested. With everything here, we can provide what I think – if we had the hot weather – would be the best place to play in the league; with the city and our facilities and ownership. We’re not calling everyone in the world, we’re targeting a few guys who we think can fill our needs and take us where we want to be as a team.
Q – It seems like every team in our division has been hit hard this summer by players leaving for European leagues. As a coach how do you go about trying to get a potential player to decide to sign in Indy, rather than testing the waters overseas?
BJ – A lot of times it comes down to offering as much as we can. I know [Europe] can be a pretty sweet deal, it is often a little more money and a lot of it is tax free. Players heading overseas have a chance to play fewer games, while getting the chance to travel. You see it with some of the older guys in our league who opt to head to Europe, they realize that the NHL and AHL might not be there for them, so they want to make some good money [before the end of their careers]. It’s hard to compete with that at times – there are guys we are trying to get to come over from Europe and see what the North American style of play is.
Even guys that do leave, the Rupert brothers and [Jaynen] Rissling for example, they will ask for guidance, and we’re always trying to help guys. You want to keep players here, first and foremost, but we always tell them to go to a place where they are treated right. In the meantime, we still own their ECHL rights, so we’ll see what happens.
Q – The team’s latest signing should shape up to be a particularly big one in Olivier Labelle. What does a player of that caliber bring to your roster, and what are you expecting out of him this season?
BJ – I know he can score, he’s averaged 20 to 30 goals in this league, but he’s got plenty of grit as well. He’s like a Johnny McInnis, where he goes to the front of the net to get the ugly goals. He’ll be one of our vets and be a good leader, we did our homework on that part. Everyone we talked to said he’s an outstanding guy in the locker room. He’ll mentor the young guys, but he’s still in terrific shape and he's trying to see where his career will take him.
Q – You had a number of guys last year who were equally skilled and scrappy, how important is it for you to find those players who are tough to match up against?
You look at the teams who win in our league, they have a good balance of that. You have your Shallas and Widemans, who can score and get you 30 goals and contribute on the skill side, but then you have the mixture of guys who will go get the puck, that will go to the net and create opportunities. If you want to score goals at any level, you need guys who are willing to go to the front of the net. Everyone likes to point out shot totals and want us to be hitting 40 shots a game, but sometimes the quality of the shots is more important. If you are getting 15-20 scoring chances from that prime area, that’s more important than getting 40 shots from anywhere.
These guys are the key, and we’ve brought some of them in with Dufour, Labelle, Nelly and McInnis. Mathew Thompson – who we expect big things from – is a go-getter, he’ll be physical, he’ll grind it out and do some things. We’re always looking for pieces, and we’re in constant talks with Rockford about who we may see coming down the organizational ladder. However, we build our roster based on what we have, not on what might be sent our way. There were a few guys we thought we were going to get last year who ended up sticking in the AHL. We take care of our team first, but a lot of the guys they send us are good compliments to what we do.
Q – Looking on the horizon, you’ll be pretty busy in the coming weeks, attending the Blackhawks prospects tournament in Traverse City, hosting the Fuel’s free agent camp, and soon it will be time for training camp in Chicago and Rockford – what specifically are you looking for in these camps?
BJ – We’ll look for the list of players they give us. Especially when we go to Traverse City there will be free agents skating there, so I’ll go watch the other teams that are playing – sometimes there is a player that Rockford or Chicago didn’t invite that we had on our radar. I’ll also try and pick the brains of the scouts and coaches there to learn what they are looking for in players, and to see what kind of role a player might play, and any areas where we might need to help them develop.
The other thing is we’re just watching to see what [Chicago] is looking at and figuring out what we can do to help the young players get to the next level, because that is huge for our recruiting in Indy. Guys want to know what we as a team are going to do to help them advance their careers – if your players are getting call-ups, then guys want to come and get that opportunity for themselves. It doesn’t sound great because you don’t want to lose your players, but that is the business at this level; the more you can help your players get called up, the more players will want to come play in your organization.
Q – What kind of team do you want to see on the ice on the first week of October?
BJ – I’m looking for something similar to what fans saw the second half of last year. A lot of teams we talked to were amazed at our transition game; we were up the ice quick, we were able to get the puck and go up the other way, and our offense took advantage. I think it really put teams on their heels. That’s the way I want to play, so if we can get our guys familiar with things straight from day one and go from there it should be exciting.