by Jason Heller
he Memphis RiverKings have undergone a drastic change in the past month. A change in attitude, playing style, and subsequently, a vast improvement in their win-loss record. These changes can be attributed to one man: new head coach Kevin Evans.
Evans ended his 14-year playing career in 1997. After playing in seven different leagues, and for 10 different teams (including brief stints with the San Jose Sharks and the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL), the former terror of the IHL decided enough was enough. In those 14 seasons, the left wing played in 854 games, amassing 5,147 penalty minutes (an average of 6.03 per game). He still holds an IHL record for most penalty minutes in a season; a mark set in the 86-87 campaign when he played 73 games and tallied 648 minutes in the box.
|PHOTO BY ROY CAJERO|
The coach as a player: Evans still holds the IHL record for most penalty minutes in a season
Coach Evans has brought his frantic, physical style of play to the RiverKings. Prior to his hiring, Memphis suffered a 14-game winless streak (0-13-1) that stretched from November 21st to January 3rd. Since Evans took over for Herb Boxer, the RiverKings have posted a 7-7-1 record through February 13th.
A 6-1 pounding of Eastern Division leaders Nashville this past Friday night at the Mid-South Coliseum was indicative of the new, aggressive RiverKings style. On defense, players like recently acquired right-wingers Bob Westerby and Eric Preston patrol the zone searching for unsuspecting opponents to drill. On offense, the team as a whole has played with a higher level of confidence and a more aggressive style; attacking the net at every opportunity.
Sharp-shooter Derek Grant has benefited from the increased scoring. Grant established a new franchise record for most career goals (87) last weekend.
When guys go out there and start sticking up for each other, even though theyre not the biggest guys on the ice, it shows a lot for their character, Grant says. Thats the way I like to play. I like to stick up for the rest of my teammates. Thats what theyre doing; it gives them more confidence with the puck.
Coach Evans believes that by being more physically intimidating, the team will be able to wear down opponents. Against the Ice Flyers the RiverKings took a 2-0 lead into the third, and after 40 minutes of abuse, Nashville seemed to give in, allowing four goals in the final period.
Despite several big hitters on the team (Trent Gleason, Alexei Budayev, and Patrick Clement), the front office went after Westerby to play the role of team enforcer. In 12 games with the RiverKings, Westerby has been whistled for 92 penalty minutes (an average of 7.67 per game). These numbers are even higher than those his coach put up during his playing days.
Kevin just wants me to do my job. Im a physical player and I have to be physical to be effective on the ice. I have to go out there and hit people, Westerby said after turning in a performance that included one goal, seven PIM (five minutes for fighting), and numerous checks that landed various Ice Flyers on their backs.
With around 20 games left in the regular season, the RiverKings are pushing for an improved playoff position. Thats an important point. If the playoffs began today, Memphis would have to play Oklahoma City (CHLs top team) in the first round.
With the newly found intensity, Evans believes his team will continue to improve. I think theyve always had it in them; the problem is getting it out of them, he says. Theyre all getting a little more into it, and hopefully as the rest of the season goes on and the guys see how well they can play, it will lead into the playoffs.
One reason the Kings made the coaching change was because they felt the team had grown boring under Boxer. With the different attitude and increasingly physical style of play, this team is far from boring. Now if they could just catch Tulsa in the standings . n
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