A third of the way into the American Hockey League season finds the Bakersfield Condors once again swimming upstream.
The Condors returned home on Sunday from a three-game swing through Texas, going 1-1-1 on the trip. Going .500 on a road trip is certainly serviceable but for the Condors it was just not good enough.
The Condors have played 23 of their 68 games games, are two games below .500 (9-11-3-0) and occupy the cellar of the Pacific Division.
The Condors have had the chance to get back to level ground — .500 — three times in the last six games, but have taken a step in the opposite direction.
It is the worst record at this stage of the season in the team’s brief AHL tenure. The Condors were a game above .500 after 23 games in their inaugural campaign and at .500 last season.
Just to refresh one’s memory, the Condors have yet to make the AHL playoffs.
Certainly there remains time to make a push as they are just seven points out of playoff spot with two games in hand. But they must leapfrog a bunch of teams and every point lost at this stage just makes the task much more difficult.
In a league where many teams have a bevy of first or second-round draft picks (Tucson has five in that category, Stockton features eight and San Antonio seven), the Condors have one — Ty Rattie, a second-round pick of St. Louis in 2011.
That is a hint that the Condors — whose top rookie prospects are mid-round pick defensemen Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and Ryan Mantha — just may not have the purebred horses some of their opponents possess.
The deficiencies are many and show up in all facets of the game, from the forwards back to the goaltenders.
As for centerman, the Condors do not have a true AHL level No. 1 capable of putting up big points, though veteran free-agent signing Brad Malone is doing his best. Malone came into the season averaging .44 points per game at the AHL level. In 16 games with the Condors, Malone has 12 points (5g, 7a) and is averaging .75 points per game.
But another free agent centerman signing, Grayson Downing, has just eight assists in 18 games and has been relegated to a fourth-line role.
Bear and Jones were touted as offensive-defensemen. Bear has made the adjustment to the pros much quicker and he had five points (2g, 3a) in his first eight games before suffering a concussion that had kept him out of the lineup. The Condors have missed his points and overall play (he was a plus-four before the injury). He is back skating and could be back in action soon.
Jones has been at the other end of the spectrum. He is logging big minutes, has seven points (one goal) in 23 games and is glaringly the clubhouse leader in minus at minus-17. Certainly not the start anyone envisioned from a guy who put up 62 points in 63 games in his final season of juniors and played a pivotal role in helping the USA to the World Junior Under 20 championship this past summer.
The Condors are 26th in scoring at just 2.65 goals per game, their entire defensive corps has combined for just five goals and goaltenders Eddie Pasquale and Nick Ellis (currently in Edmonton) stand 23rd and 25th, respectively in the league with goals-against averages of 2.80 and 2.82. Pasquale’s save percentage is just .898 while Ellis is better at .914.
Not surprisingly, the power play and penalty kill are not up to snuff. The power play has settled in at 15.7 percent, 20th overall, while the PK is just 80 percent. Coaches love it when those numbers add up to what is considered the benchmark — 105 percent. The Condors are at 95.7 percent. Not good.
The Condors are not a highly-skilled team. They are not a fast team. And they are not a big-hitting heavy team that can impose their will on opponents.
In order to win the Condors must be a cohesive unit with few mistakes. They need to be aggressive on the forecheck and set up cycles as often as possible. They must be tenacious in all other areas of the ice, eliminating as much space and time as they can from opposing players.
The Condors have proven they are competitive, especially against teams not named Stockton. Bakersfield is 1-6-0 against the Heat and 8-5-3 against other teams.
But they are not a team that can overcome too many mistakes. Fancy plays are going to be few and far between. They must make things as difficult as possible for opponents, then capitalize on their own opportunities.
Simple plays. Sticking to the systems. Everyone on the same page. Solid goaltending.
But if ugly hockey equates to winning hockey, there will be few complaints.
The Condors are in San Jose Saturday and Sunday for a pair of games in the span of 20 hours. Those 20-plus hours could dictate which way the rest of the season is headed.