Groundhog Day seems to be coming early for the Dakota Jackalopes and coach Harold Engellund this season. Last year, Dakota came into the season with high expectations. But when they stumbled out of the gate with a sub-.500 record, Engellund’s job was reported to be in jeopardy. Shortly thereafter, the team rallied around their coach and went on a winning streak, and Engellund was spared. This season, the Jackalopes spent heavily on trades and free agents and again came into the season expecting great things. But they’re off to a sub-.500 start again, and Engellund is reportedly on the hot seat… again.
“The sense here is that ownership has spent a lot of money building a contender,” said a team source. “And we’re still seeing average results. At some point, you’ve got to start wondering if Harold is the coach that can get us to the next level.”
After the Jackalopes allowed six goals in the third period in a 7-4 loss to Anchorage, Engellund was asked about his job security. “It’s not like I’m not used to this,” said the coach. “This is a results-based business, and we’re not having the kind of results that would make me secure. I know that the only way you stop the rumors is by winning.”
Prior to the season, the Jackalopes made perhaps more moves to improve than any other team in the league. They bolstered their already-potent offense by trading for C Mike Rivera from New York, and aimed to shore up their defense by signing Rusty Anderson from Washington and acquiring Scott Hexton from Hershey.
The results? Dakota’s offense has been even better than last year; their 104 goals are the most in the league. Rivera (7 goals, 20 assists) has fit right in with the Jackalopes’ fast-paced attack. But the defense, if anything, has taken a step back. They’ve allowed 94 goals (they allowed 86 through this point last year). The blueline corps itself has posted similar stats to last season; it’s the goaltending that has slipped a notch.
Last season, one of the points of contention between Engellund and the Dakota front office revolved around the net. Engellund reportedly preferred veteran Jesse Clarkson, while the front office wanted prospect Christien Adamsson to get more playing time. The team wound up trading Clarkson at the deadline, clearing the way for Adamsson (in conjunction with another youngster, Buzz Carson, who came over in the Clarkson deal). The duo has combined to post an .899 save percentage; only cellar-dwelling Seattle is worse.
It all adds up to a so-so team, which is not what small-market Dakota wants to see. The team is reportedly losing money at a concerning rate, and if the team isn’t going to challenge for the Vandy in its current form, ownership would like to tighten its belt and cut payroll. Others within the front office, though, think that the Jackalopes can contend with the current roster, and that Engellund isn’t a strong enough leader to get the most out of the team.
Engellund remains popular with the players, a definite point in his favor. But some in the organization feel that he is too close to the players, and is unwilling to call them out or push them hard.
“I don’t think there’s any magic bullet here,” said the coach. “It’s a tough division, and Michigan and Anchorage set a high bar. But that’s the bar we’ve got to clear.”
Asked if he was tired of the constant speculation about his employment status, Engellund said, “Well, yeah, it gets old. At some point, you want to fish or cut bait. But that’s how it is in this line of work. There’s no tenure in coaching, no life appointment. You do the job or you’re out the door.”
Jackalopes LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston strongly defended his coach this week. “If you ask around the locker room, you’ll find out in a hurry that we’re all behind Coach Engellund 100%,” said Airston. “Every one of us is happy that he’s in charge. I’m sick of these rumors coming out of nowhere that Coach Engellund needs to go. If the front office isn’t happy, they should man up and say it in public. And don’t point the finger at Coach Engellund. He’s not the problem.”
But Engellund himself said it best: It’s a results-based business. As long as ownership expects a championship contender and the Jackalopes don’t deliver, the coach and players alike will be on the hot seat.