Bismarck Bobcat hockey, in its 19 1/2 years of existence, has been about winning. Lots and lots of winning.
The Bobcats won two Borne Cup championships in their first six seasons of existence as members of the America West Hockey League. Bismarck captured the Robertson Cup title in 2010, six seasons after the merger of the AWHL and the North American Hockey League. In their 13 1/2 seasons in the NAHL, the Bobcats have a winning percentage of almost .600.
This season is another matter.
The Bobcats are off to a 13-17-1 start, but Bobcats head coach and general manager Layne Sedeive, now in his seventh season behind the Bismarck bench, said nothing has changed. The franchise's commitment continues to be a pursuit of excellence.
"Look, at UND and Boston College they do such a good job of recruiting ... and the majority of a (recruiting) class stays four years," Sedevie noted. ... It's very different at our level. Two years is pretty much the max (for a player). When you lose 19 of 22 guys you don't think the next year is a throwaway year. If that was my my mentality, I think I'd find a different job."
"Our job is to do the best we can with our group. ... We've just got to get into the playoffs. ... That's something we've been very fortunate to do over the years," Sedevie continued.
Sedevie's observation about player turnover in junior hockey concerns his own team. The Bobcats were loaded with 20-year-olds -- 19 of them -- last season in their march to the Robertson Cup final four.
This year's roster looks much different. Currently, the Bobcat head count includes eight 20-year-olds, eight 19s, seven 18s and three 17s.
Last year's Bobcats won the Central Division with a 37-19-4 record. Just a game over the halfway point this season, the Bobcats sit in last place in the division with 27 points. The chief difference appears to be on the defensive end. Scoring is down from 3.08 goals per game to 2.84. However, the defensive yield has ballooned from 2.22 to 3.55.
Sedevie said some of that contrast bears mute testimony to Hunter Shepard, last season's NAHL goaltender of the year who's now playing at Minnesota-Duluth.
"That's the defensive group. We have a young goaltender (Camden Haugenoe) who's starting to play well," Sedevie said. "You have to understand what an elite goaltender Hunter was. That's a big piece of every puzzle when you have a team that has a chance to win a national championship, which we did."
"You don't realize how much of a difference a single player can make," Sedevie added. "And the crazy part was two years ago Hunter struggled a little bit."
Shepard was a workhorse last winter, going 49-16-3 in the Bobcats' 71-game run to the Robertson Cup semifinals.
The Bobcats have already used three goalies this season. Will Ulrich, a 20-year-old, started the season as Bismarck's main man. Ulrich appeared in 21 games (9-10-1) before being shelved by a high-ankle sprain. Haugenoe, 19, has played in 11 games (4-6-0) and Shane Brancato, 17, played a game against Minot on Dec. 30, losing 6-3.
"Brancato went back to his AAA team (Chicago Mission 18-under). He won't be with us again until his season there is done," Sedevie said. "We've had to grab an emergency goaltender from Alexandria (Minn.) for at least a month until Will is ready to go again.
"Obviously, for a goaltender going up and down, a high-ankle sprain is kind of a touchy deal. I think it will probably be another month until Will can get in the net."
By junior hockey standards, the Bobcats are a young team with 12 rookies and 18 players who, in theory, could return to the VFW Sports Center next season.
In terms of junior hockey experience, Sedevie says the current team is somewhat similar to his rookie-laden 2014-15 team. Those Bobcats went 30-26-4, losing in the second round of the NAHL playoffs.
"They were a .500 club, not a bad year, but look at that progression they made to last year. That was a pretty big step," Sedevie observed.
With 27 points, the Bobcats are two points behind fifth-place Aberdeen and seven points from fourth place, the division's final playoff slot.
The drive for a playoff berth begins tonight when the Bobcats visit Aberdeen. On Saturday Bismarck returns to the VFW Sports Center to take on the Minnesota Wilderness at 7:15 p.m.
Sedevie says the 29 remaining games give his team ample time to reach the division's top four. And once in the playoffs, a team gets a second chance.
"We've been the fourth seed twice and won the division playoffs," he observed. "You'll hear me say it quite often: 'Home ice is great, but once you get in the playoffs anything can happen."'