PELHAM, Ala. – With player signing announcements coming from teams all over the SPHL as the 2021-22 season draws nearer, we figured now would be a good time to do a recap of last season. The season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we could see some quality hockey thanks to all the hard work from the league and the teams that had to follow stringent protocols, which placed them in a sort of SPHL bubble throughout the season. The season also only featured five teams instead of the usual ten from the season before. Those teams that did play, though, put on a great show for fans, and we got to see some very competitive hockey all season long.
Regular Season Record
The Bulls finished the 42-game 2020-21 season with a 12-23-7-0 record, which found them in fifth place and missing the playoffs by eight points. They did, however, lead the league in one stat, and that was penalty minutes with 638 PIM on the season.
Even with the disappointing finish to the season, there were a few bright spots on the year for the Bulls. One of those would be that Birmingham was home to the league-leading scorer last year, and that title belonged to the captain Logan Nelson, who finished the season with 49 pts (13g, 36a) in 39 games played. The captain was truly the team’s heartbeat all season long, and the scoresheet reflected how unselfish his playing style was, with 36 of his points coming from assists rather than goals.
Another bright spot on the season was that the Bulls, despite having a rough year, led the league in attendance averaging 41% capacity on the season, which would be an average of 1681 fans each game. Considering the arena capacity at the Pelham Civic Complex is only 4100, 1681 fans in the building on game nights made sure that their presence was known and had the arena rocking every night.
The last bright spot on the season would be that head coach Craig Simchuk got his first full season as the bench boss under his belt. Despite the disappointing finish to the year, Simchuk battled through so many issues all season and handled them all with class and professionalism. Unfortunately, the goaltending situation, which was thought to be a solid spot coming into the season, turned worse with injuries, suspensions, even the occasional call-up to the ECHL. However, Simchuk always found another netminder to keep the team in games and give the boys a shot at winning the game night in and night out.
Now onto the bad from the season. The first thing that comes to mind is going to be special teams. We will ignore the fact that the Bulls had the best powerplay in the league at 21.4% and focus on how that same powerplay allowed a league-leading 16 short-handed goals against. When it came to the penalty kill, the team struggled and finished out the year with a league-worst 76.3% on the PK.
Another minus on the season is the slow starts and playing from behind early on. Birmingham gave up the first goal of the game 32 times this past season and was only able to come back and win seven of those games. It is worth noting three of those come-from-behind victories were against in-state rival the Huntsville Havoc, where both teams always seem to step up their game a little.
The last minus is the scoring production. Despite having the leading scorer on the team, the Bulls finished the season with 103 goals, which was also the league-worst. It wasn’t really any one thing that you can point at as to why the scoring was down; some nights, it was a lack of shots, and the next night, it may have been running into a hot goalie, which we know there was a few of last season in the league.
Overall, the good teams find ways to put points on the board, and the Bulls struggled in that category all year long.
Room For Improvement
The first area where the team needs to improve this coming season is special teams (powerplay & penalty kill). They will have to stop giving up the odd-man rushes while on the powerplay, and the penalty kill has got to get better. A 76.3% PK will not win many games.
Another area of improvement needs to be the goaltending position. Through no fault of the goaltenders or coaching staff last year, the goaltending spot was weak. Injuries, call-ups, and a lengthy suspension to Austin Lotz early on put the team in a position that found them never really getting comfortable or consistent in that position. Maybe an offseason signing can improve this position, and hopefully, a healthy Lotz can return and play at the high-level Bulls fans are used to seeing him play at.
Lastly, the team has room for improvement when it comes to creating quality scoring chances. We saw games last year with many shots, but the goaltender could see nearly everything, and we saw games where there were just not enough shots going at the net. Adding a few big bodies to plant in front of the net may be the answer this team is looking for this coming season.
Prediction Sure to Go Wrong
My way too early prediction for the 2021-22 season will be that Birmingham finishes out the season in the top-three of the standings and makes a run for the President’s Cup once again.
Overall, looking back at the Birmingham Bulls 2020-21 season, there is a lot of room for improvement, and we can all be assured that management and the coaching staff fully understand this and are working towards righting the ship.
With head coach Craig Simchuk heading into his second full season as the bench boss, it will be interesting to see the team’s direction and adjustments from this past year.
In an earlier interview, Simchuk said, “I want to create a culture, and I want to implement some things that I believe in, and the guys are receptive too. I want a championship in Birmingham.”
The coach has set high standards for himself, and you can be assured he will hold his players to those same high standards. This will definitely be an exciting season for Simchuk and the Bulls as we wait to see if they can turn the corner and become a top team in the SPHL once again.
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