Mark Lamb won’t be back next season as head coach of the Prince George Cougars.
The Cougars intend to hire a head coach which will allow Lamb to focus exclusively on his duties as general manager of the Western Hockey League team.
He took on the interim tag Feb. 6 when Richard Matvichuk was relieved of his duties after nearly three seasons as head coach.
“That’s not the plan to come back, I’m interim head coach since I took over and that’s still what I am,” said Lamb earlier this week at the team’s awards banquet. “There’s going to be a search for it, I haven’t put a lot of thought into it yet.
“Obviously when you’re in a situation like this, people kind of know, so I’ve gotten a lot of resumes already. I just wanted to concentrate on finishing the year strong and I think that’s what we did.”
Lamb was hired as general manager last June to replace Todd Harkins, whose contract was not renewed after four seasons as GM. Prior to joining the Cougars, Lamb spent seven seasons with the Swift Current Broncos as head coach and general manager (2009-2016) and left to the following season when he was hired as head coach of the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, the top farm club of the Arizona Coyotes.
He served seven seasons as an NHL assistant coach with Edmonton and Dallas after a 16-year career in pro hockey as a centre.
The Cougars (19-41-3-5) finished last in the B.C. Division and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. They totalled just 46 points (fifth-lowest in their 25-year Prince George history) in a 68-game season, the first since the league shortened the schedule from 72 games.
Lamb took over while the team was in the midst of a club-record 17-game losing streak, the longest since the team arrived from Victoria in 1994, and they finished the season with two wins, 11 regulation losses, an overtime loss and a shootout loss.
“One of the reasons I did take over was to try to find some answers, try to find some improvements for the organization to find where the needs are moving on and exactly what was wrong and I got a lot of information - working with the coaching staff and just getting to know the kids, it was a lot better for me,” said Lamb, who has three years remaining on his contract.
“When you’re away, event though you’re sitting up top and you’re the GM you know what’s going on but now you can really feel what’s going on, which should be beneficial for the future. (As a coach) you really see the holes in your lineup and where you need to improve.”
Lamb tried to instil more of a shoot-first mentality over the last five weeks of the season to try to take advantage of the team’s physicality in front of the net. To some degree that made the Cougars more competitive but the shift did not cure their losing ways.
“How you want to play changes with the type of team you have and we were a team that didn’t have as much skill as other teams and we were a big physical team,” said Lamb. “We had to forge our way that way in our identity, getting pucks to the net and scoring hard goals and being a way better team defensively and I thought we made small strides in all those areas.”
Scoring goals was difficult for the Cougars all season. They scored just 152 times in 68 games, a 2.24 average. Only the last-overall Swift Current Broncos (135) scored fewer goals. Josh Maser scored 30 goals, the first Cougar to do so in three seasons. Import winger Vladislav Mikhalchuk led the team in scoring with 25 goals and 50 points and defencemen Cole Moberg (13-27-41) and Ryan Schoettler (4-28-32) did their part to spark the offence, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make the Cougars a playoff contender.
“There will be significant changes and it will all be how (well) these kids summer, you have to take some time off and clear the brain and spend time with your family and if you want to be a Prince George Cougar you’ve got to put in the work,” said Lamb.
There is help on the horizon from the 2003 draft class with the likes of forward Craig Armstrong (Airdrie Xtreme), defenceman Hudson Thornton (Rink Academy) and goalie Tyler Brennan (Rink Academy), as well as forward Tyson Phare (Delta Academy), the Cougars’ 2017 first-round pick, about to make the jump to the WHL.
“You can’t put a lot of pressure on these young 16-year-olds, it’s a hard league to play in, but they’re very good players with a lot of status,” said Lamb. “They’ve been around a bit this year and we’ve seen them and the progression they’ve showed throughout the year is very positive also.”
The Cougars own the second- and fourth-overall in picks in the May bantam draft but as 15-year-olds, no matter who the Cougars draft they will be limited to just five games each next season. Lamb says the team is well-stocked with draft picks this year and in the next two draft years, which is why they did not make any moves at the January trade deadline.
“We had some players that other teams wanted but to get draft picks back, we have those draft picks, we need real players back if we’re going to be making trades,” he said.
The draft is the Cougars’ lifeblood and Lamb realizes how important it is that he and head scout Bob Simmonds make the right choices May 2 in Red Deer. They’ll have six picks in the first five rounds this year and have seven choices in the first five rounds for 2020, including Portland’s first-rounder.
Matvichuk, after he was fired, said the Cougars are paying the price for the moves they made in the 2016-17 season when they won the B.C. Division and were gearing up for what they thought would be an extended playoff run, which ended in a first-round series loss to Portland. Two seasons ago they traded Justin Almeida, who went on to lead the WHL this season with 78 assists, to Moose Jaw in the deal that brought forward Nikita Popugaev to the Cougars. That deal backfired on the Cougars in October 2017 when Popugaev decided to return to Russia and forego his final two seasons of junior eligibility.
“When you go all-in, like we did two years ago, and you take a look at how many players were drafted in the last five years who aren't even playing in the WHL, regardless of whether it’s a first-rounder or a seventh-rounder, the development curve wasn’t there,” Matvichuk said.
Lamb did not disagree.
“He’s right, we have to do a better job of drafting, especially with the situation we’re in, we’ve got lots of picks this year and we have lots of picks next year and the year after,” Lamb said.