DULUTH — The Gwinnett Gladiators renewed the contract of head coach Rick Emmett and team president Steve Chapman had a number of specific reasons for the decision.
He’s also expecting to take some flack over it from a vocal minority after the Gladiators finished 18th in the 21-team ECHL.
“It wasn’t a matter of, ‘Boy, I like Rick, he used to play for us,’” Chapman said of the former defenseman. “I don’t care. He could be my best friend. If he’s not going to get the job done, he ain’t going to be our head coach. There was a lot that went into the decision.
“He’s not here because he played for the Gladiators for three years. He’s here because I think he can get the job done. And, this is what I feel like some people don’t understand, we’re here to develop players and coaches. And we take that very seriously.”
That doesn’t mean Emmett isn’t under scrutiny and won’t be expected to improve — drastically — on the results from his first season as a head coach.
“I’m not looking for reasons to bring Rick Emmett back,” Chapman said. “I’m figuring out if this is the best way for us to go. I believe Rick can do it. It’s a process and he’s got to do some things to get better. But if he does, I think he’s going to be a heck of a coach at this level and beyond.”
Part of Chapman’s evaluation started in February. Gwinnett was starting to see more consistent results and a number of trades were paying off.
Chapman had a lunch meeting with the team leadership, including captain Joey Haddad and veterans Maxime Legault and Dirk Southern.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to candy coat this, I have a decision to make at the end of the year,’” Chapman said. “I have to go to (majority owner) Toby (Jeffreys) and recommend whether we keep Rick or go in another direction. Plain and simple, how you guys play down the stretch is probably going to be the determining factor.
“Because I know what I believe in Rick. I know the things he’s got to improve on. If you guys play hard, if you play to win, if you stay focused, that’s going to be a positive. If you drift through the end of this season like it’s over, then that’s going to tell me something as well. Because we have to start building for next year right now.”
The Gladiators played some of their best hockey in the final weeks of the season and Chapman had his answer on that score.
“I thought they responded to that,” Chapman said. “To me that’s the first indicator that they do want to play for this coach, that they care about his future. That was a big step in the process.”
Chapman also had individual meetings with players to assess their interest in returning.
“But the reaction was the players know Rick knows what he’s talking about,” Chapman said. “They like him as a person. They want to play hard for him.”
Still, the byword Chapman is sticking to for the upcoming season, for players and coaches and himself, is accountability.
“We have to hold guys accountable — and it is difficult at times at our level to do that,” Chapman said. “Because unlike an NHL team or an AHL team, you don’t always have three guys sitting in the stands that you can throw on the ice if someone isn’t playing well.
“I believe the Gladiators are one of the best teams to play for. And the players tell me that. They like the family atmosphere we have. They like the fans. They like the weather. It’s a good place for them to play. But to me, there’s a price to pay for that — and that’s accountability. You’ve got to do it our way and if you don’t, there have to be some repercussions. That’s something a young head coach has to learn.”
Chapman recognizes many factors contributed to the results last season.
From the beginning, Emmett was looking at an uphill battle. The official roster included only two or three players when he was hired in August and, for the first time, there was no returning core.
On opening day, only Haddad and Justin Weller had played significant time in Gwinnett the previous season.
“Regardless of who our head coach was, it was going to be a rebuilding year,” Chapman said. “There are coaches that have a lot more connections that maybe would have been at a greater advantage. But I balance that reality with some accountability. This starts with me, too. I had a pretty good idea (John Wroblewski) was going to move up.
“It got to be late July and I knew he was up for the (Rochester assistant) job. By the same token, Rick had been an assistant for two years and he had to know in the back of his mind there’s a good chance (Wroblewski) is moving on. You’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Goaltender Louis Domingue, a Phoenix prospect assigned to the team, was also on the roster after a solid rookie season with Gwinnett in 2012-13. But he left a couple of weeks into the season and thus began the revolving door of goalies.
Mark Guggenberger was the last, and the best, to play last season — the staggering 13th netminder to stand between the pipes during a game for Gwinnett.
“There were some things that happened this year that, clearly, is really not anybody’s fault,” Chapman said. “That being 13 goaltenders. It’s insane.
“If you go back and look at the stats from the year, our leader in minutes, saves, wins is Guggs. And we got him in late February.”
Another personnel issue that Chapman is determined to avoid this season revolves around the rookies. Not so much the number of them, but where they’re coming from and, subsequently, their age. At the start of the season, he said, six of the nine rookies came out of the major junior ranks.
“We’ve always been a college rookie type team,” Chapman said. “Here’s why: Marshall Everson was a rookie this season. He was 25 years old. We had others coming out of juniors who were 20 and 21. Look back at your own life. I can tell you I was quite a different person at 25 than I was at 21. And so are these players.
“Because of the nature of our league, we’re always going to be a youngish team, but if we’re going to have nine rookies, from now on, seven or eight of them are going to be out of college.”
He also has a good bead on players that wish to come back and feels confident the team is in a good place right now.
“There’s no doubt we’re miles ahead on team structure now than we were last year,” Chapman said. “We’ve gotten our feet back under us after basically having to rebuild.
“Other teams, candidly, just look at a record and you’re either fired or not. The record’s not something we want, but what we’re doing here is trying to develop players and we’re trying to develop coaches and we’re trying to develop front-office staff. So we look at it a little bit differently. The majority of our fans understand that.”