Starting to Stretch it out
J.P. Hoornstra, Staff Writer
ONTARIO - One month into the 2011-12 season, C.J. Stretch has a strong claim on the title of most improved player for the Reign.
The 22-year-old from Irvine has transformed himself from a power-play specialist into a top-line center and the team's leading scorer with 12 points in 11 games.
That sounds good, but it doesn't always feel good.
Take Friday in Anchorage, for example, when Stretch absorbed a punishing hit before getting rid of the puck to spring Derek Couture for a 2-on-1 breakaway with Vincent LoVerde. The sequence ended in a goal by LoVerde in the Reign's 8-4 loss to the Alaska Aces.
"If he bails there's no play. It's dead," Reign coach Jason Christie said.
"But he wanted that play, he took a hit to make that play and there was a goal because of it. That's the difference I'm seeing in him."
Christie talked to Stretch earlier in the season about the changes he hoped to see in the center's play - not giving up on plays, not avoiding contact - in sum, playing less of a finesse game.
Implementing these changes has been integral to Stretch's stellar stats.
Although it isn't officially recorded by the ECHL, his faceoff percentage appears to have improved as well, with his never-give-up mentality transferring to the circle.
But there's more to it than that.
"I'm more relaxed this year," Stretch said. "I know I'll be going out next shift. I get a little bit of leeway about not losing pucks, turnovers around the blue line. I can't be doing that, but last year if I made that play I wouldn't be playing the next shift."
The ECHL doesn't record time on ice as an official statistic, either, but it's safe to say Stretch is seeing significantly more time - especially in 5-on-5 situations - than he did as a rookie under Karl Taylor last season, when he scored nine goals and had 21 points in 46 games. This season, Stretch is on pace for 79 points.
As is often the case in sports, more playing time means more confidence.
"I had that confidence last year, but it kind of broke down a little bit throughout the year," Stretch said.
It also helps that Christie struck gold by putting Stretch with Geoff Irwin at left wing and Couture at right wing, a trio that has played together since the second week of the season. All three players came to Ontario under Taylor but have meshed well in Christie's system.
Irwin has three goals and four assists while Couture has five goals and five assists. Both have appeared in all 11 games this season.
"Couture has a good shot, good passer. He's also a big guy who creates a lot of room out there," Stretch said. "Irwin is the fastest guy I've ever seen out there. He's got one of the hardest shots out there. I'm more look-pass-before-shoot. I think we all work well together."
The marketing department can't complain about the results, either. Last season, Stretch said he always could count on a personal cheering section of roughly four, including his parents and grandmother.
His other friends and family didn't always brave the drive from Orange County to Ontario.
"They didn't know if I was playing," Stretch said. "This year, it's about probably 14 on average."
Defenseman Dylan Yeo, who has missed five consecutive games with a lower-body injury, took part in nearly the full practice Tuesday wearing a red (non-contact) jersey. If the team captain can't play today against the Stockton Thunder, expect veteran defenseman JP Cote to wear an alternate captain's "A". Cote wore the captain's "C" in Alaska, but that was because the team didn't have an "A" available to use with the road sweaters. Defenseman Philippe Seydoux missed practice with the flu. His status for today's game is unknown. Goalie Darcy Kuemper was returned to the Reign from the Minnesota Wild. Christie said Kuemper probably will start today.