Last year, Trevor Smith finished up the end of the postseason celebrating a Calder Cup championship with the Norfolk Admirals.
On Monday, as he packed up the belongings from his locker stall at Coal Street, the Game 5 loss to Syracuse that ended the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins season just two days earlier still stung.
Surprisingly, Smith felt like he did when it was time to pack things up and head home after last year’s championship. Win or lose, he said, saying goodbye to a team is never easy.
“This is one of the saddest days in hockey,” said Smith, who was sporting a black eye and a stitched eyelid he suffered from a stick in Game 5. “It’s stressful. When you’re in the season playing, you got that routine. Now, all of a sudden, it’s over. That’s always a tough time.”
Penguins players filed in and out of Coal Street most of the day, packing their bags and bidding farewell. For some it will be the last time in the locker room as a member of the home team. Smith, who was the team’s leading scorer in the playoffs, is an unrestricted free agent and would like to come back.
But you never know.
“It’s always stressful figuring out where you’re going to be playing,” he said.
It’s an issue that team captain Joey Mormina, who is also unrestricted, has dealt with many times in his career. He has spent a total of four years over two separate stints with the Penguins. On Monday his thoughts were on the season that was, but in the back of his mind Mormina knew that things would change.
“We had a little get-together yesterday but even then some of the guys had already taken off,” Mormina said. “Every year, this is the hardest part about playing hockey. You’re with the same group from September on, you become a family and see these guys more than your wife and kids. Birthdays, pregnancies, engagements, all that stuff. It’s a really special group we had here.”
Ironically, being named team captain may make it more likely that Mormina won’t be back. Being a captain helps the appeal to other teams, he said.
Still, Mormina wasn’t ruling out a return to the Penguins.
“As far as being a captain and a free agent, it’s definitely something that helps. A lot of teams’ captains make the NHL or they need a change in leadership, whatever,” he said. “But I haven’t even talked to my agent yet. Coming back is always an option.”
Coming to grips with an early playoff loss - early as in anything short of the Calder Cup finals - and saying goodbye to teammates is something that doesn’t impact just the players.
Coaches have a hard time with the finality of a season as well.
Head coach John Hynes compared the end of the season to being on a treadmill that suddenly stops.
“When you’re going after a championship, everyday is so intense and focused. All of a sudden that stops,” he said. “When you have a team like this that really went to war for the organization, made us all proud, it’s always difficult when that ends. You know when this group walks out the door today there’s going to be a new group, new training camp and new process.”
Despite the Game 5 loss to Syracuse, Hynes said there were many highlights that made the season a success. They went to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in Hynes’ three-year tenure, developed many of the organization’s top prospects, overcame losing streaks and bonded together as they made a final push just to make the postseason.
Still, Smith didn’t hesitate when asked if he thought it was a successful season for the 2012-2013 Penguins.
“No. We wanted to get the finals and have an opportunity to win it,” he said. “We fell short.”
Smith said Games 3 and 4 - both one-goal losses to Syracuse, were the turning point in the series. Still, the Penguins didn’t quit.
“There was absolutely nothing left in the tank from the guys in the room,” Mormina said.
In the coming weeks the thoughts of what could’ve been will be replaced by contract talks either with the Penguins or other organizations. But that’s all premature for the moment. Even Hynes admitted he hasn’t even considered coaching elsewhere yet.
“I haven’t focused on myself at all. When you’re going through a playoff run, you’re so focused on your own team you really don’t put focus on the future,” he said.
• Another unrestricted free agent, goaltender Brad Thiessen, could see his four-year stint with the Penguins come to an end this summer with Jeff Zatkoff returning and plenty of netminders in the system waiting for a chance. Still, Hynes wasn’t ruling out his return. “There’s always a possibility. Last year we kind of had the same situation to, and it’s tough to tell right now,” Hynes said. “Brad’s been a real professional for us and he’s always a guy who would be someone we’d continue to look at.”
• Hynes said he’d like to see some of the veteran forwards return next season so there would be continuity in the leadership department.