Extreme makeover: Off-season shakeups have curling teams still figuring out their way

The Canadian curling carousel was furiously spinning during this past off-season as teams were shaking up their lineups to secure their foursomes for this next four-year Olympic cycle.

It was almost weekly that teams were announcing their new lineups — keeping track of it all was challenging.

But now that the curling season has hit the halfway point the adjustment period is over, and teams are gearing up for the Scotties and Brier push. 

"You can only say we're a new team for so long," Kevin Koe said. "We can't keep saying that forever. It's time to get to where we think we can be."

Koe's former team represented Canada at the Olympics just one year ago. His third Marc Kennedy announced a leave from curling at the conclusion of last year and Brent Laing left to join John Epping. Koe and Ben Hebert had to find two new players in a hurry. B.J. Neufeld has taken the role of third and Colton Flasch is playing second.

"We had a great first half," Koe said. "I'm really happy with where we're at and I feel we have a lot of room to improve. It's time to crank it up a bit."

It's not uncommon for teams to disassemble and reload for the four-year Olympic cycle. That's the new reality. Koe was at the forefront of this practice when he did it last cycle as well.

"You have to make some tough decisions sometimes," Koe said. "They're not easy but you hope they work out in the end."

As competitive as Koe's new team has been so far this year, he knows they're still a ways off from where the skip wants them to be.

"We're still learning," he said. "The communication in some of the games still needs work to get more out of the rocks we're throwing. Tiny little things make the biggest difference against the top teams."

Kerri Einarson leads an all-skip foursome. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

All-skip success

One of the biggest shakeups in the off-season consisted of four skips leaving their teams and forming a new super-skip team led by Kerri Einarson.

There we so many questions and comments about how this team was going to come together — too many skips on one team?

Einarson, Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur, who all skipped their own teams in 2017-18, answered their critics in a big way, winning four World Curling Tour events to open this season.

"We've really clicked from the start and the girls have really embraced their roles in their new positions," Einarson said. "It all comes down to chemistry. You have to be able to get along on and off the ice."

Einarson says the team got together a number of times throughout the off-season to get to know each other better and talk about goals for the future. They've committed to this four-year cycle and seem to be gaining confidence at each event.

"Chemistry is a big part of the game and building those relationships with your players and building trust," Einarson said.

Einarson says the team voted on her the skip and throwing last rocks. She says their confidence in her has made all the difference halfway through the year.

"They chose me to skip so they have a lot of trust in me calling the game and throwing the last rock. The girls have been so supportive."

Reid Carruthers is part of a strong Manitoba rink. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Carruthers still working out the kinks

Then there's Team Carruthers, which joined forces with Mike McEwen to form a powerhouse Manitoba squad during the off-season.

But this year has been frustrating at times as Reid Carruthers and McEwen continue to learn how each other call the game.

"Off the ice, it's exactly what I thought it would be," Carruthers said. "On the ice we haven't had the success I'd hope for. It's not for lack of chemistry."

Throughout a number of events this season they've been tinkering with the lineup. In some cases Carruthers has called the game and thrown third, with McEwen throwing last rocks. This week in North Battleford, Sask., Carruthers is calling the game and throwing last rocks.

"This is our last trial event in a lot of ways before provincials," Carruthers said. "We have a couple of events after this and I think we'll lock in our positions during those."

Carruthers says there have been flashes of great curling during the season but that they've been plagued with inconsistencies, something he says they need to figure out quickly.

"The toughest thing is learning what not to say," he said. "Figuring out what to say is maybe a little easier but knowing when to bite your tongue is tough."

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