Every league has its stars and its underrated players, but the EIHL seems to be particularly susceptible to “star player” syndrome. Think of Coventry and you think of Shea Guthrie or Brad Leeb, of Braehead and it’s Jade Galbraith, of Cardiff it’s (probably) Devin DiDiomete or Mac Faulkner. Today on Chasing Dtagons we pick out ten Elite League players who EIHL fans and pundits should be talking far more about. It’s time for Under The Radar.
1. Greg Leeb (Coventry Blaze)
His brother Brad gets all the plaudits for scoring and is generally viewed as the bigger threat, while Matt Beleskey is the new flavour of the month, but the older Leeb brother is the replacement for Dan Carlson Blaze have been crying out for for the past few seasons and may be the best pure centre in the league. He’s almost supernaturally calm on the puck, has a positional instinct few can better and is a beast in the faceoff circle, with Paul Thompson putting him out there whenever a crucial faceoff needs to be won. Couple that with a point-a-game plus scoring rate and an ability to run the powerplay from the point (watch him drift between the blue-line, faceoff circle and behind the net on the right side of Blaze’s powerplay, always providing an option), and the little man from Red Deer may be one of the signings of the season so far.
2. Casey Haines (Fife Flyers)
No-one expected much from Haines when he signed in Fife-his acquisition went by without any real comment from the league at large and his ECHL stats were good but not great. However, since he’s arrived in Kirkcaldy the 26-year-old has shown an appetite for goals, getting nine of them and 17 points to be up in the top three of league scoring, as well as being named Flyers captain. He’s a constant threat offensively and is fast making a reputation for himself-keep an eye out for him when the Flyers visit your rink.
3. Sami Ryhanen (Dundee Stars)
The Finn was briefly impressive in a short stint with the Nottingham Panthers last season, but the measure of how effective he was expected to be in Dundee is perhaps best taken by the fact that even the Elite League website can’t spell his name right. Now, however, the silky Scandinavian centre is leading the Elite League in points and has formed a lethal partnership with Mike Wirll on Tayside that’s almost singly responsible for the Stars being where they are-between them Wirll and Ryhanen have scored 14 goals and 39 points, with Ryhanen being the major creative force on the Stars attack and his soft hands being a joy to watch.
4. Chris Blight (Cardiff Devils)
His linemate and friend Mac Faulkner is getting all of the attention thanks to his early-season goalscoring exploits, but a lot of those strikes are being set up by Blight’s tireless work in the corners and solid physical play. The Etobicoke, ON native can score himself, as evidenced by a 25-goal season in the ECHL, but so far only has three goals. The eleven assists are perhaps more indicative of his value to the Devils and Faulkner in particular-Blight makes that Devils top line tick and allows his linemate to take the plaudits.
5. Brock McPherson (Braehead Clan)
I picked the big Canadian out as an unsung hero for the Clan in my preseason preview, and since then he’s done nothing to prove me wrong. Sure, 9 points isn’t the most impressive scoring statistic, but McPherson is a key component of making the Clan offense work. He’s strong, surprisingly quick for a big guy and does the dirty work behind the net and in the corners as well as anyone else in the league, as well as being a physical presence that allows the likes of Drew Miller and Jade Galbraith to get on with what they do best relatively unmolested.
6. Janis Ozolins (Hull Stingrays)
On paper, Ozolins was a cheap, makeweight signing-a pickup from the Sheffield Steeldogs after an impressive EPL season who was likely going to struggle at Elite League level, with questions over his ability to make the step up rife.
But then we saw the little Latvian play. Watching Ozolins stickhandle in traffic is a thing of beauty-he’s quick and elusive with a surprising amount of strength for someone listed at 5’9 and 165lbs. Search for highlights of Hull’s visit to Coventry this season and watch both his calm finish for a goal during the game and his audacious penalty shot, and you come away thinking that the 23-year-old from Riga may have some of the best hands in the EIHL. The Stingrays have found a little diamond.
7. Daymen Rycroft (Belfast Giants)
Rycroft is another player whose CV looked less impressive than some of his teammates, having spent the majority of his career in the Central Hockey League rather than the ECHL or AHL. When he was signed he was expected to be a solid forward but play second fiddle to the likes of Noah Clarke and Greg Stewart.
That expectation has gone out the window. The 5’11, 180lb Albertan is now the Giants’ top scorer and a key component of their powerplay, using his vision and quick shot to cause opposition defences all manner of problems. He’s one of the main offensive threats on a stacked Giants team, which is no mean feat in itself, but still toils a little in the shadow of his more illustrious linemates.
8. Nicola Riopel (Dundee Stars)
There were a few raised eyebrows when Dundee signed the 23-year-old Canadian-Italian…after a decent junior career with the Moncton Wildcats Riopel had hardly set the world alight. However, like Garrett Zemlak last season he’s come into an unfancied team and given them a chance to win every night-he’s currently in the top five in GAA despite having a workmanlike but unspectacular defence in front of him, and would likely be being talked about far more if he played for a more glamorous team than the Stars.
9. Michal Dobron (Edinburgh Capitals)
Another signing that surprised many mainly for his sheer quality, Dobron is the latest example of Caps coach Richard Hartmann pulling out a gem from Eastern Europe to follow Rene Jarolin last season. The Czech is a big presence at 6’2, 238lbs but more than that he’s very skilled indeed, and could probably fit into the top four if not the top pair of most EIHL teams. Certainly he’s far more impressive than Nottingham’s Martin Tuma, who has a fairly comparable CV, and will likely find himself on a Team Of The Year if the UK’s ice hockey journalists are doing their job. Despite that, he rarely gets a mention outside Edinburgh.
10. Martin Cingel (Edinburgh Capitals)
An Edinburgh legend, Cingel is one of the hardest-working players in the EIHL and is scoring at nearly a point a game despite being on a struggling squad. He’s also captain once again and the calmness and stability that he brings to what is often a hectic hockey environment in the Scottish capital cannot be underestimated-Cingel’s an anchor around which the rest of the Caps can congregate even when times get hard, and while he may not be the best player in the league and age may be beginning to catch up with him, his effect on the Caps has a value that can’t be measured in mere numbers.
Right. There’s your ten under-rated players…tomorrow we might have a look at those overrated as well. Happy Thursday…