Predictions are both the bane of a sportswriter’s life and one of its necessary evils. Most of my time covering hockey in the EIHL isn’t actually spent covering or even watching “my” team in Coventry-it’s spent hunting around for the raw data of player signings across the EIHL, hunting through and memorising statistics, watching any footage I can of particularly juicy signings in any league I can to learn more about them, and having got hold of the raw data, trying to work out what it means. I spend the off-season looking at obscure stats like average heights of teams, trying to relate a players’ points-per-game, plus minus or save percentage both to the relative standard of the league they were achieved in and players they were achieved alongside, and speadsheet after spreadsheet of results. Then I try and put them into some sort of logical conclusion and spot trends to give me something to write about and give me an idea of what we can expect to see during the offseason.
This offseason, watching all the activity in the EIHL and trying to make sense of it keeps resulting in me coming back to one nagging thought:
This could be the year the Cardiff Devils rejoin the big boys with an Elite League title.
Granted, it’s difficult (and indeed foolish) to make any solid predictions in mid-July, especially as we see some teams close to completion (like Coventry) and others barely begun on their announced recruitment. However, what one CAN do is assess the likely strength of the rosters and form a gut feeling about them.
Gerard Adams has quietly become one of the EIHL’s best recruiters during his time as player/coach in South Wales…regularly picking out star players like Scott Matzka and Mac Faulkner on a budget not quite the level of the “top” EIHL squads. He’s continued the proud tradition the Devils have of reaching the EIHL playoff final weekend every year since the league came into being…and despite finishing second in the EIHL two years ago and coming within a game of being champions, he and his partner-in-crime Neil Francis somehow never really come up in discussion of best coaches of the EIHL era.
Looking at the Devils roster this season, though, I keep getting the feeling that this will be the season the Devils truly make the leap from “strong squad” to “genuine title contenders”.
The Devils have always had a very strong identity under Adams and Francis-the coaching team have built a succession of hard-working, defensively responsible squads. They have contained the odd genuine league star-names like Jon Pelle and Scott Matzka come immediately to mind-but if there HAS been a flaw in the squad it’s been that they’ve seemed to be built to a compromise, whether intentionally or not, as Adams has tried to walk the line between the small ice surface of their home rink and the bigger ice surfaces elsewhere. They’ve also always seemingly had one Achilles heel that harmed them-whether it be in net, discipline problems or elsewhere.
Look at this year’s team, though, and you see a team that’s strong in every department. It has goalscoring (Mac Faulkner is one of the best forwards in the EIHL and scored at a clip of over a point a game before his injury last year-his partner-in-crime Chris Blight is an able foil), defensive strength (Adam Ross, Josh Batch, Mark Smith and Brad Plumton all provide a nice balance of bulk and ability, while Mark Richardson is the heir apparent to Jonathan Weaver for the “Brit offensive dman” crown) and grit (the two Andrews Conboy and Lord are going to be making opposition d-men’s lives hell on the forecheck all year).
In net, too, Adams and Francis have pulled off a coup. Losing their first choice in Frank Doyle was seen by some as a blow, but in allowing the recruitment of former NHL backup Dan LaCosta I’d argue it’s been the best thing to happen to South Wales hockey this offseason-LaCosta is younger and has the potential to be better than both Doyle and last season’s EIHL leader Craig Kowalski in net-his career path has been somewhat unorthodox but there is no disputing his talent.
Crucially, though, what this Devils squad has more than any other I can remember is depth-and the feel of being built to a template that is perfect for the cramped claustrophobic ice of the Big Blue Tent. Matt Myers was superb in Nottingham but learned his craft on the tight surface of the WNIR, and his return to his home city is a statement of intent.
Coupled with the size of Phil Hill, a maturing Ben Davies and the raw energy of Adam Harding, Chris Jones and Luke Piggott, the Devils Brit-pack is amongst the better in the EIHL.
The sheer size of the squad (the team are on average 5lbs or nearly half a stone heavier a man than any other team) coupled with the scouting reports on the likes of Ross, Lord and Conboy show that Adams has built a team with the small ice of the Tent and a Devils crowd that LOVE smash-and-grab grinding hockey in mind, and they’ll be licking their lips at playing half their fixtures on a rink seemingly tailored for them to punish opponents physically.
My feeling is that Adams and Francis have a gameplan that involves turning their home rink into a House Of Pain this year-a template that has been proven to work in the past so effectively by Coventry and to a lesser degree Newcastle. In fact, this Devils squad reminds me already of nothing so much as the all-conquering Blaze squad of 04/05…and we all know what they did.
Coupling a fearsome fire-breathing forecheck with a top goalie and adding a side of skill in a rink that will reward it while managing to keep it effective for away rinks is a recipe that Adams and Francis have been trying to get right for years, but somehow they’ve never quite found the perfect blend, or depth.
With this squad, I think they have. It remains to be seen how other teams respond but I think in this Devils season we’ll see the patient work of the Devils management in blooding local youngsters and sticking to a template finally bear fruit.
This Devils team is coming for the big boys as well as the rest of the EIHL. And this time, I have a feeling they’ll be bringing hell with them.
As an opposition fan (of one of their big rivals) the 2013/14 Cardiff Devils scare the hell out of me.
As a hockey fan, I can’t wait to see what they, Gerard Adams, Neil Francis and the Red Army can do this year.