Ten Teams, Ten Days is a series looking in depth at each of the EIHL teams in the leadup to the EIHL season, although it’s been thrown off its original schedule as we wait for the final teams to complete their rosters. Yesterday, the Belfast Giants completed theirs, and so today they become team number 7.
They’re gonna eat me alive
If I stumble
They’re gonna eat me alive…”
Metric: “Help, I’m Alive“
It’s been an offseason of both change and continuity in Northern Ireland. The offseason started in the worst possible way for the Giants, with the loss of their coach Doug Christiansen after he got the team to the playoff final in 2012/13-before the groans of disappointment at their final loss had died Christiansen was poached by Sheffield, and the Giants New Era had begun, whether the fans wanted it to or not. Paul Adey was brought back into the EIHL to be the Giants’ new coach ten years after he last led an EIHL team (in Nottingham) and the Giants began to rebuild once again. And rebuild they have-Paul Adey recruiting a whole host of names familiar to Giants fans and several strong newbies in a workmanlike roster built seemingly on an ethos of steady, two way hockey-amongst them one of the strongest defences in the EIHL-one that rivals Sheffield in the strength of it as a unit. But is this really a Giants New Era, or will the return of a lot of old faces from the Giants past mean the same results? Let’s take a look at the squad:
#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson
The Giants have the GB number one in net in the experienced Stephen Murphy, who despite seemingly being around for ever is in fact only 31-he was starting for Fife at 19 in the BNL and has been amongst the top British goalies ever since, spending time in Sweden and Norway as well as several EIHL clubs-this is his fifth season as the Giants starter, with his best season being 2011/12 (59 starts, 92.3% SV, 1.90 GAA). By any estimation Murphy is currently the best British goalie in the EIHL and better than many imports, and will be a strong foundation to build upon. Ballymoney boy Andrew Dickson will once again take on backup duties and look to take his chance to continue improving when he can.
#3 Jeff Mason, #6 Robby Sandrock, #13 Davey Phillips, #24 Calvin Elfring, #25 Cody Brookwell, #62 Kevin Phillips
This is a strong defensive unit, with Hull’s finest the Phillips brothers providing two of the better British d-men in the game to back up the returning Jeff Mason and Robby Sandrock, who are joined by two Canadians at the opposite ends of the age scale in Cody Brookwell and veteran Calvin Elfring. The 37-year-old Elfring is an intriguing signing who joins after a 20-year career spent mainly in the German leagues, nine of them with Straubing Tigers in first the Bundesliga and then the DEL proper. He is a wily old head of an two-way defenceman who will be expected to provide secondary offence but particularly use his equal experience in his own end to be the defensive linchpin and one of the leaders of the squad. Speaking of wily old offensive defencemen, they don’t come much better than Robby Sandrock-the 35-year-old is another who’s played around the top leagues in Europe in between stints at the ISL Giants and his return to the UK last season-and the Williams Lake, BC native showed just how dangerous he could be, his fearsome shot netting him 16 goals from the blueline and his passing meaning he was a massively key part of the Giants powerplay. He’s joined in this by American Jeff Mason, one of only two US-born players on the Giants, who is another lethal blueline threat-in his last full season with the Giants he got a staggering 21 goals from the blue and added 44 assists. Although his scoring was considerably down last season with only 6+16 in 38 games, he’s still one of the top offensive d-men in the EIHL. Cody Brookwell is a big solid player who, like Elfring, will provide the foundation for Mason and Sandrock to build on, while the Phillips brothers David and Kevin will also hold the fort at the back, David in particular going forward whenever he can. This is a well-balanced, solid group to rival the best in the league.
#7 Mark Garside, #9 Evan Cheverie, #10 Chris Higgins, #11 Dustin Whitecotton, #12 Jeff Szwez, #19 Colin Shields, #22 Kevin Saurette, #32 Robbie Brown, #39 Gareth Roberts, #47 Adam Keefe, #72 Daryl Lloyd
Paul Adey has built a group based seemingly more on collective scoring and sensible two-way play in the main, though the acquisition of Jeff Szwez as his last signing is a big one-Szwez scored 42 goals in his last visit to the EIHL and, while the league standard as a whole has improved since then, he’ll still be good for at least 30 if everything goes as planned. There are goals through the lines from the likes of Cheverie, Szwez and Saurette, solid two-way play and more goals possible from Dustin Whitecotton and Chris Higgins, creative skills from Cheverie, Colin Shields and Whitecotton again, and arguably the best agitating/penalty-killing/shutdown pair in the EIHL in talismanic captain Adam Keefe and his partner in crime Daryl Lloyd. This is a nicely balanced forward group, but Giants fans will fear that if Cheverie, Szwez and Saurette are shut down or hit a slump none of the other forwards with the exception of Shields are out-and-out goalscorers. Mark Garside is a very effective player and has formed a formidable shutdown/energy line with Keefe and Lloyd in recent years, and the Giants will rely on them and the experience of the rest of their forward group to stifle the opposition. Other teams may have more scorers grouped in the higher reaches of the league, but few will run a more balanced three-line group than Belfast. And in Keefe and Lloyd, few forward groups have more ability to get under the opposition’s skin than the Giants do…Keefe is always willing to lead the charge when it comes to pugilism being required, too. Gareth Roberts and Robbie Brown will step in where needed as depth forwards. This is a lunch-pail group who will go to work every single night and give their squad a chance to win.
COACH: PAUL ADEY
The Canadian-born Adey is a man who’s represented Great Britain with distinction as a player and is a legend in Nottingham as a player and also, to a lesser degree, as a coach. He’s also the most experienced man behind the bench in the EIHL, having been a head coach for 13 years, mainly in Britain, Italy and Switzerland. He’s a student of the game who will know the task facing the Giants in a very tough Erhardt Conference, and also a man whose teams in recent years are characterised by scoring by committee rather than relying on one or two massively prolific players, an approach he’s taken in building the Giants this season. There can be no doubting his experience or knowledge of the European game-but can he bring it to bear for the Giants?
PROSPECTIVE LINES: FORWARDS
Jeff Szwez-Dustin Whitecotton-Kevin Saurette
Chris Higgins-Evan Cheverie-Colin Shields
Mark Garside-Daryl Lloyd-Adam Keefe
PROSPECTIVE LINES: DEFENCE
Robby Sandrock-Cody Brookwell
Jeff Mason-Calvin Elfring
Davey Phillips-Kevin Phillips
NETMINDERS: Stephen Murphy/Andrew Dickson
PLAYER TO WATCH: #12 JEFF SZWEZ
The final piece of the Giants jigsaw this season is also the most important. The 32-year-old Ontarian from the Toronto-area town of Etobicoke was ridiculously prolific in his last visit to the EIHL, scoring over a point a game including 42 goals in 50 games. A few years have passed since then, though, and Paul Adey is counting upon the 6’3, 212lb power forward to be similarly deadly in front of the net this time round. As one of the great hopes of the Giants offence and with previous scoring exploits still fresh in Giants’ fans minds, they’ll be looking to him to see if he can repeat them. So will the rest of the EIHL.
This is a Giants squad that, despite the trumpeting of “#giantsnewera” by the team still contains more than a hint of Doug Christiansen about it-it’s an evolution rather than a revolution. Paul Adey has brought in some new players with impressive pedigrees (both Elfring and Whitecotton, for example, are long-time DEL players) and also the most experienced (with an average age of 29.58 yrs only the Fife Flyers are older, though they still have three players at least to sign so will likely drop below the Giants). However, it’s genuinely hard to measure this team in comparison to the rest of the EIHL-while others appear to have got markedly better over the offseason and often looked for a major restructuring with new faces, Paul Adey has in the main elected to stick with what he knows.
To this end, the Giants squad appears to be built with the aim of stifling other teams first and foremost, then using the wiles of their experienced forwards and possession dominance (Whitecotton is very good in the faceoff circle, as are Cheverie and Lloyd) to take advantage while the best third line in the EIHL throttles the life out of the opposition’s top line. It’s a team seemingly built with a brief of quietly easing the squad and fans into a new era rather than going all out or promising too much from the off. However, as the lyrics at the beginning of this article hint, it’s an approach that could potentially go very wrong-if the Giants don’t get scoring from more than just their “top” line, the system breaks down, or more than one or two key players go off form at the same time, then they may struggle in the run-and-gun Erhardt Conference-in fact, there is a chance they could slide dramatically.
If Szwez and his fellow forwards can find the net on a reasonably prolific basis, then there’s no question the Giants will be around the top half of the table once again-they’re well built defensively and have two of the star defensive forwards in the EIHL in Keefe and Lloyd. However, if they can’t, then problems could ensue.
This Giants squad is finely balanced, and one slip could be costly, particularly against an Erhardt Conference opponent. This Giants squad, good as it is, can’t afford to make too many of them.