Ten Teams in Ten Days is the 2013/14 Chasing Dragons EIHL season preview, looking in depth at one EIHL team a day from now up until the August Bank Holiday weekend-the last weekend before the start of EIHL preseason. Today, at the halfway point, the Coventry Blaze come under the microscope.
“Celebrate in all the things you say
The part where everything is safe or explodes
And we’ll call it a change of days”
Smith’s Cloud: “A Change Of Days”
This season is a new era for the Coventry Blaze. The first season in nearly 15 years without Paul Thompson behind the bench. A new approach and an urge to lay the ghosts of several seasons of underachievement and disappointment. This, more than any other “new start” promised by the Blaze over the past few seasons is an ideal chance to break with the past and forge on into a new future as the Matty Soderstrom Era begins. But have they-or will the spectres of past successes (and failures) put more pressure on Soderstrom this first season than he or any other coach deserves? Clearly, success will be key to avoid certain sections of the Blaze fanbase turning on their new coach early. Let’s take a look at the 2013/14 Blaze team:
#1 Mike Zacharias, #30 Adam Goss
Just like the coaching staff, the Blaze net will have a new man guarding it this season, as 28-year-old American Mike Zacharias replaces the departing Peter Hirsch. The Plymouth, Minnesota native joins with a solid if not spectacular resume, spending the last two seasons in France and another bouncing around the ECHL with three teams after four years as a starter with the MSU Mavericks in NCAA Div I. Questions have been asked over whether he can adjust to starting over twice as many games a season as he’s been used to the past few years, but this shouldn’t be much of a problem. On paper there are several goalies in the league with more impressive resumés than the Blaze starter, but as we know the game is played on ice and Blaze fans should expect him to be solid. Young local Adam Goss will continue to back up, but Blaze fans shouldn’t expect to see him in game action unless Zacharias suffers an injury.
#6 Mike Egener, #15 James Griffin, #28 Steven Chalmers, #33 Benn Olson, #44 Kenny Kallstrom, #51 Sean Erickson
The defence is the most stable part of the Blaze roster this season, with Kallstrom and Erickson the only new faces-a source of mild concern to some as the Blaze defence gave up the second-most shots of any team last season with Peter Hirsch facing 2172 pucks on net, 300 more than the next goalie (Ben Bowns of Hull) and over a thousand more than the best defensive unit (Belfast’s, who gave up a relatively paltry 1172. However, with James Griffin and Steven Chalmers having another year of development under their belts and a noticeably more defence-focused forward group Mike Zacharias and Adam Goss will hope to be called into action a lot less this season. Mike Egener will captain the squad from defence and his calm two-way play and physical presence will be a key influence on how the unit plays. Benn Olson will be expected to keep things simple and impose himself physically on the opposition forwards, but the key work will be done by the two new recruits Kallstrom and Erickson, as they’ll be expected to provide the offensive thrust from the blueline. Erickson has gaudy offensive stats from his time in the CHL but the real X-factor in this unit will be Kallstrom-the 23-year-old Swede has a good pedigree coming from the Allsvenskan and could be one of the hidden gems of the offseason signing spree. With coach Soderstrom being a former defenceman himself, you can expect this unit to be well-drilled and know their respective roles.
#7 Matt Selby, #9 Brian McMillin, #10 Dale White, #14 Cale Tanaka, #17 Russ Cowley, #19 Michael Henrich, #21 Ashley Tait, #27 Kevin Harvey, #41 Ryan Ginand, #42 Adam Henrich, #59 Ross Venus
This is a forward group with some real potential in it-one that arguably looks better than the one the Blaze finished last season with despite the blow of losing Shea Guthrie. Adam Henrich’s re-signing was greeted with joy in Coventry after his late-season arrival and subsequent tearing up of opposition defences (he scored at a rate of near-as-makes-no-difference a goal a game after his arrival) provided one of the highlights of last season-this year he returns and brings his playmaking-centre brother Michael with him in a pairing which is sure to have opposition defenders readying themselves for a tough battle. Ryan Ginand is a pure run-and-gun forward who loves to shoot, and Brian McMillin, for my money, could be one of the signings of the season-the American was playoff MVP for the Allen Americans last season and will have the chance this season so showcase both his offensive skills and the two-way play he was signed for. Ashley Tait returns from Sheffield to provide some British scoring and experience-he’s 38 now but is still more than capable of playing at this level as his 50 points for the Steelers last season prove. Kevin Harvey will be one of the Marmite players of the league-loved by his own fans but hated by the rest of the EIHL for his hard-hitting agitating play, while Cale Tanaka will provide speed and hard work on the third line, likely alongside Russ Cowley and Ross Venus. Dale White & Matt Selby will compete for icetime and either rotate in and out of the third line or provide a fourth with a double-shifting import where necessary.
This is a forward group that has the potential to compete with the best in the EIHL if it clicks-Soderstrom has clearly signed each and every player with a role in mind and with an eye on defensive as well as offensive responsabilities. If they come together, they could give EIHL teams problems all season.
COACH: MATTY SODERSTROM
Soderstrom arguably has the most pressure on him of any EIHL coach this season. He’s replacing one of the most successful coaches in British hockey history in Paul Thompson, coming into a team desperate for success and looking to impose his own stamp upon it, while knowing that there’s a large section of the fanbase who see him as either keeping the seat warm as a glorified caretaker in Thommo’s shadow or who’ll be ready to turn on him instantly if the team struggle. Couple that with a fanbase desperate to see their team get back to success and it’s an unenviable position for a rookie coach to be in. But he knows the team, knows the league and will be working with his players from the off to get them playing his way-having spoken to Matty he’s quite clear that while Paul Thompson may have helped with finding the players, the team is set to his blueprint and only his. Ashley Tait and Mike Egener will be able lieutenants, experienced, respected by the players and Tait already having experience of the role in Sheffield. If Soderstrom can stand up to the pressure (and there’s no reason to think he can’t) then Paul Thompson’s exploits will be consigned to the history books where they should be. The Coventry Blaze are Matt Soderstrom’s team now.
PROSPECTIVE LINES: FORWARDS
Brian McMillin-Michael Henrich-Adam Henrich
Kevin Harvey-Ryan Ginand-Ashley Tait
Russ Cowley-Cale Tanaka-Ross Venus
Matt Selby, Dale White
PROSPECTIVE LINES: DEFENCE
Mike Egener-Sean Erickson
Kenny Kallstrom-Benn Olson
Steven Chalmers-James Griffin
NETMINDERS: Mike Zacharias/Adam Goss
PLAYER TO WATCH: #9 BRIAN MCMILLIN
There could have been any one of five or six players in this slot-Kevin Harvey looks like he could be very entertaining indeed, Ryan Ginand reportedly fires shots like a Gatling gun, and Kenny Kallstrom and Sean Erickson could be the key to the entire Blaze defence. But I’ve picked McMillin as the player to watch-the Roseau, MN native was the CHL playoff MVP last season and is also more than capable in his own end. When he signed I theorized he could be the new Dan Carlson for the Blaze, and since then that opinion’s only grown stronger…he’s looking like one of the Blaze’s top defensive forwards and his scoring heroics when given a more offensive role by Allen last season show that he can find the net with regularity. I’ve pegged him on the top-line to do the hard work in the corners and allow the Henrichs to play their free-wheeling game and concentrate on playmaking and scoring-he’d also make an ideal 2nd line centre if Soderstrom decides to put Ryan Ginand or Kevin Harvey on top-line duty.
Either way, his versatility and ability to play at both ends of the ice will make him one of the Blaze’s key players this season.
The rhetoric coming out of the Blaze camp is already optimistic, with several players saying that they expect this group of players to contend for a league title. Given that there are rosters with more illustrious pedigrees out there, that looks to be a bold statement at this point, especially with a rookie head coach. But the key thing this season is that the EIHL is so close-there are genuinely five or six teams who could all lay a claim to having a chance at the EIHL league title, and the Blaze are one of them. Whether they will do it depends heavily on Mike Zacharias having an excellent season in net and the team being tighter defensively than they were last season…however, Soderstrom has recruited well and seemingly with the express aim of addressing the Blaze’s problems from last season of secondary scoring and defensive strength.
The key thing for the Blaze will be taking points against their Erhardt Conference rivals, all of whom will make for very tough opposition. However, there’s a lot of reasons for optimism in this Blaze squad-perhaps Coventry needed some fresh blood both on the ice and behind the bench, and this season they’ve got both. While it would be a bold prediction indeed to anoint the Blaze as league champions, the players are right in saying silverware is definitely achievable.
After a few seasons’ slumber, the dragon might just be wakening again.