“There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you”
The Eagles: “New Kid In Town”
This is the season of put up or shut up for the Sheffield Steelers. All off-season we’ve heard the rhetoric from owner Tony Smith about the “big budget” the team have, and Doug Christiansen has arrived from Belfast determined not to repeat the recent problems of the Ryan Finnerty era. No team, except perhaps Nottingham (and even that’s pushing it), has been more vocal in stating their ambitions to sweep the EIHL before them this year.
But as the saying goes “don’t let your mouth write checks your body can’t cash”. On September 7th the talking will have to stop, and the Steelers will have to prove that all their big talk and the optimism of their fans isn’t misplaced. And the rest of the EIHL will be eagerly watching in the hope they fall. So can they back it up? Let’s take a look.
#1 Frank Doyle, #40 Geoff Woolhouse
The capture of the 32-year old Doyle after he originally signed for Cardiff Devils was a source of great excitement in South Yorkshire as they celebrated nabbing the best goalie in the league…right up until the Devils signed Dan LaCosta. But Doyle will still be a force to be reckoned with in net-extensive experience in the AHL, DEL, and Italy plus a two year contract in Sheffield means opposition forwards will be seeing a lot of him this season, and he’s a very solid foundation for the team to build upon. Behind him Geoff Woolhouse continues to back up after swapping places with Dan Green a few seasons ago-and is solid enough in the short term when called upon…but don’t expect to see him starting games unless Doyle is a) injured or b) has a catastrophic loss of form.
#2 Chad Langlais, #8 Gord Baldwin, #23 Danny Meyers, #26 Dustin Kohn, #44 Mark Thomas, #49 Drew Fata
Continuing the theme of building from the back, this is a defensive unit that’s arguably the strongest unit in the EIHL. It leans equally between being physically dominating, with Baldwin a physical force on the blueline, and skilled, with Christensen bringing Chad Langlais with him from Belfast after the American’s silky-smooth skating and magical hands proved a late-season revelation on the Giants blueline (much to Steelers’ Dave Simms’ discomfort after he questioned the American’s pedigree on signing). Danny Meyers is one of the best native British d-men, if not the best right now, while Mark Thomas is solid. But perhaps the strongest pairing are Dustin Kohn, only two years removed from playing in the NHL with the NY Islanders, and the returning Drew Fata-both players who are equally capable in either end and with enough physical presence to play any game the opposition want to. This is an intimidating unit and if defence wins championships, Christiansen has clearly gone all out to make sure that on paper at least his has the best chance to do so.
#10 Stefan Meyer, #11 Jeff Legue, #12 Maxime Lacroix, #13 Rylan Galiardi, #17 Jason Hewitt, #18 Steven Goertzen, #19 Aaron Nell, #20 Jonathan Phillips, #21 Tim Spencer, #75 Rob Dowd
No prizes for guessing which forward the Steelers are happiest to have captured this season-to listen to them talk for a lot of the offseason you’d have thought the rest of the roster was incidental to the return of Rob Dowd, claimed as Sheffield’s “Golden Child” despite being born a fair bit further north in Billingham. There can be no denying that Dowd is viewed as the jewel in the crown of British forwards by many, though personally I’m not sure whether he’s being hyped at the expense of equally good players like Matt Myers in Cardiff or Rob Lachowicz in Nottingham. Leaving Dowd’s undoubted talent (and serious wagepacket) aside for a moment, though, this is a strong group indeed. Stefan Meyer is a big, heavy battering ram of a power forward who will perfectly complement the quicksilver darts of Jeff Legue and Dowd, while Max Lacroix is an ideal 2nd-line centre and Steven Goertzen is quietly one of the most effective forwards in the EIHL. Nell, Phillips and Hewitt too make up a very powerful Brit forward pack, and somewhere in this group you also need to find room for Rylan Galiardi and team policeman/grinder Tim Spencer. In fact-there are only two problems Christiansen may have with this group-firstly finding enough icetime for everyone and secondly, this group is more left-wing-focused than a Stalinist rally. Goertzen is the only player listed as a natural right-winger, and with Max Lacroix already saying he is unhappy if played anywhere other than centre and Rob Dowd and Jeff Legue both fighting for the top-line centre spot, we could see a case of this group being too rich for someone’s blood. Alternatively, with the amount of competition for ice-time forwards will be under pressure to be perform-slump and there’s always someone else to take your spot. Christiansen has, whether intentionally or not, created a truly Darwinian atmosphere amongst his forward group, where only the fittest will survive.
COACH: Doug Christiansen
The American’s EIHL coaching abilities are unquestioned. He’s been successful in extracting the most from a meagre budget in Edinburgh and consistently building a competitor in Belfast-but has probably not faced a pressure-cooker quite like the Steelers job. If his team struggles, there’ll be no honeymoon period either from owner Tony Smith or the equally demanding Steelers fanbase. This squad has to win, or it’ll be Christiansen’s backside on the hotseat sooner rather than later. His utilitarian coaching style also divided crowds in Belfast-with a Sheffield crowd that loves to be entertained, how will they take to him if all the promise doesn’t materialise?
PROSPECTIVE LINES: FORWARDS
Stefan Meyer-Jeff Legue-Aaron Nell
Rob Dowd-Max Lacroix-Steven Goertzen
Jonathan Phillips-Jason Hewitt-Rylan Galiardi
PROSPECTIVE LINES: DEFENCE
Dustin Kohn-Drew Fata
Chad Langlais-Danny Meyers
Gord Baldwin-Mark Thomas
NETMINDERS: Frank Doyle/Geoff Woolhouse
PLAYER TO WATCH: #10 STEFAN MEYER
At 6’2 and 201lbs, Meyer is a physical handful who’s built like a brick outhouse. He likes to hit and loves to get his nose dirty in front of the net, which makes him an ideal foil for the creative talent of Jeff Legue and the pure sniping of Aaron Nell. Nell is returning to the EIHL after a ridiculously prolific spell back down in the EPL, but he and to a lesser degree Rob Dowd both need someone to feed them the puck-Jeff Legue is that man. Meyer will be the perfect man to park himself in front of the net, take the punishment and feed off the scraps generated from these players working the perimeter and the slot-expect him to play a key if slightly unglamorous role both even strength and on the powerplay for the Steelers, and pot more than a few goals himself as a result.
As I said in the opening, this is put-up-or-shut-up time for Doug Christiansen and his team. All summer we’ve heard about how the Steelers will be the team to beat and that they’re building a roster to sweep away Nottingham and ensure that the struggles under Ryan Finnerty will very quickly become a distant memory. Doug Christiansen has recruited like a kid in the candy shop, plucking choice morsels from North America and Europe and giving himself the luxury of leaving a grinding forward import or a very good British player as the tenth forward-we’ve seen the luxury of Tony Smith’s spending power and links with Sheffield universities squeezed until the pips squeak as Christiansen has built a roster which on paper looks like the best in the league.
Trouble is, EIHL games are played on ice.
There can be no denying that in their recruitment and offseason bluster the Steelers have made a lot of extravagant promises on paper both to their fans and the rest of the EIHL about how good they’ll be this season. And in their recruitment at least, they appear to have been as good as their word.
But pride comes before a fall. Now, the Steelers have to keep them on the ice against nine other teams just waiting to see if the seeming Steel colossus has feet of clay. And one thing’s for sure-this team is a very good one indeed, but it won’t be easy for them.
Buckle up, Sheffield. Now the real work begins.