“I can sell you lies
You can’t get enough
Make a true believer of
Anyone, anyone, anyone”
The Blaze are coming into this season desperate to rebound after what was, frankly, a horrendous year last year. Like the British government, they pleaded poverty while throwing money into all the wrong posts, and were let down by a big lack of interest from their big money signings that frankly meant rookie coach Matty Soderstrom never had a chance. By February he was gone, and the Blaze brought in former Sheffield assistant coach Marc Lefebvre, who jumped from the sinking ship of the Doug Christiansen era in Sheffield before he was pushed, but couldn’t turn the season around. All last season the refrain was “this isn’t Lefebvre’s team-when he gets to build his own team he’ll be better”. It was said so often it’s almost become a mantra in Coventry.
Well, Marc Lefebvre has built his team now. What’s it look like?
#41 Brian Stewart, #31 Connor Ranby
Mike Zacharias was one of the bright spots in net for Coventry last year, but Marc Lefebvre decided the American wasn’t to his liking, and has signed a behemoth in net. 6’5, 201lb Canadian Brian Stewart is without doubt the biggest man the EIHL will see in net this season (indeed, he’s also bigger than the vast majority of goalies…in the NHL, only two are taller (Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback), although several top netminders are heavier and others are equally tall in the NHL, by EIHL standards the Burnaby, BC native is a giant. Stewart comes to the EIHL from the German DEL 2, where he was the 7th best starter in a twelve-team league.and lost in the playoff semifinals…which isn’t a bad resumé, although not exactly earth-shattering. The big Canadian will be expected to shoulder pretty much all the workload this season, with NIHL product Connor Ranby backing him up after a decent year splitting time in the British third tier, but likely nowhere near a starting spot unless the Blaze fall into serious probkems.
#5 Mark Smith, #6 Mike Egener, #8 Rory Rawlyk, #15 James Griffin, #28 Steven Chalmers, #32 Craig Cescon
Defensively, the two main standouts are those cherry-picked from other EIHL squads. Mark Smith joins from the Cardiff Devils after finally deciding he’d had enough at the end of last season of Paul Ragan’s mis-management, and the reliable Albertan will provide a solid, stay-at-home player every single night. The main offensive drive will come from ex-Dundee Star Rory Rawlyk, who’ll be relied upon to drive the Blaze forward from the blue-line…he’ll be aided in this by the fast-maturing James Griffin. Mike Egener and former Braehead Clan defenceman Craig Cescon will provide the muscle in what is a solid if unspectacular defensive unit, good in its own end but relying a lot on the offensive prowess of Rawlyk to provide the transition play. Question marks are already hanging over the big ex-Dundee player, though, as he’s recovering from a broken tibula and injuries late last season, and reports from Dundee hint at his personality being a “strong” (read “disruptive”) presence in the Stars locker room last year. A lot is resting on his broad shoulders-if Rawlyk doesn’t perform, then suddenly this defence looks a lot lighter on scoring than many would like. It should enable Stewart to see a lot of pucks in net, though.
#7 Ben Arnt, #14 Cale Tanaka, #16 Kyle Bochek, #17 Russell Cowley, #18 Steven Goertzen, #21 Ashley Tait, #22 Ryan O’Marra, #23 Derek Lee, #27 Jereme Tendler, #59 Ross Venus
This forward group is a tale of two halves. On one side, we have the glitzy, hoped-for offensive talent of ex-NHLer Ryan O’Marra, experienced Brit Ashley Tait and the flowing-locked assassin, Jereme Tendler. Behnd those three…suddenly the offensive threat becomes a lot less known, and words like “hard-working” and “good team guy” get thrown around a lot. More often than not, “good team guy” is code for “can’t score for toffee” in the EIHL, but that’s perhaps a little unfair on the likes of Steven Goertzen and Cale Tanaka, who are both incredibly useful players to compliment the offensive dynamos. The big question marks are over the other imports-a lot rests on Ben Arnt, Derek Lee and Kyle Bochek to provide some secondary offensive threat…and even now there are question marks over whether or not Ryan O’Marra is going to light up the league or be more of a useful two-way player. Frankly, this team needs to find some goals outside the usual three suspects, and it needs to find them regularly. It’s relying on relatively untried young forwards for that which makes some wonder if they can match the firepower of, say, Sheffield, Braehead or even Cardiff-and frankly, when one of your top six forwards is being sold mainly on the basis of winning the “Hardest Bodychecker in the League Award”-you’re hoping that he’s got hidden talents and more importantly that he won’t fall foul of EIHL referees. This is a good-looking group of forwards on paper that looks like it has all the right ingredients, but as any cook will tell you, the individual ingredients mean nothing if the chef can’t make them mesh.
COACH: Marc Lefebvre (1st year)
This is a big year for Marc Lefebvre. Up until now, at least in the EIHL, he’s always had an excuse to hide behind when in comes to coaching-in Sheffield it’s that he was the assistant to Doug Christiansen, last year in Coventry the “it’s not his team” or “the players have quit on any coach” line was thrown out forcibly towards any critics, even after the worst single-game playoff performance the Blaze have ever seen in the second-leg up in Sheffield, where the players simply didn’t look like they cared.
This season, he doesn’t have anywhere to hide. The recruiting is his, the systems will be his, and the players will be his from the start.
It’s time for Furby to step up and repay the faith shown in him, ahead of arguably more experienced candidates such as Sylvain Cloutier and Pete Russell.
PLAYER TO WATCH: #22 Ryan O’Marra
The former NHLer born in Tokyo, Japan is without question the marquee signing of the Blaze’s off-season. With nearly 300 AHL games and imposing size at 6’2, 220lbs, O’Marra is the player who’ll be expected to make space for Jereme Tendler to do what he does best-score goals, while putting in a big chunk of the scoring himself AND being responsible defensively. He will likely be the pivot upon which the top Blaze unit works, expected to do it all. As he goes, to a large degree, so will the Blaze’s season, at least early on. Along with Rory Rawlyk on the blue-line, O’Marra is, essentially, the player Blaze fans are pinning their hopes on to be one of THE big players not just in the Skydome, but in the league. Can he match that expectation after his career has seemingly dropped off a cliff the past two years (from the NHL in early 2012 to the EIHL in 2014 is one hell of a fall)?
For the Blaze to have any chance of competing, he’ll have to.
This is a season that, genuinely, could go anywhere for the Blaze. Last year much was made of the fact (particularly late in the season) that the team recruitment was all wrong from the start of the year, people got injured and that Lefebvre did a fantastic job just to get a team into the playoffs when, most nights from February on it looked like it was just playing out the string” (even if the team did roll over and die under Lefebvre’s stewardship once it made it and were frankly lucky to be there in the first place). As I’ve referred to repeatedly already, there were ready-made excuses for not performing everywhere we looked, though, even if they did started to wear thin.
Well-this is Lefebvre’s team. It’s also a team built with supposedly the strongest financial backing in Coventry ever, a team full of “proven winners”, including at least three players cherry-picked from the best of other EIHL rosters last season. It’s a team that Coventry is excited about.
But then again, they were excited about last year’s “width of a post from missing the playoffs, thumped in PO quarter finals, and out in group stages of the Challenge Cup” squad too. All the same things said above could be said about last years team.
As Lauren Mayberry sings in the song to start this article-this team can make a believer of anyone, and many Coventry fans definitely can’t get enough of the hype of it.
But it needs to back that belief up.
Too often in the last few years, Blaze teams have promised much on paper and failed to deliver on the ice. Before, there’s always been an excuse.
With this season, there are no excuses. This team looks good on paper. Now it has to do so on the ice-and then we’ll see if all the hype was justified, or once again, so much smoke and mirrors.