“Never look back, don’t doubt tomorrow”
The Nearly Deads: “Never Look Back”
Last year’s regular season could hardly have gone better for the Belfast Giants. Runaway league winners, the all-conquering teal-and-white army from Northern Ireland ran roughshod over the rest of the EIHL for long periods. But they weren’t perfect-an incredible comeback from Nottingham in the Challenge Cup final and a playoff loss of a team that had given all it could and more to Sheffield meant that two spaces in the trophy cabinet remained unfilled. However, it’s incredibly hard to find a negative in the Giants season last year-Paul Adey built & coached their roster beautifully.
However, this season Paul Adey is gone, Steve Thornton is back behind the bench, but the personnel on the ice are pretty much exactly the same. Some have questioned whether this is the right move with the rest of the EIHL looking to change and catch up the gap opened up by the Giants last year-indeed many rosters are now built on the Giants template. Can this team, with a new coach but familiar faces, possibly be as good again, or will it be haunted by expecting to repeat a dominance that other teams have acted to stop? Let’s look at them:
#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson.
The Giants go with “tried and trusted” once again in net. Stephen Murphy is GB number one (although under heavy pressure from Ben Bowns for that particular role) and consistently one of the best in the EIHL. No worries here. Behind him is Ballymoney boy Andrew Dickson, who will do the lions’ share of door-opening but can play well enough-gaining a few wins in relief last season and more than able to step in for a little spot duty. However, should Murphy suffer a long-term injury, the Giants may act to bring a proven starter in.
#3 Jeff Mason, #6 Rob Sandrock, #13 Dave Phillips, #24 Calvin Elfring, #25 Cody Brookwell, #62 Kevin Phillips
For all intents and purposes, I could simply cut and paste what I wrote last year about this defensive unit, because it’s exactly the same one as that which conceded the least number of goals in the EIHL last season (14 less than the next nearest challenger). Everywhere you look in this group you see quality-Rob Sandrock has one of the most terrifyingly good slapshots the EIHL has ever seen and also skates better than almost everyone else, Jeff Mason would be a number-one offensive defenceman on most teams, Calvin Elfring is an unflappable and wily veteran, Cody Brookwell is superb physically and has a bite going forward, too, and the Phillips brothers are both very capable. If there’s one possible knock on this group it’s their age-the potential top pairing of Elfring and Sandrock has a combined age of 74, and the youngest of the group is 27. However, that’s nitpicking in a group where veteran smarts and superb conditioning more than made up for Father Time last season…and there’s no reason to assume it won’t do so again. Make no mistake, this defence set the benchmark last season, and it goes into this season being the one everyone else will measure themselves against.
#7 Mark Garside, #9 Evan Cheverie, #12 Ray Sawada, #17 Mike Kompon, #19 Colin Shields, #21 Mark McCutcheon, #22 Kevin Saurette, #47 Adam Keefe, #71 Craig Peacock, #72 Daryl Lloyd.
At the time of writing, the Giants are yet to complete their forward group-although it’s more than likely that the only addition, at least to start the season, will be local boy and tenth forward Gareth Roberts, with the Giants often preferring to hold one import spot in reserve until the first few weeks of the season has passed. This, like the defence, is astoundingly similar to last season’s group-a group that, lest we forget, scored the most goals in the EIHL-and not only that, they scored 22 more than the nearest challenger…an impressive feat. The Giants have lost Dustin Whitecotton and Jeff Szwez, both to Germany, and skilled forward Chris Higgins has jumped the Irish Sea to Nottingham but their replacements are all incredibly capable. Mike Kompon (Higgins’ replacement) is a player who can both create and score and has done in leagues better than the EIHL for years, while Ray Sawada (Szwez’s replacement) is a big, bruising power forward who loves to cause havoc in front of the opposition net and was on the fringes of the NHL for several years with the Dallas Stars.
The Giants have also added two-way C Mark McCutcheon to the mix in a like-for-like swap for Whitecotton as a player who can create and score but prides himself on doing all the important little things that win games. These are added to the best third line in the EIHL in Scot Mark Garside, soul of the Giants Adam Keefe and agitator extraordinaire Daryl Lloyd, while Brits Craig Peacock, Colin Shields and likely Roberts round out the roster.
Simply put, what the Giants have done is taken the most prolific forward-group in the league last year and said “why change it?” Even the new players are almost direct replacements for those who’ve left, down to style of play and team role. This is not a forward group that has pulled up trees in its rebuilding. But what it is is battle-proven and incredibly effective, just like the group last year. You don’t fix what isn’t broken, and the Giants have wisely not tinkered where little is needed. Steve Thornton knows which side his bread is buttered.
COACH: STEVE THORNTON (1st season, 2nd spell in Belfast)
Thornton is a popular man in Belfast both as a player and a coach. The Canadian knows the city, knows the fans, and knows what they expect…particularly after last year. He also knows that this is a season where change needs to be carried over smoothly, both in the coaching staff with Paul Adey going elsewhere and in ownership with Todd Kelman heading for Cardiff. He is the very definition of what Belfast fans would call “a safe pair of hands”…indeed Todd Kelman has said that he never had any other man in mind for the job.
Thornton has high expectations on him this season, but many of the players know him well, the fans know him well, and so he’s coming in with a softer landing than many would have. However, that doesn’t mean that failure will be taken lightly, either by him or his public.
Kevin Saurette-Mike Kompon-Ray Sawada
Colin Shields-Mark McCutcheon-Evan Cheverie
Daryl Lloyd-Mark Garside-Adam Keefe
Calvin Elfring-Cody Brookwell
Davey Phillips-Rob Sandrock
Jeff Mason-Kevin Phillips
PLAYER TO WATCH: #12 Ray Sawada (RW)
Big, powerful and with a scoring touch that took him to the very fringes of the NHL, the big British Columbian from Richmond hasn’t quite got the gaudy numbers of some players to come to the EIHL, but he has got some serious AHL pedigree-247 games is not a bad number at all for a 29-year-old. At 6’2 and 205lbs he’s perfectly-sized to cause trouble in front of the net and make space for his linemates (possibly Saurette and Kompon) to pull off the creative moves while he does the dirty work. He’ll be the water-carrier on his line, making the hard yards and digging the puck out of the corner whenever it’s required…and if he can do that while also popping in the goals whenever given the chance, he’ll be a very valuable player indeed.
This is a Giants team that’s looking back and going forward at the same time. It knows what brought it such great success last season and so the team template hasn’t deviated much-only a few of the names have changed. Some might wonder if this is wise given the efforts made by the Giants’ rivals in recruiting over the off-season, but they’re forgetting…the Giants are the reason everyone feels so challenged to raise the standard in the first place this season.
Yes, they say that you should strive to reach the summit, but once you’re there, you stand still, because if you start taking risks the only way to go is down. The Giants have spent the off-season confident both in their past efforts and also confident that they don’t need a rejig to repeat them. They’ve stood at the top of the mountain looking down with quiet confidence at the rest of the EIHL scrabbling to catch up and said “we know we deserve to be here. Now we’re staying. Come and knock us off our perch.”
Now, the rest of the league are climbing up towards them. But this Giants team are braced for battle. If anyone wants to push them off the EIHL summit in 14/15, they’re going to have to work very hard indeed.