As the 14/15 EIHL season officially starts this evening (with Dundee taking on Belfast) and the preseason games have been watched, picked over and noted for every possible weakness by opposition fans and coaches. But now, the good stuff starts. The games are for points, more than pride. And since it’s still early in the season, every team still has questions to answer. What are the big questions we should be asking about every EIHL team, and how will they answer them? Chasing Dragons takes a look:
BELFAST GIANTS: Is no change as good as a rest?
The Northern Irish side have clearly decided that, with a team that won the EIHL by a street last year and set the standard for every team to follow. This year, despite changing their coach to returning hero Steve Thornton, they’ve kept the vast majority of their players together-only replacing players where strictly necessary. Pre-season has so far not been the greatest barometer for whether or not this has worked-a narrow victory over Cardiff at home was followed by a 7-5 loss away (although in Giants’ defence this was with only ten skaters and a backup goalie. We know the Giants are very good indeed…but the question is-can they click and rekindle the same spirit as they did last year, especially now they’re carrying a massive bullseye on their backs for the rest of an improved league? They’ll need to prove they can.
BRAEHEAD CLAN: Is Kyle Jones consistent enough for a title challenge?
Many have picked Braehead already to make “the leap” they’ve been threatening to make for several years this season. However, the one thing that’s keeping people from picking them as a “legitimate” title challenger-the big question on their roster-is in net. Kyle Jones is a useful EIHL goalie, make no mistake. Well, “serviceable” might be fairer. A save percentage of 89.9% is not going to win your team a title, unless you have a very, very high-scoring team in front of you. There’s no doubting that the Clan have a very useful team in front of him…but Jones will have to do his part consistently every single night to make them a great one.
CARDIFF DEVILS: Can they perform away from the Big Blue Tent?
In preseason the Devils have played four games, two home, two away. In their own rink they’ve scored 13 goals-away from it they’ve only scored three. Understandably, Andrew Lord has built a team that is likely to be most comfortable and incredibly suited to the tight, hostile confines of Cardiff Bay, but in order to be truly consistent they need to be a team that can do it away from their own rink. Their offensive explosion against Belfast shows that they do have players who can score consistently, but they’ll need to do it in all rinks, not just at home, if they want to be the great team that the Devils fans and others think they can be.
COVENTRY BLAZE: Have they actually addressed their weaknesses? Can they find consistency?
The Blaze have made much of their improvements this off-season, although pre-season play of again only winning two of four has perhaps reined in a few of the more “optimistic” fans. The main criticism of fans last season was seemingly a lack of intensity in key moments, a defence that didn’t really do its job and gave the goalie hardly any protection-also something of a lack of depth between the top line and those below. This time round, the Blaze have built a defence that looks good on paper, but is relying almost exclusively on ex-Dundee Star Rory Rawlyk to provide any creative impetus, and Ryan O’Marra and Jereme Tendler to do the same up front. If they lose one of that “Holy Trinity”, can they cope consistently over a long season? There’s also a question-mark remaining over goalie Brian Stewart-is he consistent and calm enough over a season?
Then, of course, there’s the mental aspect. Last year Blaze were into the habit of playing twenty or forty excellent minutes a game. The trouble is, hockey games last for sixty minutes. So far this preseason this team has done the same, most spectacularly when they conceded four goals in the third in Cardiff, including three in six minutes. Brian Stewart has been called “slow” by many fans, particularly against the fast passing and puck movement of Sheffield…can the Blaze get themselves into gear and can they prove they’re more than just a one-and-a-half line team, with consistent production from more than just their stars? They have to, or they’ll be shut down relatively easily. Marc Lefebvre has already said he knows the Blaze need to be more consistent-but saying and doing are two different things.
DUNDEE STARS: Who are the Stars? How good are they when settled, really?
Dundee have started a little confusingly in the preseason, losing once to Edinburgh in their first game and being a team who still haven’t quite completed their roster…as of now, their defense isn’t set in stone, and until that happens, it’s really hard to get a handle on just how good they look, never mind how good they actually are. Also, Jeff Hutchins has built himself a rugged team, as one would expect. Discipline is going to be a key thing for the Stars, but before they can even begin to settle that down, they need to know who’s staying and who’s going. And that will have to happen very quickly, especially with a tough opening weekend against Belfast and Coventry.
EDINBURGH CAPITALS: Can the locals step up? And can they find the right balance between physicality and skill?
The Caps are a different team this year-to the point where even the most loyal Capitals fans have noticed the change for the better. With the likes of Riley Emmerson, Kyle Flemington and Lukas Bohunicky they have one of the most physically imposing teams in the EIHL-but with Rene Jarolin, Greg Collins and Richard Hartmann they have the skills, too. However, the British crop, predominantly local-bred in the SNL are in the main inexperienced and having to step up a level-the learning curve is steep and painful, with James Wallace blowing out his knee in pre-season, too. With the Caps relying predominantly on local British talent to back up their imports, they’ll need to play up another level to ensure that Murrayfield is known for more than just tough games and pretty goals in a losing effort this season.
FIFE FLYERS: Can they keep the momentum going?
Towards the end of last season, Fife were the form team-they accessed an inner reserve of belief and grit that seemed to carry them through on will alone. Now, with a new season but the majority of the same roster, can Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart catch that lightning in a bottle once again? The Flyers have arguably a better, deeper group than last year-but they’ll be hoping to capture the same fighting spirit embodied in the Kirkcaldy Roar. They have to if they want to repeat the Herculean efforts of last year in a much stronger, more even league.
HULL STINGRAYS: Can they keep up with the rest of the league?
No disrespect to them, but Hull are the weakest-looking team in the EIHL this year, possibly by some distance. They will have to play well above their CVs or have Omar Pacha discover the spirit of Scotty Bowman in order to make any serious noise in the EIHL this season. Failing that, they just need to play at their best every single night, because it’ll be enough of a struggle for them against the likes of Sheffield, Nottingham etc without them shooting themselves in the foot. The Stingrays are the poor relation of the EIHL…just how will they find a way to offset the gaps?
NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS: Can they handle the load? Just how strong is their EIHL roster?
The Panthers are putting their players through a hell of an early season-six games against some of the best teams in Europe in the CHL by early September, two more in Slovenia, and your normal EIHL schedule. Luckily for them, they’ve got a 16-import roster early in the year to help them deal with it. But what happens in October? Do the Panthers run with spare imports and continue to harvest the benefits of depth? Or do they cut themselves down to 12-if so, who goes?
The Panthers are representing the EIHL with hard work but sadly, no success…even with a strengthened roster they’ve been steamrolled by the teams so far…conceding 20 goals in 3 games while only scoring 5. With three still to come and injuries already piling up, can they handle the extra load on top of the regular EIHL season, or are they increasing the profile of the league at potential major cost to their own championship ambitions?
SHEFFIELD STEELERS: Will the expectation and off-ice pressure have a negative effect on-ice?
Finally, of course, we come to Sheffield, certainly the hothouse cauldron of the EIHL. No team has higher expectations placed on them, no off-ice effort is more bombastic (some might even say arrogant) and no team is more prone to heaping pressure on its players with statements in the press and rhetoric. You need to be mentally strong to cope in Sheffield, because there’s simply no time to bed down. Perform or the axe falls.
This Sheffield team looks very useful indeed. But that can sometimes be a curse-as Doug Christiansen and Marc Lefebvre found out last season. This Steelers team will live and die by how it lives up to the hype its own employees generate…can they get off to a fast start, then keep going and make the reality match the myth, because, though the margins for error may be low elsewhere in the EIHL, in Sheffield they’re non-existent.
As this article finishes, the puck’s being dropped on the first game of the 14/15 EIHL season proper. Dundee take on Belfast in a match that sees pretenders v the champions. Any sort of result will send a message to the rest of the EIHL already-it’s up to the two teams, and indeed all teams early in the season, to decide whether that message is going to leave confident answers, or only more questions.
Puck drop time. Here we go.