The Orange Machine: The Quiet, Ominous Efficiency Of The Sheffield Steelers

There’s a very quiet storm brewing up in South Yorkshire.

The Sheffield Steelers are always a team that set high expectations for themselves. Last year’s playoff champions have spent the summer under Gerad Adams retooling and making changes throughout their playoff winning roster that saw many key players in that team, such as Drew Fata, Stefan Meyer & Steven Goertzen allowed to leave for pastures new in what was seen by most as a calculated gamble by the Steelers coach.

It was a high-wire act for Adams…if his new team had even slightly failed to perform, recent history in Sheffield suggests it wouldn’t have been long before the knives came out and questions began to be asked about his plans.

So far, though, it’s a gamble that’s paid off spectacularly, with the Steelers sitting top of the table and even a 7-2 thumping at the hands of deadly rivals Nottingham only a minor blip in a season marked so far by a terrifying efficiency in the Steelers’ performances.

Up front, Sheffield have unearthed a truly deadly trio this season in the shape of new arrivals Mathieu Roy, Colton Fretter & Michael Forney. The two Canadians and one American dominate the top five of EIHL scoring, with Roy leading the league and Fretter and Forney close behind-the line have scored an average of four points a game between the three of them so far this season-Forney and Roy are meshing perfectly with the experienced Fretter as their setup man, and the production they’re putting together as a result is something that any other team would envy.

To get an idea of just how prolific the three are, their goal total (47) is nearly two thirds of that scored by the entire Coventry Blaze squad this season (a squad with the likes of Jereme Tendler and Ryan O’Marra on it). That’s ridiculous.

Mathieu Roy, the EIHL’s leading scorer and (currently) the most lethal of Sheffield’s terrifying top-line (pic: Dean Woolley)

Then, of course, there’s the Mosienko Redemption. After coming to Sheffield under something of a cloud after gambling troubles in Denmark, 2nd-line centre Tyler Mosienko has gone on an incredible scoring run recently which has seen him score 15 goals in 16 games.

With Gerad Adams appearing to have stacked the deck with almost supernatural production up front in his system, perhaps teams will be looking back to the blue-line for an Achilles heel-last year the Sheffield defence received criticism for leaving Frank Doyle unprotected often but this time round they’re a strong, solid unit that, in typical Gerad Adams fashion, quietly gets the job done. In adding Ben O’Connor they’ve added arguably the best homegrown British player by some distance to an already strong Brit-pack and defensive group.

They’ve also created a true cult hero in defenceman Cullen Eddy. The former Adirondack Phantom has already become a living legend to Steelers fans, and the 26-year-old American from Hidden Valley, Pennsylvania has quickly become one of the league’s top all-around D-men, with three goals, fourteen assists and 118 PiMs to his name already.

Cullen Eddy. Sheffield’s new cult hero (pic: Dean Woolley)

What’s most impressive about this Sheffield team, though, isn’t their star power, the gaudy numbers of their top players or their Brit pack. It’s the fact that (surprisingly when you bear in mind some of the personalities around the periphery of the team) they’re doing the job so quietly and efficiently.

This is a Sheffield team that have only lost six games in total all season (one being the 7-2 aberration against Nottingham a few weeks ago). They’re a team that is focused, calm, lethal in attack, solid in defence and with a top line that gives opposition defences the screaming heebie-jeebies even BEFORE they get confronted with Mathieu Roy’s epic facial hair.

But, most terrifyingly of all, there’s a lack of emotion to them. An implacability.

Now, before any Sheffield fans get annoyed, I don’t mean that the players as individuals don’t care…clearly they love playing for the orange jersey and each other.

What I mean is that, as a unit, the Steelers have the surgical ruthlessness of Uma Thurman wielding a katana to chop up un-named henchmen in Kill Bill without breaking a sweat. Their approach to games right now says “we don’t care who you are…we’re going to leave you bloodied and broken and there’s a good chance that if you’re not absolutely perfect in defence we’re going to leave your goalie waking up screaming in terror for a week afterward…and maybe even if you are. Sorry. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business”.

The men in orange have all the destructive efficiency and implacable mystique of a Sherman tank rolling through an helpless infantry battalion…yes, they’re going to beat you, and yes, you WILL suffer…but that’s just your bad luck for taking them on in the first place.

That is one hell of a mystique for a team to build up. It’s the kind of aura that wins championships. The kind of aura that means you’re already at least partly in opposition heads even before the game starts.

It’s both terrifying and awesome at the same time. And it’s something that Gerad Adams and his team will want to hold on to as long as possible as more and more challengers arise throughout this season.

So far, though, it’s holding pretty well. Which, in its own way, is very ominous for the rest of the league indeed.

At the beginning of the year I said that the main test for this Steelers roster would be whether or not they could rise to the pressure of the incredibly high standards already set in the South Yorkshire goldfish bowl, particularly with the new players given tricky acts to follow.

Now, in late November, the question is simple-“Pressure? What pressure?” The Orange Machine is thriving on the rich fuel of high expectation from fans and players so far.

Now it’s up to the other teams to shut the orange juggernaut down. So far, though, it’s humming like a finely-tuned war machine.

And South Yorkshire is loving it.

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Merciful Oblivion: The End Of The Marc Lefebvre Era Comes In Coventry

And it’s not like I signed up for this.
I’m sorry, but I just got to be honest,
You’re not my type, No hard feelings,
Thank you and goodnight.”

Tonight Alive: “Thank You And Goodnight”

Marc Lefebvre’s short, inglorious reign as Coventry Blaze coach was brought to an end yesterday, not a moment too soon for the Coventry Blaze and their season.

The Canadian was a slightly controversial appointment this season anyway, after being parachuted into the job last February when the ownership effectively threw Matty Soderstrom under the bus in a desperate attempt to salvage something out of the 2013/14 season. Lefebvre went 8-7 over the remaining games, but was given the job full time in the summer ahead of far more experienced coaches like Sylvain Cloutier and Doug Christiansen, both of whom had extensive experience in the EIHL.

The Kanata, Ontario native certainly “talked the talk” over the off season, promising to bring back “proper Blaze hockey” with a hard-working, blue-collar style of the kind the Blaze fans claim to love above all else. Any questions of his experience, or fans pointing out that he hadn’t really improved the team in any way shape or form after his arrival, were waved away by it being “the players’ fault”. Apparently, Soderstrom simply wasn’t that good a coach, he’d lost the room, and Lefebvre was the man to take the team forward.

Just three months into the season, with his own team, that was proven to be a truly tremendously bad decision by the Blaze ownership, as he was relieved of his position amid rumours of strife within the camp, having lost the dressing room To see just how little changed under the “brave new world” of Marc Lefebvre even after he got himself a team he recruited himself, here’s a comparison of Lefebvre and Soderstrom’s total records as Blaze coach in competitive games.

SODERSTROM AS BLAZE COACH: League and CC win/loss record…17-23-1. GF 151, GA 161. Win percentage in league, CC and POs: 41%, GD -10

LEFEBVRE AS BLAZE COACH: 18-21  GF 98, GA 119. Win percentage in league, CC and PO’s- 46%. Goal difference…-31

However, this takes into account the 15 games Lefebvre effectively coached Soderstrom’s team…the team that was supposedly the big problem for him and the factor that was holding him back from showing Blaze fans what he could “really do” due to their lack of attitude. So let’s take them out of the equation by removing their 8-7 record under Lefebvre and 37 goals scored, 42 conceded at the end of last season from the equation. Here’s Marc Lefebvre’s record with “his own” team:

League & CC W/L record: 10-16. Win percentage: 38%. Goals For: 56. Goals against: 70. GD -14.

So, without the influence of the supposedly “awful” team assembled by Mathias Soderstrom to hold him back, with his own players, a free reign to recruit and his own systems…Lefebvre is actually demonstrably worse than the much-maligned Swede was in Coventry. Far from being “held back” by having to coach a team assembled by someone else last time out, Lefebvre was actually massively helped by his team last year in his total record…they elevated his win percentage by nearly 10%.

So essentially, what the Blaze did was hire a coach who was massively boosted by someone else’s squad, with the promise that he’d be far better with his own squad the following year.

Whoops.

What’s perhaps more worrying for Blaze fans is that this has happened under a regime where supposedly “mistakes would no longer be tolerated”. In their statement after sacking Lefebvre, the Blaze have said “we’re no longer satisfied with “OK”. That’s not good enough”.

Fine words, but they’re kind of blown out of the water by the fact that a win percentage of 38% is being referred to as “OK” in the first place.

Take the aforegoing figures while bearing in mind that the Blaze ownership seemingly thought Lefebvre was more likely to be the man to turn the team around than the likes of Sylvain Cloutier (a bona-fide Blaze legend who’s made Hull a team to be competed with on a budget nowhere near that the Blaze are rumoured to be running)…and all the promises of a “culture change” in Coventry look to be just that…empty promises.

After all, it takes some work to fire a coach for supposedly being unacceptably bad, then replace him with someone full time while stating that it’s still the previous coach’s effect that is holding him back from an immediate impact, and publicly dismiss anyone expressing reservations about the appointment as “negative, bitter naysayers” then find out he actually turns out to be worse at the job when given the chance to do his own thing.

That’s spectacular mismanagement. In many sports, it would have the fanbase calling for the managements’ head-or at least asking serious questions.

And so, once again, for the third time in less than twelve months, the Coventry Blaze ownership find themselves with an opportunity to make some real change…an opportunity they’ve already thrown away twice before.

Where do the Blaze go from here? With a fanbase disillusioned by the ownership’s consistent making of the same mistakes, a seeming predilection for fine words not backed up by any action, and the organisation increasingly looking like a rudderless ship, no-one would envy incoming player-coach Steve Goertzen as he tries to turn the ship around.

However, what the Blaze ownership do next is crucial. There are coaches out there who can come in and turn things around…Sylvain Cloutier, for example, would come in with the fans behind him as a genuine Blaze hero whose no-nonsense style has paid off well for Hull…and he would relish the job. Paul Adey is still in the country and could probably be persuaded to take the reins if the budget were there.

But the decision lies in the hands of the Blaze ownership…and both Cloutier and Adey are coming in slightly outside the comfortable bubble the Blaze have built around themselves over the past few years…as would any other “new” coach unconnected to the directors. Would they really be given free reign to make the changes and culture-are the directors really ready to have their comfortable little world shaken?

For the sake of hockey in Coventry, they have to be.

Sacking Lefebvre is the first genuine step made in Coventry towards real change. But it’s who the Blaze appoint next that will show how truly committed they are to “learning from the past few years” and breaking out of the self-imposed mediocrity they’ve been sleepwalking through the past few years.

Like they say…to make one mistake is careless. To make the same mistake again is stupidity.

To make the same mistake a third time would, frankly, be unforgivable.

Falling Stars: What’s Going On In Dundee?

As we get into the meat of this EIHL season, the early trends and statistical outliers characteristic to the start of any sporting competition are evening themselves out and we’re beginning to get an idea of how teams are performing on a consistent basis. There’s been a lot of positive talk around the Gardiner Conference recently, with Braehead and Fife picking up big results and Edinburgh beginning to slowly turn themselves around after a nightmare start to the season-this weekend the Capitals hauled themselves off the bottom of the EIHL table with a four-point weekend,  including a win in the last ten seconds against local rivals Fife Flyers on Sunday evening.

However, one of the biggest stories in the Gardiner Conference remains the struggles of Jeff Hutchins and the Dundee Stars-the EIHL’s most northern club has suffered the mother of all regressions this season. After a 2013/14 which saw the Stars turn the formbook on its head and challenge for long periods towards the top end of the table (in November last year they were among the top three in the league) this season has seen them anchored to the foot of the league table in a state of affairs which, frankly, no-one saw coming with the roster assembled.

On paper, this should’ve been an ideal year for the Stars. Coming into the season full of optimism and momentum after an impressive year, it seemed that Hutchins had recruited well to fill the gaps left by departures like that of top scorer Nico Sacchetti, super-goalie Dan Bakala and top defenceman Rory Rawlyk.

But throughout the year the Stars have just been plagued with the seeming inability to get the parts to mesh. Marc Cheverie in net hasn’t lived up to the performance of Bakala last year, and up front players like Matt Ryan and Shane Lust are doing the job they need to (particularly notable among the Stars forwards is top scorer John Mitchell)…but something isn’t clicking.

Matt Ryan is one of the new faces in Dundee, but the season isn’t going how Stars fans hoped. (pic: Dundee Courier)

On the face of it, as an outsider it’s hard to see just what’s going wrong in Dundee at the moment-although the Stars aren’t exactly being prolific in the attacking end, they’re scoring more than several teams above them-notably Coventry and Edinburgh. However, they’re also letting goals in at an alarming rate, which on first glance would suggest that the issue is one of a defensive nature…surprising given the quality Hutchins has at his disposal, with the likes of ECHL veterans Kevin Quick and Scott Grimshaw more than capable of doing a defensive job.

To the Stars’ credit, unlike some other teams they’ve been more than open about the problems currently besetting the squad…Hutchins himself has stated several times he’s actively looking to recruit to improve the team performance and the loss of Paul Swindlehurst (now returned) to an NHL training camp is something that would have thrown a spanner in the works of most squads. Hutchins has also said he’d have loved to have get Sacchetti back in after the Canadian was released by his VHL squad, but was beaten to his signature by another team in Europe.

But Sunday’s game against Cardiff was perhaps a typical example of the struggles the Stars are facing-despite taking several leads against an in-form Devils side away from home, Dundee constantly let the Devils back into the game from strong positions and eventually came out on the wrong side of a 5-4 loss, which would likely have made for a long and uncomfortable ride back up north for the team.

The Stars do have a crumb of comfort not available to some other teams with similar offensive struggles-their progression to the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup is assured. However, with seemingly a crisis of confidence affecting the team and Marc Cheverie performing perhaps slightly below expectations in net, there’s clearly serious work for Jeff Hutchins and his staff to do if the season is not to peter out by the end of November for them.

A message has arguably already been sent with the release of one of the Stars’ top scorers in forward Rob Ricci (who had scored 6 goals in his time at the club despite injury issues)…now, though, the real work begins. With a roster that looks low on confidence and a fan base demanding changes, this could be the trickiest time of Hutchins’ coaching tenure with the Stars.

It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to it-both for the immediate future and, possibly, for his future job prospects in Dundee-this is arguably the first real adversity he’s faced.

The question is-has the success last year set the bar too high, or can this undoubtedly talented Stars roster turn things around like Fife did last year?

We shall see.

Learning To Fly: The Quiet Rise Of Ryan Finnerty

“It does not matter how strong your gravity is, we were always meant to fly.”
Sarah Kay

The EIHL is a tough mistress when it comes to coaching. With clubs traditionally perhaps not having quite the budget to go out and obtain experienced coaches from outside the league, promotion often comes from within, with every team in the EIHL now being coached by a player who has played in the league at some point, and many of them being run by “player-coaches”. Almost without exception, even the non-playing coaches have pulled on the jersey of the team they currently oversee in a playing capacity, too.

There’s only one exception to the “team coached by a former player for that squad” rule in the EIHL currently, and that team is currently top of the table…the Braehead Clan are coached by 33-year-old Albertan Ryan Finnerty, who over the past few seasons has used a baptism of fire in the Sheffield Steelers coaching meat-grinder that would have already broken some novice coaches to quietly become one of the best coaches in the EIHL.

Finnerty is no stranger to the British game-he first came to the UK in 2007 from Kaltern/Caldaro in Italy’s Serie A…instantly winning friends with his hard-working, fearless play at both ends of the ice. In 278 games with Sheffield and Cardiff (as Devils captain) he scored at a rate of nearly a point a game, with 91 goals and 168 assists for 259 points, winning one EIHL league title and two playoff titles during his time in the league

Finnerty in action for Sheffield

In 2011, Finnerty became Steelers player-coach, and although he didn’t win any titles during his two-season tenure in Sheffield, he finished 2nd and 3rd in the EIHL and a results record of 71-28…not too shabby at all for a rookie coach, especially one working in the goldfish bowl of Sheffield.

However, as the Steelers are wont to do, the decision was made to relieve Finnerty of his duties at the end of the 2012/13 season by owner Tony Smith…a decision that was seen by many as the Lethbridge native being made a scapegoat for the Steelers being beaten by Nottingham to trophies. After all…how often do you see a coach who’s won nearly three times more games than he’s lost and finishing in the top three in the league both seasons as a rookie getting fired? Not that often.

Fortunately for both Finnerty and the Braehead Clan’s future in the UK, the Scottish team were looking for a coach to lead them forward after a decent but not spectacular few years which had seen them led by several coaches over their three year existence. They needed stability and a coach familiar with the EIHL who’d served his apprenticeship…and so they snapped Finnerty up.

Ryan Finnerty as Clan coach. The Lethbridge native is doing great things in Glasgow

It was a move that’s now paying off better and more quickly then (probably) either party could have hoped for. Last season, in his first year in Glasgow, the Clan made it to the playoff semi-finals for the first time off the back of a comprehensive quarter-final victory over Nottingham (the previous season’s treble winners) and continued to grow off-ice to the point where they were selling out their 3500-seat arena.

Finnerty himself proved his coaching credentials beyond question-many had wondered if his success in Sheffield had been down to being “parachuted” into one of the top jobs in British hockey and given a budget to play with that would be the envy of many other teams…indeed he wasn’t helped massively by an ownership that thought nothing of publicly putting pressure on the coach towards the end of the season and effectively saying “if he doesn’t win a title we’ll sack him”…an experience which may be familiar in sport but is still something that will tend to sour a relationship a little.

However, up in Scotland, given time and space to implement his philosophy, Finnerty is building something pretty special. His teams are tight units, built in the mould of Finner the player…gritty, hard working and demanding the best from each other night after night. It’s a system that’s come to the fore this season as the Clan currently top the Elite League table and look like a team who would die before disappointing their coach.

There’s also very rarely talk of any “personal” issues in Braehead. Finnerty himself has fast become a truly-loved figure among the Purple Army for his passion and communication on the bench, and is known by the hockey media in the UK for being an open, accomodating head coach when it comes to media (perhaps the best example of this is a story told by Premier Sports people, which saw him respond to an interview request before a live game with “sure…oh, and by the way, since you’ll be at the rink all day, if you want to use my office to sort yourself out/freshen up/whatever, feel free. Make yourself at home”.

In everything he does, Finnerty is proving that he’s taken the trial-by-fire of his Sheffield experience and applied it in Braehead to massive benefit. After three years building to this point, it seems that he’s now ready to take his place among the “elite” of the EIHL coaching group, and what’s more astounding is that he’s done this so quickly and quietly.

In short, after a successful career as a player, Ryan Finnerty has completed the transition from a player every EIHL fan secretly wanted on their team to a coach that many teams wish they had. Certainly there are several squads in the EIHL who could benefit from his no-nonsense, team-first style at the moment.

For the foreseeable future, though, it looks like Braehead will be the team to do so. The rest of the EIHL should envy them.

For the man known to all as “Finner”, it seems great things could lie ahead.

A New Hope In Coventry?: On Desperation, Last Stands And Turning The Tide…Maybe

 

Last Sunday saw the Coventry Blaze do something they’ve only done once all season up to this point…beat a team in the Erhardt Conference. And they did it in fine style, too, scoring four goals in the opening period against the Belfast Giants, a team who had beat them truly comprehensively in the Skydome only days before.

Yes, Giants weren’t the offensive juggernaut they’d been on Tuesday, but far more importantly, this Blaze team was also completely different to the one we’d seen all year. This Blaze team was the team that the sum of its parts was supposed to be-fast, tenacious, and hard-working. It was a team that harried the Giants, pushed them off their game, and took their chances.

It was a team that actually looked dangerous coming forward. A lot of this was down to new signing Justin DaCosta, who had the kind of home debut most players dream of, constantly looking dangerous and inspiring the likes of Rory Rawlyk to show their undoubted talent also.

Perhaps the key moment of the night, however, was the fourth Blaze goal…which may come in the future to be seen as the Rawlyk Redemption. The big Canadian has been receiving all manner of criticism both from fans and his own team-mates this season, with worries of a very public rift with coach and teammates and constant questions about his attitude despite some excellent displays on ice. On Sunday night he took a pass at the blue-line on the powerplay and sent the puck screaming past Stephen Murphy into the top corner with a rocket. It was a superb shot, but the most interesting part was the celebration.

At first, Rawlyk barely reacted. It was almost as if he didn’t expect anyone to give him credit for the goal or even have his team-mates celebrate with him…the body language on the bench has suggested that he and coach Marc Lefebvre are very much at odds and that he’s a man alone in the Blaze dressing room…but then the roar swelled around the Skydome in a way that said “no matter what others say, you’re still welcome to us even if your coach doesn’t like you.” It was a swell of support that has been rare this season in Coventry, and Rawlyk reacted like a man given a burst of oxygen…you saw his head come up and think “maybe I am welcome here after all”.

It was a warming moment. Perhaps it was a sign of a new beginning.

The Blaze ownership, too, have publicly acknowledged that there are problems in the camp. On Monday, owner Andy Buxton finally came out and said publicly what those watching (including me) have been saying for months & even years…this team needs a new direction to pull it out of a stale, lifeless funk it’s been in for several years. I’ve been criticised, villified and ripped apart by Buxton and others for that view…even called a “cancer” by owners and abused by team employees in private. But now, it appears, the Blaze ownership have finally accepted the truth that’s been staring them in the face for years.

They say they’re committed to change and moving forward. These are words that have often been heard in Coventry these past few years…in fact, so often that they’ve become meaningless. A fanbase embittered by false starts and unfulfilled promises could be forgiven for being cynical even after the win against Belfast. But this week the ownership in Coventry have already shown that they’re committed to following up on their words, bringing in impressive-looking Czech forward Jakub Sindel (pronounced “ya-kub shin-dell”, by the way, Blaze fans) to provide the scoring punch that this team has been crying out for ever since the start of the season.

Sindel is very much an attacking goalscorer in the mould of Jereme Tendler or ex-Cardiff Devil Tomas Kurka, according to Coventry’s very own Czech hockey expert Jon Rowson (who writes the excellent Velvet Hockey blog amongst other work). He’s played in some of the top leagues in Europe (Finland’s Liiga, the Czech Extraliga and most recently alongside Ryan O’Marra in Italy), putting up some very good numbers. If used properly by Lefebvre and allowed to go out and play his own game while being fed by the same Blaze team that looked finally to be hitting something of a stride last Sunday, he could be a revelation.

What he already is, though, is a signal of possible intent. He’s also a challenge to Marc Lefebvre. His signing is a marker from the Blaze ownership that says “OK, up until now we’re willing to accept that there’s maybe an explanation for this beyond your coaching-it’s the players’ fault. Now we’ve given you everything you want, including a truly talented new player. If you can’t succeed despite all this, then maybe we need to talk.”

Sindel doesn’t arrive until next week…which gives the current Blaze squad two games against Braehead to show why they should not be the player to make way for the talented Czech. It also gives the Blaze themselves a valuable marker…with the Clan being one of the top teams this season, a good showing this weekend will be the first step to convincing the watching public that the win against Belfast wasn’t a blip of a team desperately fighting to save their jobs, but the start of the long road back from a tricky start to the year. It’s a very important weekend in all respects.

Like the Churchill quote says, Sunday’s win against Belfast cannot be seen as a sign of the end of the Blaze’s troubles. It cannot even be seen as the moment that turns the Blaze’s season around…that will only come in hindsight if the team and ownership deliver on all their fighting talk over the past few days consistently over the rest of the season.

But what it is, is a start. The first step. A chance to close the chapter on a start to the season which has been nowhere near as good as it could have been. And a chance, maybe, for this Blaze squad to find its full potential.

The road back starts here. The Blaze season is at a crossroads. Now the choice on which road to take is solely in their hands. But the fact the ownership has actually been willing to get to the crossroads in the first place is a start.

Now, Marc Lefebvre and his team have to deliver. Otherwise this will be just another false start.

Over to you, boys.