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.
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.