Ten Teams Ten Days II: Sheffield Steelers: Fire And Forget?

You been runnin’ your mouth for quite a while now…you think you got what it takes?
Well, let’s find out…”

Digital Summer: “Just Run”

INTRO
The 15/16 Sheffield Steelers have talked this off season like nobody else. Every signing is going to be an “impact player” or “loved in Sheffield”. You can’t breathe out around the Motorpoint Arena without the echo yelling back “NEW ERA (which so far seems to consist of…er…the old one with a fitness coach). They’ve signed the “best coach in EIHL history” in Paul Thompson (firing a league winner who was supposed to be a “true Steeler” in very murky circumstances to do so before achieving a rewriting of history the Ministry of Truth themselves would be proud of) and have had their PR.spin cycle running like a Zanussi on acid (and with almost as much noise) to sell the returning British coaching god as the best thing to happen to Sheffield since…well, Gerad Adams arrived. And Doug Christiansen before that.
“The latest coach at the Motorpoint knows best. The last one didn’t. Even when we said he did”
But all of that bread and circuses can’t deny one thing…this Steelers team, with the firing of a league-winning coach to bring in a returning Messiah, looks as you’d expect from a team with their level of continuity and Paul Thompson’s coaching style. It looks…well-let’s take a look, shall we?

NETMINDERS
#35 Tyler Plante, #33 Brad Day

The Steelers, after very publicly jettisoning the netminder who arguably helped save their season last year in Josh Unice, have instead opted for a goalie with undoubted talent in Tyler Plante. It’s talent that seems to have lost its way recently, however-talent that’s only started 78 games league games since 2012, or around 25 a year in Italy, Norway and the ECHL. This season, his workload will double as well as facing some of the best in Europe in the CHL.
Plante is a big goalie who moves well, competes for every puck and will be capable at Elite League level, though he doesn’t stand out quite as much as some of the other goalies in the league. He’ll get the chance to show just why he was taken 32nd in the NHL draft in 2005 this year. He’ll also likely have to follow Unice in stealing his fair share of Steelers wins, especially in a Paul Thompson system. It’ll be a compelling watch to see how he handles arguably the first full-time starting job he’s had since his junior days.

Backing him up is local youngster Brad Day, who’s there to develop – like the majority of young backups, the Steelers will be hoping they don’t have to rely on him for more than potential spot-relief duty.

DEFENCEMEN
#6 Cullen Eddy, #19 Rod Sarich, #24 Jace Coyle, #28 Zack Fitzgerald, #37 Russ Moyer, #74 Darrell Hay, #81 Ben O’Connor

This is not a flashy unit. That’s not to say it’s not a useful one – in Ben O’Connor they have arguably the best British defenceman around (though Mark Richardson would argue strongly against that) and they have the requisite grit and solid defensive play with offensive upside in Cullen Eddy and Russ Moyer, the offensive flair of Jace Coyle and the physical presence of Zack Fitzgerald. This unit would probably have been in the running for best defensive unit in the EIHL when Paul Thompson was last in the league…

…and there’s the key. This is a good defensive unit, sure. It’s got all the ingredients that would have made it dominant in the Noughties and even early 10’s. But it’s not a unit that should give opposition forwards in the Erhardt Conference sleepless nights all year wondering how on earth they’ll beat it in 2015. Players like Fitzgerald and Coyle are arguably going to be good, not elite. Eddy is very much a fan-favourite, but if you’re looking at genuine game-changing stars on this group, you only see one man…Ben O’Connor. All the rest are great “supporting role” players, but in a league where the standard is climbing up and up and other clubs have signed the double cream, the Steelers have, at best, skimmed milk.

FORWARDS
#10 Fredrik Vestberg, #12 Jeff Legue, #14 Mike Duco, #15 Mathieu Roy, #17 Jason Hewitt, #20 Jonathan Phillips, #21 Tyler Mosienko, #29 Luke Ferrara, #67 Colton Fretter, #75 Rob Dowd, #76 Levi Nelson

The first thing you notice looking at this defensive unit is that it’s missing one of its key parts in Mike Forney, and it hasn’t really replaced him. Mathieu Roy was a superstar in the EIHL last year-unquestionably the league’s most valuable forward, and with Colton Fretter back alongside him he has the chance to run EIHL defences ragged again. Tyler Mosienko provides another dose of creativity down the middle, along with Jeff Legue doing the same on the 3rd line, and in Rob Dowd Sheffield have a British player who can take a game over by himself.

Beyond that, though…it’s a lot of huff and puff and worthy endeavour, but in a kind of “jack of all trades, master of none” fashion. Mike Duco has already shown himself to be a character and could be an excellent foil for Mosienko or the Fretter/Roy duo, but this line up looks far more top-heavy than many other sides in the league. As the EIHL has gone towards spreading the wealth, Paul Thompson has stuck stubbornly to the “ENERGY!” template of a few stars carrying the lions’ share of the work while everyone else carries the water for them-the likes of Jason Hewitt, Jonathan Phillips and Fredrik Vestberg are going to make a team tough to play against but maybe, just maybe, lacking in a cutting edge, particularly in the CHL. Duco is said to have temperament issues, too, which could be interesting in a league tightening up on the wilder side of play. It’s also a group on the older side – only Belfast have a higher average age, which on the one hand means experience..but on the other means that that much-vaunted conditioning coach had better do their job…

Again, this is a typical Paul Thompson forward group from about 2010…a solid, strong group-but one that’s stood still as others have got better this off-season. It’ll be an interesting one to see how the team performs. Particularly if Roy, Fretter or Dowd hit a lean patch…

PLAYER TO WATCH: Mathieu Roy (F)
Again, you could pick out a lot of players in this Steelers team-Mike Duco looks an entertainer waiting to happen, Rob Dowd is a star, Tyler Plante could be one…but in the end it’s hard not to overlook one of the most inspirational forwards the EIHL has ever seen. The winger from Amos, Quebec is a legit EIHL superstar-he swept the awards last year, led the league in scoring and whenever the Steelers needed a goal, it was usually him that scored it. Can he repeat the form this season? A lot is riding on him doing so…up to and potentially including the coach’s job.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Mathieu Roy-Colton Fretter-Mike Duco
Rob Dowd-Tyler Mosienko-Levi Nelson
Fredrik Vestberg-Jeff Legue-Jonathan Phillips
Jason Hewitt-Luke Ferrara

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Ben O’Connor-Cullen Eddy
Jace Coyle-Russ Moyer
Rod Sarich-Zack Fitzgerald

Tyler Plante/Brad Day

THE COACH: Paul Thompson (1st season)
The first order of business for Sheffield’s new coach was, presumably, to patch the hole in the backrest of his office chair and wipe those nasty bloodstains away left by the firing of the old one. The second was equally likely to be finding some decent heat-insulation – no coaching seat in the EIHL is hotter than Sheffield’s and it’s rarely going to be hotter than when you slide into it after a league-winning coach is fired so you can take the spot and all the local media talks you up as some combination of Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock with a British accent.
Rarely has Paul Thompson been under more pressure to win. A league title is the minimum expected from him this season to match his predecessor Gerad Adams. Start the season badly and the whispers will already begin as the leaves fall. With a notoriously trigger-happy owner behind him, Thompson’s margin for error is the narrowest it’s been in a long career this season.

SUMMARY
The Steelers “New Era” looks very much like a Coventry Blaze team of the late 2000’s/early 2010s at first glance. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily – Paul Thompson has stuck to what he knows and built a squad that will win more than it loses. However, in an Erhardt Conference that has improved considerably again this season and with Braehead also flexing menacing muscles north of them, the Steelers will have to be very good indeed this season to avoid finishing at the lower end of what will be a very tight nip-and-tuck conference indeed. They’ll need to be superb to take a league title, and miraculous to make any headway in a truly vicious CHL group.
Paul Thompson said he wanted a challenge. Here, he’s got one. In the city famous for making cutlery, it doesn’t take much to bring the knives out.
And this season, while there is every positivity among the Steelers fanbase ad the kind of optimism that only a returning hero coming back to the scenes of his greatest triumphs can bring, they’re also a pragmatic bunch in Yorkshire, and don’t expect to replace a league-winner unless the new man is guaranteed to be better.
And because of that, fancy rhetoric and feverish cheerleading from the club officials aside, the whetstones and sharpening wheels are going to be kept very close to hand in the Steel City this season.
Just in case.

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