Ten Teams, Ten Days III: Coventry Blaze – Double Dragons?

“A second chance carries expectation. The books you’d written no longer exist. The future is in your pen. Ink to paper, now begin”

Arch Enemy: “As The Pages Burn

INTRO

We all know the story of Coventry’s season last year-the nightmarish first half turned round into playoff triumph by a mild-mannered Messiah from Lockport named Chuck Weber. I’ve argued before that what Weber did wasn’t the revolution in hockey thinking that Blaze fans like to portray it as, so much as a coach recognising instantly that he had a massive advantage in the best goalie in the league by some way and playing a system designed to give a workmanlike but anodyne team a way to make the best possible use of it. I called it “as pretty to watch as an autopsy”-but it worked.

It’s also led to the most anticipated off-season in Coventry in some considerable time…given his own team to recruit rather than someone else’s, would Weber stick to the suffocating, cautious but effective style that had brought the team success last year, or would we see a coach whose biggest asset is apparently his “different thinking” take the Blaze in a different, more open, spectator-friendly direction? What WOULD a “Chuck Weber team” look like in the EIHL? And could  it take the Blaze back to the top of British hockey, like so many fans seem to think it would? Let’s find out.

NETMINDERS

#41 Brian Stewart, #30 Renny Marr

The UK didn’t really know who he was last year, but everyone in British hockey knows who Brian Stewart is now. The 6’5, 201lb bear of a goalie from Burnaby, BC has set the standard in net that every other team in the league is looking to match this season. Unquestionably the EIHL’s best netminder last year, his return was clamoured for and then greeted with jubilation in Coventry as he prepares to once again become the centrepiece of a Chuck Weber squad and intended as the cornerstone of a successful year.

If he can come even close to his form and consistency last season, then once again the Blaze will have a chance to win every night-even when they shouldn’t have to. With a completely different defence in front of him this season, the plan from Weber is doubtless that he won’t need to repeat the heroics of last year-but as every Blaze fan will tell you, it’s comforting for them to know that he more than likely can if they do.

Backing Stewart up is one of GB’s brightest goalie prospects in Scot Renny Marr-the 17-year-old from Kirkcaldy steps up from the SNL in a development plan that will also see him spend time in Milton Keynes and Coventry’s NIHL team this season. However, if he does make it off the bench, it means that Stewart’s injured-and that’s an injury that could be disastrous.

DEFENCEMEN #5 Mike Quesnele, #7 Josh Godfrey, #11 Jim Jorgensen, #14 Kevin Noble, #15 James Griffin, #28 Steven Chalmers, #48 Boris Valabik, #58 David Clements.

The Blaze defence is very clearly split into “offensive” and “defensive” roles – in fact, if you were building a set you could easily place one of each on a pairing in a ladder system…this is a utilitarian group carefully assembled so that it can be split into pairs that complement each other and do a simple, effective job – letting Brian Stewart see pucks.

Standing out are the hulking defensive guard dog Slovak Boris Valabik (ex of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers, though with a career that has been hampered by injury problems recently), who will also team with the very attack-minded blitzkrieg bomber Josh Godfrey as a twin cannon barrage from the point, while behind them Jim Jorgensen & Kevin Noble are more versatile, two-way options.

Mike Quesnele and Steven Chalmers will likely complete the “starting” top six, with James Griffin adjudged to need more development on a two way in the EPL, along with the very exciting prospect that is Coventry’s own David Clements…the 20-year-old will spend the majority of the year along with Griffin in Milton Keynes, but is an accomplished player who’s already captained GB u18s while playing in North American junior, and is very definitely one for Blaze fans to watch closely.

FORWARDS

#8 Ned Lukacevic, #9 Lewis Hook, #14 Cale Tanaka, #17 Russ Cowley, #18 Chris Lawrence, #19 Neil Trimm, #20 Drew Fisher, #21 Ashley Tait, #23 Brett Robinson, #59 Ross Venus, #90 Bobby Chamberlain, #91 Carl Lauzon

Perhaps the most striking thing about this group of players is the amount of creativity in it. This group is overflowing with players who like to make things happen offensively, preferably as flashily as possible…and the vast majority of them have been doing it in the EIHL’s Gardiner Conference. Ned Lukacevic, Neil Trimm, Carl Lauzon…there’s more show ponies here than your average day at Royal Ascot.

That’s before we add in set-up men like Drew Fisher (59 assists in the ECHL last season), Carl Lauzon (one of the most creative players in the EIHL and consistently Hull’s most dangerous forward each season) and Chris Lawrence (who went from world-beater to carpet-beater and back again last year several times, sometimes within the space of the same game).

It’s an undoubtedly talented forward group, with the young British pair of Lewis Hook and Bobby Chamberlain already established EPL players but two-way contract depth on this squad. Russ Cowley, Ashley Tait and Cale Tanaka are the third-line workhorses. Brett Robinson, too, could be a very popular player in Coventry indeed – the closest the Skydome has seen in a long while to a certain Dan Carlson in his play style.

Weber has decided to go for balanced, spread scoring, and has reacted to the criticism of last year’s lack of offence by ladling it on with a trowel – but it’s interesting that the players he’s picked (at least those from the EIHL) all have a tendency to like the flashy play – they’ll never pull just one deke when three will do. There’s seemingly no assassin there – no player like Mathieu Roy or Guillaume Doucet, who’ll simply aim to make sure puck and twine meet as quickly and as often as possible after they get it without all the bells and whistles of arranging a dance-party in the offensive zone beforehand. Could that hurt the Blaze over a full season?

If Weber can get this forward group focused on the destination rather than how pretty the journey is when attacking, though, they could give more than one opposition defence a sleepless night or two.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Drew Fisher-Carl Lauzon-Chris Lawrence

Ned Lukacevic-Brett Robinson-Neil Trimm

Ross Venus-Russ Cowley-Cale Tanaka

Ash Tait-Lewis Hook-Bobby Chamberlain

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Kevin Noble-Josh Godfrey

Boris Valabik-Jim Jorgensen

Mike Quesnele-Steven Chalmers

Brian Stewart, Renny Marr

PLAYER TO WATCH – #23 Brett Robinson (C)

The 30-year-old centre from North York, Ontario will anchor one of Blaze’s top two lines this season, and he could be a sleeper star in the EIHL. Fast and creative with an eye for goal, but also very responsible in his own end, the two-way centre is a hard-working, deft playmaker who loves to feed his linemates. He’s also got a reputation as performing in big games from his previous teams in Idaho and Cincinnati. Sound familiar? It should…it reminds me very much of the description of a certain Dan Carlson in Coventry.  And that is the kind of comparison that makes a player instantly worth keeping a very close eye on indeed.

COACH – Chuck Weber (2nd season)

The man from Lockport, NY can do no wrong in Coventry fans’ eyes after last season, and is popular around the rest of the league too. This is unsurprising after his miracle-working on ice last season – but also because off-ice the 43-year-old has a calm, personable interview style and a very impressive CV indeed. He’s also very quickly put his own stamp on Coventry, making it clear that he’s here to coach hockey games, not play politics – an approach that ruffles feathers in all the right places but could lead to isolation if the wrong people want it to, as other coaches have found in the EIHL. Tactically astute, this is the first real test for him in the EIHL – a season where he and he alone will be responsible for the way the team is constructed, motivated and performs, the culture it follows, the systems it plays.

This is the season where we really see what a Chuck Weber team is made of and just how good he is. It’ll be a fascinating year to watch now Weber’s no longer the new boy and other coaches have had a summer to study and react…

SUMMARY

This is a very useful Blaze team. It’s a big improvement on last season offensively, and defensively the pieces appear to be selected with care.

Is it a team that can bring silverware to the Skydome again? Potentially. Certainly if Weber can get the forward lines producing as they have individually elsewhere – and if Brian Stewart gets his game going in net again they will be tough to beat. That’s two very large “ifs” – if either doesn’t happen for a prolonged stretch of time, then it’ll be interesting to see for how long the other can compensate.

However, this is a very different team to the one Chuck Weber inherited. It may still play with an emphasis on systems and making sure their own end is covered first, but if Weber feels confident enough to loosen the leash a little and let his players play, there is real potential here..

In a very tough Erhardt Conference, can the Blaze become Double Dragons with another trophy this season? Can Weber work his magic now that he’s no longer an unknown quantity? Much will depend on how the Blaze react to the notorious EIHL season-killer that is European competition, and if the skill players can be worked into a defensive brand of hockey.

There’s certainly a lot of cause for optimism in Coventry if you’re a Blaze fan, though.

The new season is a blank page. This year, Chuck Weber is ready to begin writing his own chapter in Coventry, rather than being the happy ending to someone else’s.

It’s time to pick up the pen again at the Skydome.

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