Ten Teams Ten Days IX: Belfast Giants: “A Terrible Beauty Is Born”

Am I beautiful
As I tear you to pieces?”

In This Moment: “Sick Like Me”

INTRO

The Belfast Giants have once again gone through an offseason of change. Last offseason it was a change of coach and ownership from the all-conquering 2013/14 team of Paul Adey, which ran roughshod over the league, to the organisational system that saw Steve Thornton take over the reins of running the club both on the ice (as coach) and off (as GM). A strong but ultimately fruitless season followed.
So the Giants went back to the drawing board again. After a season last year that saw evolution rather than revolution, this season saw the opposite, starting at the top. 

They changed their structure to move Steve Thornton back into his GM role, and brought in a new man at the helm as player-coach. That man is Derrick Walser, a Canadian who’s become something of a European hockey superstar and an Eisbaren Berlin legend as well as one of the most skilled defencemen the EIHL has ever seen. But can he build a team to take the Giants back to the top of the mountain?

NETMINDERS

#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson

After all that talk about change, we come to the most settled netminder pairing in the EIHL. Familiar faces in net for the Belfast Giants, as they go with the same netminder pairing to start the season as they have for the past five seasons, and the same starter they have for the past seven…consistency that isn’t just rare in the EIHL era…it’s unheard of. Murphy, at 33, seems to have been around the British game forever since bursting onto the scene as an 18-year-old prodigy with Fife – the Scot has been GB starter for years, although he’s recently faced a new challenger in Ben Bowns and missed the majority of last season with injury…a lot will depend on if he can regain the sharpness that has seen him so dominant in seasons past.

Behind him is perennial backup, crowd favourite and Ballymoney’s finest Andrew Dickson, who’ll once again take the thankless backup role and hope for his moment in the sun to make the Kilraughts Road and Church Street proud.

DEFENCE

#3 Jeff Mason, #8 Johan Ejdepalm, #17 Mike Wilson, #23 Mitch Ganzak, #43 Derrick Walser, #50 Matt Nickerson

The first word that comes to mind when you look at the Giants’ defence this season is “experienced”. There’s only one player under 30 in this group (Mike Wilson, at 28) and the average age of the six d-men is 32, the oldest defensive group in the EIHL.

However, while some have focused on the age of the group, we’re going to focus on the sheer all-round quality that this six provide. The Giants, like Braehead, have eschewed the traditional EIHL thinking of “defence-first” or “roles”, ensuring that this is a fast, mobile unit that’s still more than capable of taking care of business in its own end, sometimes in the same shift with the same player.

Player-coach Derrick Walser is a gifted offensive defenceman who’s lit up leagues at far higher levels than the EIHL – even at 37 his passing and shot are sublime, combined with a hockey brain that can see chances before they happen – he’s without doubt better than Neal Martin, still seen by many as the standard to which EIHL offensive D should aspire. He’s backed up in the offensive stakes by the speedy and talented Mike Wilson and Giants stalwart (and former EIHL All-Star) Jeff Mason. Any defensive group that runs Jeff Mason as its third offensive D has some serious talent on it.

On the other side of the ice, the more defensive side of things will be taken care of by three solid two-way players with no mean size to them – Johan Ejdepalm comes to the EIHL after extensive experience in the DEL and Austria as a shutdown D, while Mitch Ganzak is a tank of a player who is equally comfortable at both ends of the ice and more than capable of either throwing a hit or a hard accurate shot on net, depending on what’s required.

Certainly the most noticeable signing though is Matt Nickerson – the bearded beast of a defenceman has become a cult hero in Fife and elsewhere during his time in the EIHL with his unashamed willingness to play physically, a guided-missile approach to smash anything that moves in an enemy jersey on-ice and his warm and friendly off-ice persona. He’ll provide the stay-at-home snarl in this group along with the will to deal with some of the more pugilistic sides of the game.

This is a D-group built to be equally initimidating going forward and retreating to hold its own fort, and it should accomplish that role with the minimum of fuss-attacking there is the potential for some serious fireworks and surgical play, too, as well as arguably the best offensive D the EIHL has ever seen. A tantalising prospect that’s sure to excite the SSE Arena crowd.

FORWARDS

#7 Mark Garside, #14 Mike Forney, #15 Kris Beech, #19 Colin Shields, #26 Brandon Benedict, #29 Mike Radja, #47 Adam Keefe, #68 Chris Higgins, #71 Craig Peacock, #72 Daryl Lloyd, #79 James Desmarais, #89 Jonathan Boxill

This forward group is built for speed and skating, with a side of pure aggression. In the best traditions of Giants and EIHL forward packs, it combines a mix of creative wow-factor and the rapier-sharp goalscoring teams require to capitalise on it with the workrate, grit and sandpaper of what is still the most effective agitating/grinding pairing in the league in Adam Keefe and Daryl Lloyd-two players who forecheck with the hunger and tenacity of a pair of starving dogs hunting down the last sausage in town.

 Adding Nottingham’s Jonathan Boxill to that group creates a line that will be an absolute nightmare to play against every single night and wear down opposition defences. There is a savage beauty in the way they seek and destroy opposition defencemen.

Speaking of “seek and destroy”, the Giants have more than their fair share of goalscoring forwards who can capitalise on those tired opposition players and contribute their own brand of hunting, only they’re after goals, not bodies. Standouts of the group are Sheffield goal machine Mike Forney (42 goals last season), and the centre he’ll likely be paired with, former Washington Capital and Pittsburgh Penguin Kris Beech. The 34-year-old is a skilled playmaker who loves to play the role of setting others up for scores, and is also an excellent faceoff winner. 

He’ll be joined in the creative role by another veteran centre, James Desmarais, who is a little small at 5’10 and 174lbs but a superb playmaker (44 assists in the Swiss NLB last season – a league in which he’s scored at a rate of nearly two points a game as well as scoring at over a point a game in Austria). He’ll likely pair with American scorer Mike Radja, who’s been prolific in the Asia League the past few seasons, for a similar pairing to Forney & Beech on the 2nd unit.

Providing the skilled wing-play are the “Belfast Datsyuk” Chris Higgins, who returns to the Giants after a season away in Nottingham, British playmaking’s finest Colin Shields, and sniper Craig Peacock, along with the grit and sandpaper of Mark Garside and extra forward/assistant coach Brandon Benedict to round the group off.

This is a forward group that may be somewhat lacking in raw power, but it’ll attempt to beat you with skill and skating. It’s very similar, in fact, to the Coventry Blaze’s group in terms of sheer creativity, but unlike them it also has the assassin in the shape of Forney to finish off the bullets his team-mates load for him, and the grinding wheel in the shape of arguably the best checking line in the EIHL. It’s a very, VERY good group indeed-a deep one, too. It’s a group that can wear you down with hitting, pull you all over the ice with creative play and then drive a dagger into your heart.

In that way, like Cardiff and Braehead (two teams the Belfast group resemble strongly) it has a surgical, clinical beauty about it.

PLAYER TO WATCH – Kris Beech (C)

Much of the attention may be focused on Mike Forney as the goalscoring star of this group, but Forney is a pure sniper whose success came to a large part last season because he had Mathieu Roy alongside him to both score and feed him the puck. Beech will be the player expected to do that this season – he’s a skilled passer whose faceoff ability will be key all year and will be the pivot Forney will look to to load his rifle of a shot. The 34-year-old from Salmon Arm, BC is no mean scorer himself given the chance, but in this team he’ll be expected to play the role of provider extraordinaire to whoever he’s paired with-and if he can, then the Giants could be lighting the lamp a lot more this season..

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Mike Forney-Kris Beech-Chris Higgins

Mike Radja-James Desmarais-Craig Peacock

Jonathan Boxill-Adam Keefe-Daryl Lloyd

Mark Garside)-Colin Shields

Brandon Benedict (spare)

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Johan Ejdepalm-Derrick Walser

Mitch Ganzak-Mike Wilson

Matt Nickerson-Jeff Mason

Stephen Murphy/Andrew Dickson

COACH – Derrick Walser (1st season)

Walser is a Euro hockey/minor league legend – a gifted offensive defenceman who now gets the chance to implement his coaching philosophy and start on a new career.

And an exciting philosophy it is, too. In interviews the 37-year-old comes across incredibly well and speaks of his wish to play speedy, skilled hockey with an emphasis on skating – a refreshing change to the usual “hard work, solid, gritty” stereotypes you usually get from “traditional” EIHL coaches. He speaks a lot of “accountability” – a concept that according to some in the EIHL didn’t exist in hockey before Chuck Weber mentioned it last season.

Perhaps most refreshingly, though, Walser is focused on giving his team a killer instinct. He wants his squads to be ruthless, to rip opposition teams apart. To break them.

That’s the kind of killer instinct many coaches are afraid of expressing so openly, and it’s refreshing to see an EIHL coach relaxed about saying “no, I want to win, and win handsomely”.

He’s started beautifully. Now to deliver.

SUMMARY

While many coaches will build their squads to be either brutally ugly or sophisticated but ultimately clinically simple and easily replicated given the right tools-Derrick Walser’s first EIHL squad is, by contrast, elegant, savagely pretty, but still ultimately put together with one aim in mind-to kill an opponent stone-dead.

It’s a squad designed to look good and catch the eye even as it’s ripping the heart out of an opponent.

While the traditional EIHL approach is to build a battering ram, an assault rifle or at best a machine gun, what Walser has fashioned is more of a handmade rapier fashioned by a master swordsmith. A work of carefully-fashioned art, with an ugly purpose.

A thing filled with the savage joy of hunting down the opposition’s weak spot, wearing down their defences and then ruthlessly dispatching them with a perfect thrust.

It is a lethal weapon, but one with a terrible, perfect beauty about it that could make the heart sing even as it tears it out.

And that makes it a very attractive prospect for fans in Belfast indeed.

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