EIHL Season Preview 16/17: Belfast Giants: “…And You Can’t Teach That”

Let’s break out our old machines now
It sure is good to see them run again
Oh gentlemen, start your engines”

Sleater-Kinney: “Combat Rock”

The Belfast Giants have retooled this summer, and they are going with the mantra “tried and trusted” this season. Derrick Walser has decided that the best way to respond to accusations of a team that didn’t perform as well as it could have hoped for is to build a team who’ve been there and done that. This is the oldest team in the EIHL, and the only one with an average age over 30. But have these old dogs got new tricks?

Let’s take a look at them.

GOALTENDERS

#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson, #1 Jackson Whistle

The Giants have gone with what they know in net yet again with Stephen Murphy – arguably the best British netminder of his generation…but in an interesting twist they’ve gone with a young ex-WHL player with Giants connections in Jackson Whistle, former Kelowna Rocket and son of British hockey legend Dave Whistle in what looks like being a 1A/1B netminding pairing rather than the traditional “starter/backup” used by most EIHL teams. Whistle counts as British due to time in the Bracknell junior system while his dad was coach there, thanks to British import rules. Ballymoney’s proudest export Andrew Dickson provides clear depth at the netminding position, ready to step in wherever necessary…but it is Whistle who is the real unknown and potential X-Factor here…he provides constant pressure on Murphy and allows for a new young wrinkle in the Giants goaltending battle in his first pro season. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s used.

DEFENCE

#3 Jeff Mason, #7 Mark Garside, #9 Jim Vandermeer, #43 Derrick Walser, #50 Matt Nickerson, #88 Ryan Martinelli

This is a defense just like last year for the Giants – it has one of the finest offensive brains the EIHL has ever seen in Derrick Walser to lead the charge forward, now backed up by the imposing, strong-at-both-ends Ryan Martinelli, who spent last year with Szekeskfehervar in the EBEL and has consistently played among Europe’s best.Behind him, the pure muscle is provided by another two familar faces – the hulking Jim Vandermeer and the unmistakable mohawked destroyer that is Matt Nickerson. The third pairing of Mark Garside and Jeff Mason are a quietly solid and beautifully composed pairing who can be relied upon to munch minutes and rarely make a wrong step.

As a unit, this is a balanced one that’s a) capable at every level and b) knows exactly what’s required. They’re not by any means the most flamboyant (although Derrick Walser in particular is an absolute joy to watch) but they are going to be an effective one.

FORWARDS

#12 Steve Saviano, #14 Mike Forney, #19 Colin Shields, #23 Alex Foster, #25 Blair Riley, #26 Brandon Benedict, #47 Adam Keefe, #68 Chris Higgins, #79 James Desmarais, #89 Jonathan Boxill, #91 David Rutherford

The forward group built by Derrick Walser this year is one that’s built in the same template as last – a mix of speed and grit with moments of both blinding skill and power. It is a forward line that’s had to adjust slightly to the loss of one of its most effective members in pest extraordinaire Daryl Lloyd, but it’s still one that will come at you relentlessly and test your defence in myriad ways. Steve Saviano and Alex Foster are the headliners among the new additions, along with very capable power forward Blair Riley. James Desmarais is a silky-smooth joy of a playmaking center, Mike Forney and Chris Higgins provide the skill and scoring nous, but it is Foster who’s the player to watch – he is a superb up-and-down centre who is equally comfortable in his own zone or the oppositions, while Saviano is jet-fuelled and wily as a linemate.

The bulldog known as Adam Keefe will once again anchor the third line, too, while Brandon Benedict is among the top defensive forwards in the league and Jonathan Boxill, too, is arguably the ideal replacement for Daryl Lloyd.

This is a team that isn’t the prettiest – it may not be the most hyped…but it is quietly very, very good. One that’s battle-tested and ready to go.

COACH: Derrick Walser (2nd season)

Walser is looking to learn his lessons from a sometimes disappointing, other times underwhelming first season (at least by the high expectations in Belfast) – he is a coach who knows how he wants to play and has built a team that is in his own image – intelligent, highly experienced and ready to learn its lessons. Now with a season of coaching experience under his belt, he’ll be expecting to be much better this time around.

PROJECTED LINES – FORWARDS

Steve Saviano – Alex Foster – Chris Higgins

Mike Forney – James Desmarais – David Rutherford

Blair Riley – Adam Keefe – Colin Shields

Jonathan Boxill – Brandon Benedict

PROJECTED LINES – DEFENCE

Derrick Walser – Jim Vandermeer

Matt Nickerson – Ryan Martinelli

Jeff Mason – Mark Garside

GOALIES 

Stephen Murphy

Jackson Whistle

Andrew Dickson

SUMMARY

The Giants are the oldest team in the Elite League this season, and the only team with an average age over thirty. They’re a team very much built around the philosophy of “old dogs with new tricks” – this is a team that has travelled far, seen much, and learned lessons the hard way in rinks from Vancouver to Vienna and Budapest to Bakersfield. It has the one thing that you simply can’t teach – experience. There is probably nothing you can throw at this team that someone on it hasn’t seen before – and used properly, that will be worth its weight in gold, particularly when things are going wrong on a rainy midwinter night far from home.

The Giants will be hoping that that veteran mindset will carry them a long way this season, and that the combined hive mind of the Giants roster will be able to out-think any danger it comes across.

It’s not a bad strategy at all. A very solid one, in fact.

But only more time passing will tell if it’s a winning one.

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