Training camp in Idaho is nearly a month away, and when the 2017-18 team rolls into Boise it will do so with a different look up front. With work still to be done on next season’s roster, the Steelheads have three returning forwards from last season now joined by five new arrivals thus far. With new players and new skill sets now on board, the names on the backs of the jerseys won’t be the only changes that Steelheads fans can expect.
Will Merchant, Connor Chatham, and captain Jefferson Dahl are all assured to be back at CenturyLink Arena next season. Merchant and Chatham will be getting ready for their second pro seasons, while Jefferson Dahl is preparing for his fourth tour of duty in Idaho. Those three players bring elements that Head Coach Neil Graham hopes he has replicated in his moves this summer, and then some.
“When you look at our first line from last year, we re-signed Will Merchant and Jefferson Dahl. They both play fast and gritty. They win a lot of battles and they’re always under arms and under pucks,” said Graham, whose team won 43 games last year. “That’s something I want to build more on, and I want consistency in our scoring depth. A lot of the guys we went after are similar to those two in terms of their speed and tenacity.”
While the Steelheads have had regular season success, playing in the Mountain Division poses steep playoff challenges. The Steelheads first-round opponent each of the last two years has gone on to win the Kelly Cup.
“Looking back on the last two seasons, we have to find a way to beat the teams in our division. I thought two big elements we needed were to be a little grittier and a little faster. That doesn’t always mean fighting, but it does mean being willing to battle a bit harder and win the 50-50s, take a hit to make a play and finish more hits consistently,” said Graham.
“The game-changing factor for some of the newer guys is their speed. I want to play a fast game, and I think the way we’re structured is designed for fast players.”
The Steelheads brought in two scoring threats via trade during the summer, acquiring All-Star Steven McParland from the South Carolina Stingrays and Tommy Thompson from the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Both players are scoring threats and have an upward trajectory, but the attention-grabbing asset for both players is the pace at which they will play.
“Steve won the fastest skater competition at the All-Star Game last year. Doing my research and talking to several teams out east, when people talked about McParland’s speed the other name that kept coming up was Tommy’s. To be able to grab them both, and perhaps they can even play together, it’s something that will fit in nicely for the style we want to play.”
The prospect of the Steelheads playing faster doesn’t only speak to their attack. Forward Brady Brassart has been a consistent producer in his professional career, but is also highly regarded for his two-way play.
“When you think speed, you instantly think offense. But these same faster players will be coming back equally hard to work on the defensive side of the puck,” said Graham. “When you have that speed, it’s hard to defend against but also hard to create against.”
Mitch Moroz and A.J. White are both players that Graham believes have the unique ability to play the heavy, gritty game while having the skating ability to perform in the faster system. Moroz was a second-round NHL draft pick in 2012 and brings a reputation for his physical style, while White’s reputation as a complete player stems back to his time as captain at UMass-Lowell.
“It feeds the depth of our scoring attack, in waves of speed and potential offensive threats. I think we’ve done a nice job of balancing,” said Graham. “I think that depth should take a bit of the onus off of Merchant and Dahl, but it will also make them a bit tougher to cover with more players that need to be keyed on for other teams’ top defenders.”
If Graham believes his roster is capable of doing more, then he is as well. The Steelheads plan to be faster and unrelenting in their attack, meaning Graham can use his imagination when choosing just how to draw up his game plans.
“That’s the fun of coaching is pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone. We know what works and what has worked in the past, and we don’t need to rewrite the script,” said Graham. “But I think there are areas that we can execute better now with the team we have. I think there are a few things that will flow better with this lineup and I’m excited about that.”
Of course with a so many new elements coming together, and with so much emphasis on speed and precision, it’s not fair to expect everything to come together on Day 1. Like every season, there will be a period of adjustment and learning for everyone, a period when Graham and Assistant Coach Everett Sheen will rely heavily on their returning bodies.
Merchant had a standout rookie season and proved himself to be a valuable piece on the power play. Chatham was one of the youngest players on the roster last season and is a player the coaching staff expects to take major strides this year.
Dahl is ready for his second season as captain, and with a largely new crew, it’s fair to expect that a few more players will be turning to him for guidance in the early going. But that doesn’t mean that his job description is changing.
“I don’t want him to be different. I want him to do his thing. He’s a guy that leads by example in terms of what he does to prepare, what he does in practice and games,” said Graham. “He’s not a big rah-rah guy, and he doesn’t need to be. His work ethic and the way he plays the game is contagious, and if guys follow his habits, that’s how he leads and how we need him to lead.”
A few more players will be added before the ice is in at CenturyLink Arena. Those players will be ready to play a faster and tougher game than Steelheads fans have seen in past seasons. And if all goes according to plan, those fans may see a more exciting brand of hockey in October as well.
“It’s important for us to structure ourselves in such a way that we understand there are a lot of new faces and there will be a learning curve. So let’s play fast and let’s play aggressive,” said Graham. “If we’re going to make mistakes, let’s make them aggressively. As we get into the season we will improve and tighten, but early we will use our strengths to our advantage to make sure we get out of the gates hot.”