It’s been two weeks since the Steelheads’ season came to an end, with Drayson Bowman’s deflection at 13:32 of overtime dribbling over the goal line in Game 4 and sending the Steelheads home for the summer. It takes time for the disappointment of any playoff defeat to subside, but Head Coach Neil Graham and Assistant Coach Everett Sheen are already reflecting on the 2017-18 campaign and getting their notes together for the next task – gearing up for another run next season.
Despite their second-round ouster at the hands of the Colorado Eagles, the Steelheads did improve in several areas in their 21st season. Their 44 wins and 96 points were both increases over the 2016-17 season, and the team advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“We’ve built in the right direction over the last three seasons. We took a step in getting to the second round this year, but it’s still disappointing in that we didn’t move on from there,” said Graham, following his third season as head coach. “I thought we had a very good team that could have gone further. That being said, it was still improvement. As long as we continue to improve and climb in the right direction, good things are going to happen.”
That optimism doesn’t exclude the series against the Eagles, one that only lasted four games but was much closer than the final margin.
“There is still disappointment, but for me the disappointment is not necessarily in how we played. I thought we battled very hard in all four games of the Colorado series. I think it’s more disappointment in the result because we all had higher aspirations,” said Graham.
“Three of the four games were one-goal games and two of them were 1-0 overtime losses. At the end of the day we were still on the wrong side of those losses, but it felt closer and never felt like we were out of the series at any point.”
Fans will likely remember the Steelheads’ series win form the 2018 playoffs far better, a seven-game victory over the Allen Americans. Idaho erased a 3-0 series deficit, the second team in ECHL history to do so, to earn their first playoff series win under Graham.
Though nothing is determined, it’s fair to assume there will be a number of players returning to Boise in October that will be able to channel the lessons learned during their historic comeback toward a new season.
“There are lessons we learned in that series and in the regular season, and a lot of great things we accomplished,” said Graham. “We had an eight game winning streak and a 9-0-1 stretch heading into playoffs. We were playing really good hockey at the right time.”
“We found ourselves behind in the series 3-0, which obviously is not a recipe for success, but we did something unique that showed the character and resiliency of that group. Now as we bring guys back, they’ll bet that much stronger and that much better for it. We’ll have more maturity in our game.”
Having digested the good and the bad, the Steelheads can now apply the data to next season. They did so successfully after their 2017 playoff loss to Colorado, a series that led the coaches to believe the team had to be faster and tougher for this past year.
“I thought we were extremely fast and a big part of our identity this year was to play with pace and speed,” said Graham. “You hear those buzzwords in the NHL, but what does it really mean? For us, it was that the faster we were the more we could get up and down the ice, and it would improve our possession numbers. I thought we did a very good job of that and the analytics showed we did a very good job of that.”
The needs for 2018-19 may not be as definitive heading into this summer, with the Steelheads feeling their roster as constructed was not far off this spring. Still, the staff is starting to lay the groundwork for the recruiting and player evaluation that is critical to each off-season.
“I wouldn’t say we are in full off-season mode in terms of the amount of phone calls and preparation and spreadsheets that we’ll build. We’re in the beginning stages,” said Graham. “In order to make sure you’re ready for when that signing period opens up in mid-June, we have a month of preparation adding to those watch lists and making sure we have a targeting plan.”
“You can’t sign a player until June 16th. Everything done at this point is to build your plan so that when that day comes you aren’t starting then, because by then it’s too late. You have to be ready on June 16th to know what you’re after and make those calls and build off them. Right now it’s a preparation period to ensure we have a plan, then the hours of heavy lifting really begin.”