The ECHL trade deadline came and went on Thursday afternoon, and in the days leading up to it the Steelheads were not idle. Head Coach Neil Graham actively looked to improve his roster for a playoff push this spring, and he found quality both in the trade market and in free agency by adding forward Jack Nevins and goaltenders Tomas Sholl and Michael Bitzer.
With several AHL call-ups in the last month stripping the Steelheads of some weapons, Graham was on the hunt for goaltending and some muscle. Goaltenders Ryan Faragher and Philippe Desrosiers are both in the American Hockey League, with Desrosiers recalled to the Texas Stars earlier this week and Faragher playing with the Stockton Heat since mid-February. The Steelheads lost some size and scoring with Henrik Samuelsson’s call to AHL Rockford, and Mitch Moroz has been sorely missed since going on injured reserve in December.
It’s a difficult time of year to find quality goaltending, but Graham did well to bring in rookies Sholl and Bitzer. The two netminders were both in the building on Wednesday night in Boise, with Sholl making his first Steelheads start after being acquired from the Adirondack Thunder last week and Bitzer backing him up after his signing out of Bemidji State University was announced earlier the same day.
Sholl was solid in his first game in a Steelheads sweater, earning Idaho a point in the standings with a 2-1 shootout loss to Allen in which he made 23 saves. That included three breakaway stops in overtime to get the game to a shootout.
“I felt good,” said Sholl. “Obviously I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t get the win but I felt sharp with the shots that I had.”
It’s been a journey of a season for Sholl, who is with his fourth team of the year. Some players bounce around a league trying to find a place where they fit in, but Sholl’s movement has been a testament to how well he’s performed at each stop and the opportunities that success has afforded him.
After he didn’t land with an ECHL team to start the season after four years at Bowling Green State University, Sholl found a home in the SPHL and went 14-3-3 in 20 appearances for the Macon Mayhem and Evansville Thunderbolts. That success earned him a chance in Adirondack and made him an appealing trade piece for the Steelheads.
Sholl has proven himself to be right at home in the ECHL, now with a 5-0-2 record with a 1.89 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage after Wednesday.
“It’s been a little chaotic. Every time you have to uproot yourself and go to a new place, it’s kind of hectic and feels like it’s going fast,” said Sholl. “But the guys and coaches here have made things comfortable for me and made the transition easy.”
“The goal is to take advantage of the opportunities you get, and that’s my mindset. Every time I get a chance to play a game, that’s the only thing that matters. It’s that one moment, that one game.”
Bitzer’s season was far less chaotic, finishing his NCAA career at Bemidji State where he finished as one of the greatest goaltenders in program history. Bitzer holds the WCHA record for career shutouts with 21, holds the saves record at Bemidji State, was a First Team All-American and All-Star in his career, and was a Hobey Baker finalist in 2017.
With all those accolades behind him, he has joined the Steelheads for a late-season playoff run.
“It’s exciting because it’s fun hockey. You want to set yourself up well for the playoffs and get ready to make a run,” said Bitzer. “It’s an exciting place to come.”
“It’s a winning organization and I’ve heard nothing but good things.”
With the two masked men who faced nearly every shot for the Steelheads since November both gone and the two rookies tasked with keeping this Steelheads season pointed towards playoff hockey, both netminders know they have stepped into a unique situation that is both an opportunity and a responsibility.
“When you have opportunities like that, you have to do well,” said Sholl. “At the same time that’s what you want to play for. You want to be the guy your team can look to for the big save.”
With the youth added, experience and leadership are also important at the deadline. Graham got both in Nevins, the prototypical ECHL power forward who instantly adds offense and intimidation.
Nevins joined the Steelheads after putting up 20 points in 51 games in Greenville, along with 137 penalty minutes. As the battle for points in the standings intensifies down the stretch, Nevins’ presence will be critical.
“It’s going to be a physical game the rest of the way here. I have to bring that and make sure my linemates and my teammates are playing a little bigger when I’m out there,” said Nevins, who was a teammate of Brady Brassart’s in Quad City last year. “I want to contribute offensively and play good hockey.”
Joining a team mid-season can be a challenging adjustment for a player, but Nevins has been an impact player on several teams already in his career. He saw time with three AHL teams over parts of four seasons, and even played for five different major-junior teams before turning pro. He brought leadership to all, and served as captain when he was in Charlottetown of the QMJHL.
“I’ve been really well-traveled throughout my career. I was caught a bit by surprise the other morning but after about an hour or so it sinks in,” said Nevins. “It’s a group of good guys so they make it easy to come in here.”
“I’m just going to play hard, hockey is hockey. I’ve been playing it for years now. Obviously I have to adapt to a new system, but I’ll just go out and play hard and let it be.”
Whether via trade or free agency, all three players may not have envisioned themselves in Idaho even a few weeks ago. Now that they are Steelheads, they look forward to the opportunity to be part of a push to the playoffs.
“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about my time in Greenville, but when you’re losing all the time it’s a long season,” said Nevins. “It’s refreshing to come here and I’m excited for the opportunity.”
The Steelheads are still 13 games from what they hope will be their 21st playoff berth, but they are retooled for the drive.