The Steelheads will begin the 2017-18 season on home ice this weekend, with a two-game set against the Norfolk Admirals kicking off their four-game, season-opening home stand. The Admirals make their first ever visit to Idaho after the teams met for the first time during last season’s three-game set at Norfolk Scope. The Steelheads will look to take advantage of their friendly start to the schedule by getting out to a hot start, while the Admirals intend to be a much more challenging squad than they were a season ago.
The Admirals were at the bottom of the standings last year in their second ECHL season, finishing the season with a 26-40-6 record and ranked 24th among the league’s 27 teams. The Steelheads enjoyed their visit to Virginia, earning five points across the three games in mid-November, but both of these teams will look far different this time around.
The Steelheads have nine returners this season- three forwards, four defenseman, and two goaltenders. Two of those players, defenseman Aaron Harstad and goaltender Philippe Desrosiers, played in Norfolk last season, with Harstad being traded to the Steelheads in February and Desrosiers assigned to the Admirals by the Dallas Stars to finish the season.
Jefferson Dahl, the captain and last year’s leading scorer, is once again ready to center a productive line. Though he skated much of last season with rookie Will Merchant, who also returns after finishing fifth in the ECHL in power play goals last season, he had two new line-mates during much of training camp. Coming off 66 points last season, Dahl centered Mitch Moroz and Henrik Samuelsson in exhibition action.
Moroz and Samuelsson were both taken in the NHL Draft in 2012, Samuelsson in the first round and Moroz in the second, and were teammates in juniors with the Edmonton Oil Kings. During their last season as line-mates, 2014 in Edmonton, they combined for 158 points.
Tommy Thompson and Steve McParland will also debut for the Steelheads, both coming over via trade in the offseason. McParland helped lead the South Carolina Stingrays to a Kelly Cup Final last spring, while Thompson led the league in overtime goals as a rookie in Greenville.
The Steelheads will be without Corbin Baldwin for the first series of the season, missing two games due to suspension following an elbowing penalty in the preseason. Joe Faust returns after scoring a record-setting 14 goals last season. Defensemen Chris Martenet, Shane Hanna, and Eric Sweetman, all rookies assigned by AHL Texas, should get their first looks this weekend.
Six regulars for the Admirals return from last year’s disappointing season, but that includes captain Brodie Dupont. Dupont joined Norfolk last season while the Steelheads were in town and went on to post 16 goals and 41 points in 40 games for the Admirals. Domenic Alberga also returns for the Admirals after a career-high 12 goals and 29 points last year.
The Admirals may have jump-started their resurgence at the end of last season when they pulled off a number of futures deals that paid off big in the summer. From completing those deals, the Admirals added Erik Bradford and Tim Daly from the Utah Grizzlies. Bradford led the Grizzlies in scoring with 63 points and Daly finished among the top-20 in scoring for defensemen. Goaltender Jake Patterson also joins Norfolk after two years in Toledo, last year being named Second Team All-ECHL and winning a career-high 34 games.
The Admirals are winless on Opening Day in each of their ECHL seasons, while the Steelheads are 8-4-2 in the ECHL era on the season’s first day. This will be the first time that Idaho has started the season against an Eastern Conference opponent.
STEELHEAD TO WATCH
Neil Graham spoke extensively during the off-season about increasing team speed and scoring depth. There are a handful of players on the Opening Day roster with scoring pedigrees, and one player sent to Idaho from Texas should check both items on Graham’s off-season list. Rookie forward Max French has made a good impression in both Texas Stars and Steelheads training camp, scoring exhibition goals in both and displaying breakaway wheels. French was a standout scorer in college at Bentley, where he was First Team All-Atlantic each of the past two seasons and finished second in the conference in goal-scoring. He had 40 goals in 70 games over the last two seasons in school.
ADMIRAL TO WATCH
Despite Dupont’s return and some savvy additions for Head Coach Robbie Ftorek, Norfolk’s turnaround will still be dependent on strong goaltending. They added one of the best in Patterson, who was among the leaders in almost every statistical category with Toledo last season. He led the league in wins (34), finished third in goals-against average (2.28), fourth in save percentage (.918), and seventh in shutouts (7). The Steelheads believe they have a chance to be a high-flying offensive team this season, but on opening weekend it’s likely that they’ll immediately face a tough test.
Tim Daly and Joe Faust both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2016-17, Daly with the Grizzlies and Faust with the Steelheads. The Admirals hope to see similar production from Daly in his new home, while the Steelheads have surrounded Faust with other strong puck-moving options like Shane Hanna and Cody Corbett, in addition to Aaron Harstad. Faust proved to be a dangerous weapon jumping in on the attack last season and should be helped even more so with a speedier Steelheads offense. The Steelheads also hope that pressure can keep Daly pinned down in his own zone when he’s on the ice. For two players who surprised many with their production last season, it will be fun to see them go toe-to-toe again.