The off-season is a longer break for the players than it is for coaches, as just a couple weeks removed from the end of their playoff run, Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham and Assistant Coach Everett Sheen are already looking ahead to the task of building their roster for the 2017-18 season.
The summer project of recruiting next year’s roster, one that includes hours of video study, phone calls, and scouting reports, will be in full-swing soon enough. Graham and Sheen will be looking for the right pieces among both rookies and veterans that will complement those players returning and help Idaho advance next year.
Idaho’s season ended sooner than expected this spring with a first-round defeat to the Colorado Eagles. Before a team can move forward and improve, it must assess the past. Despite the early exit, the coaches were pleased with some of the accomplishments during the regular season.
“There are lessons to be learned and you have to take a lot of different things into account when you’re building your team. We took a tremendous amount of pride this year in what we accomplished with 43 wins, but obviously we fell short in the first round,” said Graham, having completed his second season as the head coach. “I still feel we had a team that could have gone a lot deeper but we didn’t get it done. We need to address certain areas to make sure we are more playoff-ready and can go deeper next year.”
When the task at hand for the summer is to not only determine changes needed but also to decide what elements of the team to keep the same, it is beneficial for the staff to have taken a few days to distance themselves from the season’s final game. The end of any campaign that lacks a Kelly Cup celebration is disappointing, but it must be reviewed with a clear mind.
“You don’t want to overreact too much. We had 43 wins which put us third in our division, but tied for sixth in the entire league of 27 teams. We were among the best in the league during the season, so you don’t want to overreact too much to playoff results when three of the top six teams were in your division,” said Graham.
The team will also recruit with the knowledge that there can be a lot of change during the year, with trades and call-ups among other players transactions. Recruiting is certainly done with next spring in mind, but without the guarantee that those players will still be available when playoff hockey returns.
“I think it speaks to how our league is as a developmental league. As much as you want to recruit and build, things can change as late as the day before playoffs,” said Graham, who dressed 36 players for at least one game last season. “Maybe your AHL affiliate doesn’t make the playoffs and you add a few guys, or the team you’re playing against might grab a few guys, or college free agents. There’s so much that can change, so you don’t want to overthink it.”
“We want to recruit a team that we think can win a Kelly Cup, but there is going to be a lot of movement and changes over the course of a 72-game season. We’ll still have to adapt, learn, and grow each year. Right now, we have to recruit a team that gets us out to a good start and that can win our division and a Kelly Cup. When changes happen, we have to have plans B, C, D ready.”
We have seen Graham’s oncoming summer routine in past summers, when giant dry-erase boards filled with player names and positions will cover every wall of the office. Some of those targets will be familiar and some unfamiliar. While there is still plenty of time before many of those players will officially become Steelheads, the coaching staff already knows what characteristics they are looking to add to the roster.
“We need to get a little tougher and we want to improve our speed. I think to add some veteran presence to our lineup will be big, too,” said Graham. “We love our leadership, and we love our core group that we hope returns. But if we can get a bit faster and tougher, it will help us in our division.”
It will be a lot of work for the coaches, and it will be Sheen’s first full dose after he joined the Steelheads staff late in the summer last year. Despite the long hours, pages of information, and countless reels of film, the excitement of piecing together a championship-caliber team can also be a lot of fun.
“I love it. It’s a lot of hours but it doesn’t feel like work at times,” said Graham. “On the flip side, there’s obviously pressure and some serious decision-making involved. It’s something I thoroughly enjoy doing, the conversations and phone calls with players, agents, and affiliates is enjoyable. It helps me become a better coach and grow as a general manager as well.”