The first few days of Steelheads training camp will be somewhat of a meet-and-greet for the forwards on the roster, with a sizable collection of new faces preparing for their first season in a Steelheads sweater. The defense corps will certainly have fewer name tags to fill out, with four blue-liners set to return and ready to pick up where they left off last season.
Corbin Baldwin, Joe Faust, Charlie Dodero, and Aaron Harstad are all listed on the Steelheads preliminary roster heading into training camp, with newcomer Cody Corbett joining them and a few more decisions still to be made. Last season’s defense, which gave up the fourth-fewest goals in the league, was highly-regarded by Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham. It’s not surprising to see some of the leaders of that group back in the fold.
“It’s by design. I thought the strength of our team last year was from the back end out,” said Graham, now preparing for his third season as head coach. “It’s going to give us a lot of steadiness to start the year. When you have four defensemen who know the way we want to break out, go back for pucks, and get our feet moving, it helps the transition that much quicker.”
It will be especially helpful in the early weeks of the season, when the majority of the forward group will be learning plays and systems for the first time. Those growing pains can sometimes mean defensive-zone confusion, where experienced players and the returning Branden Komm in goal can help ease the transition.
“It’s especially helpful when we talk about having a lot of new faces up front. That back end will be the anchor to make sure everyone can get on board and see how we do things in Idaho,” said Graham. “It will add a nice calming presence to our lineup, especially early.”
The value of the players coming back isn’t limited to their appearance in last year’s team photo. Baldwin is preparing for a third season playing under Neil Graham and Dodero is ready for his fourth season overall in a Steelheads sweater. Faust and Harstad are coming back for their second seasons, but both were breakout stars last year at CenturyLink Arena.
Harstad joined the Steelheads in a February trade last season and made an immediate impact, his 13 points in 20 games giving him more points than any Steelheads defenseman after his arrival.
“Obviously, when you add Aaron Harstad he’s a big piece of the puzzle. There’s always a stretch mid-year when there are guys who are dinged up an guys getting called to the next level, and it was huge for us to add Aaron at that time,” said Graham. “He was a top presence in our lineup and we were able to take a bit of the workload off some other guys.”
Graham will also have the benefit of a head-start in planning some of his pairings with Assistant Coach Everett Sheen, with his returners also having played significant minutes together in 2016-17. Harstad and Dodero played together often last spring.
Dodero’s comparable size to Harstad at 6-foot-2, and his skating ability at that size, allowed him to be up in the rush with Harstad and also get back to play a mean game in his own end.
“I thought that Dodero-Harstad pairing was outstanding together and you could see the rhythm they had. You have that instant chemistry,” said Graham. “They like to defend first and play mean and tough, but they can hurt you offensively as well if you give them too much space.”
Baldwin and Faust both served as leaders on the team and will be looked to for that once again. Baldwin was among the league’s best shutdown defensemen, while Faust had one of the best offensive seasons ever for a Steelheads’ defenseman with 41 points and a record 14 goals.
“No one in hockey hates being scored on and hates losing more than Corbin. He’s competitive, he leads, and he wants to win. When you have that presence it runs contagiously through the lineup,” said Graham.
“Faust had a breakout year. The way he can skate and get into the second layer off the rush, his vision getting shots through, he was terrific all season long. You could see his confidence growing all season. To have a guy like that back who knows how we want to do things and has that confidence offensively is huge.”
Cody Corbett likely won’t be the only new face when all is said and done, but he’s a player the coaching staff does believe fits like a glove in their system. With over 130 games of pro experience, a run to a Kelly Cup Final last spring, and even a Memorial Cup in his junior days, Corbett brings a two-way game that Graham is excited to implement.
“With Corbett we have five top defenders. I’ve watched a lot of tape on him,” said Graham. “He does a great job of getting shots through, especially on the power play. He’s good at the top on the power play and on the off-side of the power play where he has a really good one-timer.”
The Steelheads should be well-positioned for any situation next season when Sheen looks over his options on the bench. He has one of the league’s best options for protecting a one-goal lead in Baldwin, two of last year’s most dangerous offensive defensemen in Faust and Harstad, and two accomplished defensemen in Dodero and Corbett who have been go-to performers in any situation during the course of their careers.
“The big thing is when you have guys who enjoy a particular role. Everyone is competitive and wants to move up and perform their best. But you also have guys who want to be the best possible player in a particular situation. They are cognizant of that role and take a lot of pride in that role,” said Graham.
“When a penalty is taken, we don’t even need to say Corbin’s name. He knows he’s going out and he’s going to do a great job and play against other team’s top lines.”
Players knowing their roles and performing them at a high-level is a reason why the Steelheads will be able to rely on their blue line to organize their special teams as well. Last year the Steelheads’ penalty kill finished second in the league for the second consecutive year, and their power play finished seventh. The four returning blue liners were significant contributors on both sides of the puck.
“A big part is personnel, both the power play and penalty kill having guys willing to do what you ask and make a read at the right time,” said Graham. “It’s not always black and white. When you have players capable of making those reads on the fly in situations, it can make the difference.”
There will be a lot of on-the-fly decision making and learning for the Steelheads in a little over a month. One of the best defensive units from 2016-17 will be largely intact once again to get the Steelheads off on the right foot.