Standing in the Way – Sheffield SteeldogsPosted: 27/09/2011
Well the 2011/12 EPL season has begun but as there’s a couple of teams left to cover, we’ll take on the next ones the Bison will be facing. Time to cast our eyes north to “God’s country” for today’s guests.
Name: Sheffield Steeldogs
Home ice: Ice Sheffield
Player/coach: Andre Payette
Last season’s position: 8th
Top scorer: Janis Ozolins, 26 goals + 19 assists = 45 points
Match night ticket price: £9 adults, £6.50 concessions, £3.50 child, £20 family ticket (2 adults, 2 children)
I always start at the back and work my way forward with these team previews which is really the only place you can really start with the Steeldogs considering their starting netminder is the best goalie in the league.
Ben Bowns has had a meteoric rise in the eyes of British hockey fans. Having only just turned 20 in January this year, he started 50 games in the EPL and his season culminated with a call up to the GB senior side for the friendlies against the Netherlands before ultimately being the reserve goalie for the tournament in Ukraine as GB took silver. That said, it’s surely only a matter of time before he really stamps his mark on that level of hockey too.
It’s entirely fair to say that the Steeldogs weren’t the greatest side in terms of talent last season but arguably the reason they survived in games was Bowns. A 4.05 GAA isn’t amazing but but a .909 save % while facing an average of over 44 shots a game shows that Bowns not only spent most of the season facing more rubber than a motorway but he was stopping them as well. Sheffield conceded 236 goals, about 60 less than Telford and Bracknell did as a team last season. The Dogs also won 5 more games which is what propelled them into the playoffs in their first season with their new name (they used to be the Scimitars for those of you with short memories) and a large amount of that was due to the goalie. Bowns remains the only non Bison in the EPL that I use a hashtag for in the Bison game night updates. His hashtag is #thefutureisnow for the simple reason that he (along with Mark Lee it must be said) is the future of British netminding.
Bowns’ talents haven’t gone unnoticed and is on a two-way contract with Hull Stingrays for the season. Steeldogs remain the primary club for Bowns but he will train with Hull and play in the EIHL when the schedule allows. In fact he appeared recently for the Stingrays in their 6-2 loss to Nottingham, turning away all the shots he faced after relieving Christian Boucher in the Hull net.
There’s no bones about it, if you’ll forget the pun. Here’s another starting keeper that will be doing a lot of the workload this season.
Backing him up is 23 year old Dmitri Zimozdra. Born in Russia, Zimozdra qualifies as a Brit due to being a product of the Sheffield academy system. He made his ENL debut for the Spartans in 2005/06 and finally forced his way onto the Steeldogs roster last season appearing in 3 games as the Steeldogs used Bowns, Zimozdra and Paul Jones in nets. Dmitri finished with a 5.40 GAA and a .878 save %.
There’s not a great deal I can say about Zimozdra as I’ve never seen him on the ice longer than a warm up. He does however fit the model that the Steeldogs are wanting to have; Sheffield hockey with Sheffield players. Whilst he may be a bit of a donkey on the ice, coach Andre Payette is a very shrewd coach off of it and he wouldn’t trust the young man with this job of backing up the best goalie in the league if he didn’t think he could cover in a tight spot.
The issue of course is what we said for Manchester, Swindon and even Guildford to an extent; if Bowns gets injured and it’s long term, can Zimozdra carry the team? The obvious answer is “not as good as Bowns can”.
The other issue for Sheffield is they have a great keeper but what about the rest of them?
Firstly I know what you’re all thinking and sadly no, Kriss Grundmanis isn’t back for another season so we can watch Chinny hand him his rear end again. In his place Sheffield went out and signed an actually good defensive import in Pavel Gomeniuk to lead the 7 man Steeldogs defensive corps.
Gomeniuk was meant to play for the Scimitars last season before the money went dry and the Steeldogs were launched. Gomeniuk landed on his feet and instead found himself plying his trade with the Manchester Phoenix where he was an alternate captain and won the EPL title. He also scored 51 points in 54 games which is the sort of secondary offence the Steeldogs need and will take less stupid penalties than Grundmanis did so that’s a good start for Sheffield. I personally like Pasha; he’s popular wherever he’s played and whilst I personally don’t think he’s the greatest defensive import in the EPL he will be solid, reliable and dependable. He won’t spend tons of time in the box and will do a decent job quarterbacking the powerplay. More importantly in a young blue line corps he’ll add that important veteran touch to keep the ship level.
The other “old” head on the Steeldogs is former occasional Steeler Steve Duncombe. At 26 years old, Duncombe is obviously not that old (he’s younger than me) but is vastly experienced at EPL level. Like Pasha he’s a low penalty minutes guy but where Gomeniuk will add points from the blueline, Duncombe will be the stable enough guy at the back. 75 points in 254 games at EPL level, if you were wanting a point per game out of Dumcombe you’ll be disappointed but that’s not his game. He’ll be the rock at the back, well as much as one can be in a Steeldogs side that has reasonable at best blueliners.
Brit scoring at the back will hopefully come from another EPL title winner with Manchester, Ben Morgan. With Ryan Johnson having gone the other way to join the Phoenix this one was a win for Sheffield I think. 38 points from the back is a good return from a British defenceman and whilst not all star calibre and can add that bit of extra threat on the powerplay if needed and can be relied on for PK time as well. I’ve never been Morgan’s greatest fan but he has a chance on this Steeldogs team to really cement himself as a quality Brit in this league. It’s easy sometimes to look good on good teams, can it do this on a team that won’t, if we’re honest, be title contenders?
Lloyd Gibson also can contribute from the back; 29 points including 15 goals is a very good return for a blueliner. I know he’s very popular with Steeldogs fans and why not with numbers like that? Gibson gives other options for the Steeldogs in man advantage situations and like his other cohorts is another low penalty minutes, unspectacular defenceman who can do a job when called upon for Payette.
A new addition to the Steeldogs blueline is 19 year old Thomas Jeffrey. Jeffrey comes to the Dogs from Peterborough where he played his junior hockey and played 38 times for the Phantoms last season, registering 3 assists. Out of the 7, he is the likely candidate for least amount of ice time for me even though he did make a couple of guest appearances for Hull last season. He could be a slow burner this lad. I know little about him so will be keeping an eye out.
Lewis Bell returns for another season with the club. The 20 year old is a nice safe bet for the 3rd d rotation. He’s low maintenance, low penalties but sadly low scoring since he stepped up to senior hockey. He’s a real team guy but not the sort of person who will sell a lot of replica jerseys if you get my meaning.
Which leaves us with last season’s captain Lee Haywood. At only 23, Haywood is something of a young veteran. The older brother of Braehead’s Matthew, Lee is one of those players who I never really notice which as we all know means he’s likely doing his job. Always more likely to pick up assists rather than goals (he has 12 in 4 seasons) he’s a player wish I could sit down and spend an entire game watching to learn more about how he ticks. I obviously can’t do that and I don’t think he’s top notch (cue the “you’re not as good as your brother” chants) but I like watching players like this; go out, do a job and come home players who put it all out there.
I’ve said a lot of good things about the Steeldogs defence, mainly because it’s better than the Swindon defence that I reviewed last time out. The only real issue here is quality. There are blueline corps out there vastly superior to this one. To win games they will have to outwork teams because I don’t think the skill is there.
The Steeldogs have tweaked their forwards for the upcoming season to try and keep with that “Sheffield hockey with Sheffield players” philosophy I mentioned above. One of the new pieces of the puzzle was luring a local boy back home. Fresh off the back of winning the EPL title with the Phoenix, Greg Wood is back in Sheffield to captain the Steeldogs on their charge this season.
Wood, who is no stranger to Bison fans is a capable leader and second line forward at EPL level where he would only be a third liner at EIHL level due to his size. In his two seasons with Manchester he put up 80 points and whilst he won’t light the scoring charts ablaze any time soon, he is a centre and his style has always been more about puck distribution and getting into corners to do the hard work rather than score the goals and take all the glory.
Also returning to Sheffield to play is former Nottingham junior Ashley Calvert. Calvert, who split last season between the Bracknell Bees and Telford Tigers is on a two-way contract with Edinburgh Capitals for the season but will likely take up a similar role with both clubs. Calvert has never been a massive scorer in EPL hockey but we’ll likely see him on the second line. At 20, Calvert will have plenty of time this season to stamp his mark on this team and possibly move up the lines with time or drop to the third to crash and bang as required. Also his training and time with Edinburgh will see him play against players of a high standard even if not playing with them.
Back again for another go with the Steeldogs is 19 year old, Doncaster born Andrew Hirst. Hirst started last season with Sheffield but midway through the season signed on full time with Hull Stingrays. That experience will have done Hirst no end of good and hopefully he can press on and tally more than his 14 points he scored last season. He’s also expected to occasionally if infrequently turn out for the Sheffield Senators in the ENL and has played 1 game for them at time of writing this. Hirst will likely be on the third line I believe but the ice time he’ll receive will hopefully see him develop.
The remaining players all played for the Steeldogs last season as Payette has tried to keep the core of his side together.
The one who will confuse is Edgars Bebris. The Latvian born forward qualifies as a Brit under EPL rules having played junior hockey in Sheffield. At once stage last season in Basingstoke the Bison fans and players roared for a “too many imports” penalty only to discover he fell into the same category as Slava Koulikov. Bebris is a very talented forward at this level and plays well beyond his tender years. The 20 year old returned 39 points in his 52 games last season including 16 goals which is a decent return considering the overall performance of the side last term.
Definitely an import at EPL level is 22 year old Latvian Janis Ozolins. Having started the season in his native land with HK Ozolnieki, he joined the Steeldogs around Christmas time. If you combine the totals from the Latvian league and EPL, the Riga native played 46 games and tallied 90 points. With 45 points in 28 EPL games of which 26 were goals, Ozolins is an understandably popular player with the Ice Sheffield faithful. He was one of the first players announced as having signed for the new campaign at the club’s end of season awards. Aside from Bowns, Ozolins is the danger man of the Sheffield lineup. His numbers in the EPL would have equated to 90 points across the whole season which would have done the Steeldogs no end of good and might have seen them have a better time of it in the first half of the season. However shut him down and a lot of the Steeldogs offence is gone.
A likely candidate to join Ozolins on the top line is long time Sheffield EPL player, Stuart Brittle. 53 games and 42 points last season, 34 of which were assists points towards Brittle being an ideal set up man for Ozolins and possibly Berbris on what could be a very difficult to contain top line. Brittle is a deceptively good player. Like Haywood above, he’s the sort of player I never see enough of and would like to spend a whole game just watching him do his thing to get a better sense of his all around game.
At the bottom end of the Steeldogs forward corps are three players that I will provide depth for the third line in Chris Sykes, Scott Morris and Craig Elliott. Steeldogs fans won’t likely appreciate me saying it but I never really noticed any of the three of them at all last season. 19 points between the three of them last season says to me that we’ll likely not see these guys challenging Tony Hand at the top of the scoring charts. However they shall go out and play with a lot of heart and dedication if not a tremendous amount of skill.
Last but by no means least we get to the man himself. Having joined then taken over as player coach after Matt Darlow was relieved of his duties, Payette managed to surprise and completely not surprise people all at once.
When playing for the Phoenix in 2009/10 he amassed 186 PIMS in 51 games. Last season after joining, Payette managed to tally 18 points in 26 games with 260 penalty minutes. The Payette on the ice was still the Payette of old.
However off the ice after his arrival the Steeldogs became a more tactically sound outfit. They were able to grind teams down and frustrate them. They could get teams to play into their style of play and ultimately beat them doing it. It remains to be seen what Andre has up his sleeve this time around.
Off the bat I have a lot of respect for the Steeldogs as an organisation. If you check out the club’s website there is a video on the front page that gives you an overview of the team’s ethos. They’re dedicated to development of hockey in the steel city, arguably more so than their counterparts at the Arena down the road. However at the same time they want to go out, put a competitive product on the ice every night and ultimately they want to win.
I can admire that; their attitude is good, the club’s mentality is good, even the jerseys are bloody nice.
The problem of course is attitude and execution are two very different things. What we have above is a side capable of challenging for 6th place but sadly no higher. The talented Ozolins can do lots but he is one man and can’t do it alone. Payette has skill but all too often the red mist descends on the ice and that will cost his team. He might arguably be a better coach than a player but he will continue playing as long as his body will let him. If he could control his temper he could do some serious damage to this league. Sadly the team seems to follow suit in a tight spot; if they’re down their discipline seems to go to pot which only compounds the situation.
Apart from Gomeniuk, the defence is OK but not spectacular and will struggle against the really good forwards of this league. We’ve rightly blown the trumpet of Ben Bowns here but he is one man and he won’t be able to save this team single handedly if the forwards can’t put the puck in the net.
The Steeldogs have improved as a side, we can’t deny that. I’m actually really pleased for them as I do have a bit of a soft sport for them. At the risk of overusing a well worn cliché, the bark is a lot worse than the bite. The Steeldogs are playoff contenders but don’t put the rent on them picking up any silverware.