Standing in the Way – Sheffield Steeldogs

3 teams left to go in our run of previews and it’s time to head back to “God’s country” for a look at the one team that pretty much everyone got wrong last season.

 

Name: Sheffield Steeldogs

Home ice: Ice Sheffield

Player/coach: Andre Payette

Last season’s position: 3rd, playoff semi finalists

Top scorer: Janis Ozolins, 55 goals + 34 assists = 89 points

Match night ticket price: £9 adults, £6.50 concessions, £3.50 child, £20 family ticket (2 adults, 2 children)

 

Goalies:

British hockey, like all of minor league hockey, is a place where players come and go. Teams will lose players and for Sheffield, they’ve lost some big players in the off season. The loss of Ben Bowns to Hull and the Elite League could have left Sheffield in a hole larger than Tomas Fojtik.

Payette has stuck with the “Made in Sheffield” mantra and kept faith with what he had at the club and promoted Dimitri Zimozdra to the role of starter. Born in Omsk, Zimozdra has played junior hockey for Sheffield since 2004 and has come from under 19s to ENL and now to being the go to guy for the Steeldogs. Zimozdra had some very good numbers for the Spartans in the ENL between 2007 and 2010 including the 08/09 season where he finished with a 1.18 goals against average and a save percentage of .952 which are phenomenal numbers in any league. The issue for Zimozdra is since stepping up to the EPL he has iced in 7 games in 2 seasons. Rumours were that Payette spoke to Manchester goalie Stephen Fone as well as MK goalie Alex Mettam but eventually settled on Invader Zim as his starting netminder. Payette has deemed that this is Zimozdra’s time to take the reigns and they will see how they go.

Promoted to full time backup is 18 year old Bradley Day. Day who made fleeting appearances in the EPL and ENL season as well as putting up very good numbers for the two under 18 sides. How much ice time Day gets will be interesting. Zimozdra will be expected to cover a large amount of the workload but it seems Day might be better than we first imagined. Day earned some plaudits in a recent pre-season game with Hull where he had a good game which is high praise against an EIHL side.

 

Defence:

The losses of Tim Smith to Invicta and Thomas Jeffery dropping to the Sheffield ENL side are not massive for the Steeldogs as the defence is virtually the same as last time out.

The one major addition is that Payette has swapped to the 2/2 import split and joining the evergreen Pasha Gomeniuk is Estonian defender Dmitri Rodin who joins from Hull Stingrays where he was an alternate captain last season. 37 year old Rodin who has played for more teams than I’ve had hot dinners and has captained his national side adds another defenceman with high scoring potential. Rodin had 27 points in the EIHL with Hull last season and Gomeniuk had 41 points last season for the Dogs so Sheffield have two experienced elder statesmen who will be leaders in the room, leaders on the ice, be defensively responsible and put up points. Also if you can add a national team captain on defence, you generally won’t argue.

Neither of them will be wearing the A’s this season as those have fallen to two of the British defencemen. 27 year old Steve Duncombe is almost an elder statesman on this team and is Sheffield through and through. More of the stay at home style than the two import defenders, Dumcombe will play top 4 minutes alongside one of the imports and be that big, getting in the way defenceman.

The other alternate captain is 2nd team EPL all star Ben Morgan. Morgan, who won the EPL title with Manchester in 2010/11 is still only 24 and is coming off of a 40 point season last time out. Morgan isn’t the biggest but his positioning and his hockey sense is just fantastic as he showed last season. Morgan was a player that opened my eyes a bit last season and no doubt will cause havoc for opposition fans at both ends of the ice all season.

Lee Haywood, captain of the Dogs in the 2010/11 season had a dip in production last season, scoring just 8 points but he won’t mind that given his personal performances and how the team did. Haywood isn’t going to play on the top defensive pairing but will likely start on the 3rd pairing and get moved around as injuries dictate. Lee Haywood falls into that category of “players you need” because you need a guy who will go out, work hard on his shift and get off the ice, simple as that.

Along with 1 guest appearance for Edinburgh in the EIHL, Lewis Bell returns to add more depth to the Dogs backline protecting Zimozdra. Bell, like Haywood is unspectacular but does the job when called upon and Sheffield being able to run 3 very capable defensive lines is a massive advantage over other teams.

Also reportedly on the roster is 17 year old Jonathon Kirk who will spend most of his time icing in the ENL but is widely reported up north to be a Steeldog of the future.

 

Forwards:

Any team losing the EPL player of the year is going to suffer, let alone someone like Janis Ozolins who was top scorer to boot. No return either for Chris Sykes who has joined Ozolins in Hull nor for Raivis Kurnigins who came in, only scored 4 goals but wasn’t that good sadly. Payette responded in the way all good British coaches did; he signed his mate as the other import.

Derek Campbell is no real stranger to British hockey, nor to Sheffield as he won the EIHL title with the Steelers in 2010/11. He also won the title with Coventry the season before. Campbell signs from Hull where he was their 3rd highest scorer with 55 points (12+43) and their highest penalty minutes taker with 264 PIMs. I can hear the comments now, “oh he’s perfect for Steeldogs hockey”. Yes, yes he is. Campbell is a hard nose, chippy sod who can score 40-50 points in the EIHL, to be fair he’d still be useful at EIHL level and at 32 he’s been persuaded to drop to the EPL. Whether he puts up Ozolins like numbers remains to be seen but this is a very shrewd signing that could pay massive dividends.

The other big signing for the Steeldogs is the return of to the Steeldogs of Tom Squires. 21 year old Squires perturbed Steelers coach Ryan Finnerty by ignoring his advice that he needed a year out of Sheffield and a deal that would see him ice for Telford whilst being in a two way with the Steelers to stay in Sheffield with the Steeldogs. Having had a 22 point season in the EIHL, Squires has now made his bed and will have to lie in it. Squires could very well drop down and put up 50 points. That remains to be seen but he will be a big player for Sheffield playing in all situations and challenge for silverware with it.

Another player who will be big for the Steeldogs in all situations is captain Greg Wood. Last year was a career year for Wood; made captain of his hometown team and in Payette’s unique system, Wood had his best year for goals, assists, points and (unsurprisingly) penalty minutes. Wood will skate through cast iron for his team and has finally found the scoring touch that fans of his (and I’d say I’m one of them) knew he had. Wood will likely centre the top line with Campbell on one side and possibly Edgars Bebris on the other side. Bebris, who was born in Latvia but counts as a Brit has scored 39 and 38 points in his last 2 EPL seasons respectively, good numbers for the other forward but perhaps if he sees time with Wood and Campbell he gets over the 40 point hump.

The other candidate for that top line is likely Coach Payette himself. The newly minted coach of the GB under 20s side, the EPL coach of the year, the donkey, the goon; there are many names that people attach to Payette but he can be more than effective on the ice. Whilst 38 points isn’t the greatest return from an import when combined with 216 PIMs and the title of most penalised player in the league, Payette’s galvanising effect on his charges, his good hands and his hockey smarts make him a threat.

What helped the Steeldogs last season was despite having the lowest goals scored of any EPL playoff team with 170, they scored big goals and scoring, outside of Ozolins and Wood was shared around a bit. In Stuart Brittle they have a man who is a natural playmaker and in his EPL career averages roughly 2 assists for every goal he scores whilst taking (comparatively) minimal penalty minutes compared to his colleagues and can operate on the 2nd line. There’s also players like Lloyd Gibson who is a bit more even in his scoring (he was 10+15 last season) and can be relied upon to play a bit of second or third line minutes as required depending on the opponent.

Doncaster born Andrew Hirst as the natural centre is likely to centre the 3rd line this season, his 16 points last season will always be appreciated from the checking line and it’s good to have a decent playmaker as well on the lower lines when the chance to attack arises.

Ashley Calvert is another good checking line forward that can be expected to chip in a few points. Calvert is one of those players that seems to have been around forever despite only being 21 years old and will gladly go into the corners and do the dirty work as required.

10th forward for my money is likely rotating between Hirst and 23 year old Doncaster born Craig Elliott. After 5 points last campaign I don’t expect to see a great deal of time for Elliott on the higher lines but we’ll see how he gets used of the season. I have to confess to not having noticed him a great deal last season.

Top prospect Shaun Wild has been added to the roster full time for the new season after a nearly point per game performance in the ENL last season and 11 appearances with the Steeldogs themselves. How much ice time Wild gets will be interesting but Payette isn’t going to sign anyone to the roster full time who he’s going to sit on the bench for 54 games.

 

Overall:

In one of my earlier preview pieces, I wrote about something I called “the Steeldogs trap”; the idea that many critics looked at last season’s Sheffield side and thought that they wouldn’t win a fish at the funfair. I’m included in that list, I got it wrong.

In some ways I was also partially right. I predicted that the Steeldogs would challenge in the playoffs but ultimately win no silverware. What I was wrong about was how they went about it. Last season a very tight knit, well coached group of players shocked the EPL by finishing 3rd and making the cup final. They didn’t care about accusations of being goons or cheap shot artists. They went out and they won hockey games and even the games they lost were entertaining. The playoff semi final between them and Manchester was arguably one of the best games of hockey in Britain last season.

The mission for this season’s Steeldogs is put in a repeat performance and take that one step further. They’ve lost 2 of the best players in last season’s EPL in Bowns and Ozolins and shuffled their deck slightly but there seems to be no deviation from Payette’s game plan; play tight, play physical, unsettle the other team, score on the counter, shut the other team down.

Campbell and Rodin will be very useful additions at this level but the thing that shocked me the most was the lack of players that they lost. Bowns and Ozolins were always going to go, that was almost a given but no other teams could tempt away the majority of their players bar Chris Sykes who also joined the Stingrays. It appears that the players have bought into Payette’s system and the “Made in Sheffield” ideal to set themselves apart from their orange and teal clad cousins in the Motorpoint Arena as a place to aspire to play. Players who want to try at a higher level can but Sheffield players who want to play hockey at a high standard in their home city can stay at home to do so.

Where this team finishes in the league is anyone’s guess but the top 4 has to be the target for the Steeldogs again. It was reported on the Manchester Phoenix podcast that he said Manchester and Sheffield would be 1 and 2, I disagree with that to some degree but this is a new day in the EPL where we realistically have to go into the season saying the Steeldogs are contenders for all the silverware.

The ultimate irony of course with “the Steeldogs trap” is that it no longer really applies to them with Payette at the helm. He proved himself to be more than capable to do the job and his tactics worked to a tee. Whether other teams in the EPL have “solved” the Steeldogs’ style of play remains to be seen as the season progresses but after winning the pre-season War of the Roses cup against Manchester, confidence will be very high.

What happens to Sheffield when Payette is away coaching GB under 20s in December is anybody’s guess but you have to think that he will have drilled his values into his team to the point they will hear his voice in their sleep.

I realise I’ve waffled a bit here but it’s because ultimately my prediction for the Sheffield Steeldogs is that I can’t make one. This team could literally do anything. The only guarantee is their growing legion of fans will absolutely love them and everyone else will boo them out of the building. That’s Steeldogs hockey; nobody likes them, they don’t care.

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