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Preview: Born again Blaze?

With the 2016/17 Genting Casino Coventry Blaze Elite League roster complete, well respected hockey writer and long-time Blaze supporter Jon Rowson takes a look at the side assembled by Head Coach Danny Stewart and gives us a prediction for the season:

It’s hard to think that it’s been six years since Adam Calder was Adam Calder and scored two hattricks in two games against the Sheffield Steelers and Edinburgh Capitals to give the Blaze their last Elite League title. Players and coaches have come and gone, and whilst it is impossible to underestimate the magnitude of 2015’s Playoff title, achieved by Chuck Weber and his faithful foot soldiers Ryan O’Marra and Mike Egener, it is clear that the Blaze fans remain ever hungry for silverware.

Enter Danny Stewart. Be it a crunch Skydome clash against the Nottingham Panthers, or a Wednesday night north of the border, Paul Thompson could always rely on #39 to battle every shift, make every check and chase every puck. A true dynamo in all three zones, Stewart’s game was infectious, helping the Blaze to three league titles in his four seasons in Coventry. The definition of a coach’s player, but will he be a player’s coach?

So far, all indicators seem to be positive. Stewart (and the rest of the Blaze organisation), have been saying all the right things. Furthermore, a mammoth labour investment in the club’s media and public relations operations have helped fans feel connected with their club once again.

However, talk is cheap. Hockey is a results business. Whilst many Blaze fans will agree that the EIHL is not what it was five, ten, years ago, and that other teams, with different budgets, began to replicate much of what made the earlier Blaze teams so successful, the Skydome faithful still want to see their team: a) leave everything out on the ice, and b) be competitive every night, and I believe the Blaze have what it takes to satisfy both of these criteria.

Netminding

#41 Brian Stewart #30 Renny Marr

With Brian Stewart back between the pipes, the Blaze have a goalie that can steal a game on any given night. Blessed with incredible athleticism and a never-say-die attitude, Stewart reminds me of Jody Lehman if the latter was 6’5’’. I fully expect Stewart to improve considerably on his 90.91% regular season save percentage recorded in 2015/16, in part due to the roster in front of him, but also due to the competitive streak within the British Columbia native. Top British netminding prospect returns as Stewart’s #2, looking to improve on some fine performances last season, the highlight of which was recording his first EIHL victory with a 25 save showing against the Manchester Storm.

Defence

#11 Jim Jorgensen #15 Josh Godfrey #22 Marc Cantin #27 Shawn Boutin #56 Kevin Noble #58 David Clements

If you were to pinpoint one area in which the Blaze have improved the most throughout summer 2016, it has to be their defensive unit. Danny Stewart looks to have recruited a balanced defence corps with a focus on mobility and puck movement. Jim Jorgensen returns for his third year in Blaze colours after solidifying his position as one of the EIHL’s best two-way defencemen. Josh Godfrey, Kevin Noble, and David Clements also return for their second seasons in Coventry. Godfrey would have perhaps wanted more than his 13 points return from his 2015/16 campaign, but I fully expect the Ontario native to double his points tally this coming season. Noble gives the defence that grit and sandpaper it requires, whilst Clements continues to blossom into one of Britain’s best blueliners.

Joining this established core in recent days are Canadians Marc Cantin and Shawn Boutin. I personally believe that getting two blueliners with the CVs of Cantin and Boutin, with both just entering the prime of their careers, is very rare for an EIHL team. Cantin’s rugged defensive-minded game will seemingly compliment the smooth skating Boutin, who will be relied upon to put points on the board whilst also eating minutes on the back end. For those Blaze fans with long memories, I am getting a Reid Simonton/Samy Nasreddine vibe about Cantin and Boutin, and if they are even half as good as 2006/07s dynamic duo, then Blaze fans are in for a treat.

Forwards

#9 Darcy Zajac #16 Jordan Pietrus #17 Russell Cowley #18 Bjorn Bombis #19 Garrett Klotz #21 Ashley Tait #23 Brett Robinson #28 Matt Marquardft #59 Ross Venus #64 Matt Selby #74 Liam Stewart #88 Robin Bergman

This group of Blaze forwards has it all. New Blaze captain Jordan Pietrus and last season’s top scorer Brett Robinson return after impressing in the second half of last season. Pietrus’ timely goals and gritty play earned him many plaudits, whilst it is difficult to underestimate the brilliance of Robinson, who finished 2015/16 as the second top scorer in Erhardt Conference play. It will be of vital importance that they hit the ground running though, as the Blaze’s top six has four new faces, all eager to impress. From North America, Matt Marquardt and Darcy Zajac join after impressive AHL and ECHL careers, boasting sound references for their scoring touch and two-way game. If both Marquardt and Zajac can be said to play no-nonsense grit up front, Bjorn Bombis and Robin Bergman have been recruited to add class and panache. Bergman joins after a point-per-game season in the Danish Metal-Ligaen, boasting a wrist shot akin to Barrie Moore, whilst Bombis’s play-making ability is clear by even just a cursory glance at Elite Prospects.

The Blaze are making the move to four lines this season, yet have still managed to add quality down the roster. The Brit pack returns, as Russell Cowley, Ross Venus and Ashley Tait, now in his role as Player-Assistant Coach have all signed on for another season. All three will be relied to log crucial minutes, particularly on the penalty kill, and their experience remains a highly valuable asset, demonstrated in their performances in Zagreb with the British national team. Blaze fans can also add exciting new signing Liam Stewart to the mix. Whilst a relative newcomer to professional hockey, Stewart’s WHL record speaks for itself, and I can see him moving rapidly up the line-up as the season progresses. Matt Selby and Garrett Klotz complete the roster, with Selby returning after a successful sojourn in the EPL, and Klotz adding toughness, physicality, and a potential eye for goal to the Blaze’s lower lines.

The Verdict:

Trying to make a prediction for how the season will unfold is always a tricky proposition. You can never control for injuries, form, suspensions and the like. The first thing that comes to mind when looking through the CVs of these players is that it is very clear that Danny Stewart has had a plan when building his team, and he has signed players that appear to fit those criteria. The Blaze roster has a bit of everything, and looks to be the most balanced roster I can remember the team ever having. Will this be enough for the team to have sustained success in Elite League regular season? I’m really not sure. The Blaze are always fighting an uphill battle, and the Erhardt conference is only ever getting more difficult with the recent signings made by Sheffield, Nottingham, Belfast and especially Cardiff.

However, I remain confident going into this season. One thing clear from the signings is that the Blaze aren’t just signing good players, but good people. Their work both on, and almost as importantly, off the ice, is crucial in fostering a feel-good atmosphere in the locker room and in the stands. At the end of the day, I think I want what all Blaze fans want: a team that will fight for each other and be competitive every game, and if those two things happen then it is very likely that wins will come. I still think that the EIHL title remains out of reach, but I do think that the Blaze have the potential to finish fourth (or higher!) in the Erhardt Conference. All things considered, I think that the Blaze will finish 5th in the EIHL next season, and will reach one of the Challenge Cup or Playoff Final, and that to me, would be a good year.

Here’s to a happy 2016/17 season… It’s going to be a good one.

Follow Jon on Twtter: @JonRowson