Preview: Reasons to be hopeful
Following Jon Rowson’s overview of the squad assembled by Genting Casino Coventry Blaze Head Coach Danny Stewart, Blaze TV’s Ed Kimberley looks at the key reasons why Blaze fans should be hopeful as the season heads closer and closer.
It’s rare in hockey to go from one year to the next with the same key pieces as the season previous. However, as the calibre of player attracted to the Elite League increases, so does the number of players who stick around. Twelve players return to the Blaze from last season, a core that Head Coach Danny Stewart hopes will be integral to a strong start. Brett Robinson who ended up the club’s top points and goal scorer following a scintillating second half of the year, particularly spoke about the adjustment period for imports new to the country. Not only will he and his returning teammates hope to hit the ground running this season, the experience passed on will also be key to helping the new additions settle quickly. Finally, ensuring the signatures of Ashley Tait, Russ Cowley and Ross Venus is a huge plus, the three standing out together for Blaze the past couple of years as well as on the International stage with Great Britain.
Big game players
Sticking with Robinson, perhaps the most impressive statistic of his first season playing in Europe is not necessarily the 28 goals or 45 assists, but the fact that he finished second only to Cardiff Devils’ league MVP Joey Martin (43) for points in Erhardt Conference games (36). Priding himself on “playing his best, against the best”, the pressure on ‘Robbo’ will likely be shared with a number of other perennial performers in big game situations. Matt Marquardt for example has hit 38 points in 51 ECHL playoff games, 18 of which (6 goals, 12 assists) came in the 2011/12 campaign as he led Florida Everblades to the Kelly Cup. The run included three-game-winning goals as he finished second for playoff scoring. Robin Bergman as well scored the over-time winning goal to clinch a Championship for Sport in Finland, whilst Marc Cantin scored in the final to help Windsor Spitfires lift the OHL’s Memorial Cup. Many of this Blaze team, have been there and done it in pressure situations.
Not only does Danny Stewart’s side possess strong performers in big individual games, it’s also jam-packed with overall Championship experience. Almost 50 titles are shared amongst the 2016/17 Blaze squad. That is an impressive collective resume and will only bode well as the season unfolds.
Including Captain Jordan Pietrus, ten of the Blaze squad have previously held an ‘A’ or ‘C’ in their past career. The alternate captain roles might be a tough choice for the coach.
The new Blaze roster has great flexibility. The Head Coach likes Jordan Pietrus at centre, but can also call on the likes of Darcy Zajac and his other versatile wingers to move to the middle if he wants to move the Captain to the wing. The powerplay is another area where the Head Coach has multiple options and will no doubt spend the extended pre-season sizing up all of the weapons in his arsonry.
Speaking of powerplay weapons. Stewart has shown faith in the holder of the ECHL's hardest ever shot, Josh Godfrey who returns for a second season. By his own admission, the former U-20’s Gold Medalist didn't have the debut year he would have liked. Injury plagued, he looked frustrated and stifled. Determined to show his real self, he has been working tirelessly throughout the summer. With more powerplay threats for opposition to worry about, Godfrey is likely find more joy from the point and be a key figure for Blaze 5-on-4.
In recent years, Blaze have suffered scoring woes, often over relying on one or two individuals. This year though, it looks set to be a different story. The two centres in the Blaze top six, Brett Robinson and Jordan Pietrus had 28 and 27 debut Elite League seasons. On the wings, Matt Marquardt has put up .66% PPG average in the ECHL and respectable numbers in the AHL too. Despite Darcy Zajac being predominantly played in a checking role in the American Hockey League, the former Albany River Rat ended his time with three 20+ point seasons. His scoring record in College and Junior shows he will be no slouch going forward. Then there are the two Euro’s, Björn Bombis and Robin Bergman. The latter Swede, is a point-per-game scorer in the prestigious Danish Metal Ligaen, whilst the German Bombis has over 150 goals in the German leagues including the top-level DEL. From the back, all of the defencemen seem to have offensive upside to their games. Boutin, Godfrey and Jorgensen are likely to take the bulk of the points but all six will make good first passes and provide a threat on the rush.
Speak to ex-Blaze boss Paul Thompson and he'll tell you that 'Stewie' is right up there with the best the Elite League has ever seen. And he should know having won multiple Championships, not least with the great Jody Lehman and Trevor Koenig. Blaze have a chance to win every night with the 6'5" Canadian. A cliché’ that has rarely been more appropriate.
Blaze fans love a policeman. At 6’6” and 220lbs, Garrett Klotz could be the man to fulfil the role left open, maybe since the departure of Big Benn Olson. Signing for the Blaze on a full-time basis too is British forward Matt Selby who is far from shy to take on a physical role. Everywhere you look in this Blaze line-up there is some sandpaper to compliment skill and panache. With Block 8’s lead, and the fans behind the team, there will be no easy night’s in the Skydome Arena this year.
Never before has the Blaze, and the Elite League in general seen the depth that we’ll be treated to this season. Almost every team, certainly in the Erhardt Conference have the numbers and sufficient quality to play four-lines. For Blaze specifically, fans should be excited by the prospect. Not only can the squad cope better with injury, but there will also be healthy competition for ice time with the likes of Liam Stewart looking to make a name for himself and find a place in the top nine in his debut Elite League season.
Last but certainly not least, anyone who attended the Blaze Blue Army evening with the Head Coach will know what Danny expects from his team this coming season. It's a team built to his identity, one that Blaze fans will surely be able to appreciate. This is a massive opportunity for the 37-year-old, one that he has been seeking for some time. Stewart has won in Coventry before, he knows the expectations and what it takes. He's a man who demands hard work, and isn't afraid to hold people accountable. That being said, the Fort McMurray native is known to be strong on player relations and although will employ tight systems will allow his troops to interpret the grey areas for themselves. One thing is already clear from his short time in the job and that's that he brings energy to the club day-in, day-out which is infectious. He's not afraid to make the big calls and will work as hard as anyone to bring success to Coventry this season.
It's an exciting time to Bleed Blue.
Follow Ed on Twitter: @EdKimberley