BLOG: Neil’s strategy shift a welcome sign for the Capitals

All the noises coming out of the Edinburgh Capitals can only be described as a breath of fresh air, despite the disappointment that comes from another season consigned to the basement of the Elite League.

Since the news broke that player/coach Michal Dobron would not return for a second season, co-owner Scott Neil has acknowledged the club will learn the lessons from past endeavours and, judging by his recent comments to the Edinburgh Evening News, is determined to pursue a new path.

Gone is the uncertainty over whether the Capitals would take their place in an expanded 12-team league, the hunt for a bench coach rather than Edinburgh’s customary player/coach is well underway. Neil expects to have his man in place by the end of June.

Not since 2010 have Edinburgh had someone other than a player/coach heading up the side. The likes of Belfast Giants and, more notably, Cardiff Devils, have shown that success can be had with a player combining both roles, as Derrick Walser and Andrew Lord showed respectively.

But the Capitals cannot call upon the same wealth of resources as the Giants or Devils. Neil and the front office continuously have to work within a tight budget, while maintaining their pledge to the supporters that a competitive product will be put on the ice by September

It makes last season’s display all the more puzzling and frustrating. Rarely were the Capitals outplayed, either in the scoreline or across 60 minutes. Lapses in defensive concentration and coverage or individual mistakes often plagued them, despite the heroics of goaltender Travis Fullerton most weekends.

Neil stayed true to his word though. Last season’s Capitals were good enough to make the play-offs, despite finishing rock bottom of the both the league and Gardiner Conference.

A lack of consistency and an inability to win on the road before January put extraordinary pressure on their home form and, when that faltered down the stretch, Edinburgh found themselves on the outside looking in.

There were some ups though. Wins at Fife Flyers had been elusive, until last season. They thrashed Coventry Blaze 8-2 at home and had a penchant for exciting, come-from-behind victories. Not to mention that they qualified for the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup for the very first time.

The challenge is to build on this, and the shift to an all Scottish conference should whet the appetite for another push next season. Their conference form, in short, was not good enough last year.

Braehead Clan will again be favourites for the conference title but there is no reason, with the right recruitment, why Edinburgh cannot hope to compete.

The difficulty comes from a protracted coaching search for a third consecutive summer, while simultaneously juggling the demands of recruitment. With only two returning imports, Michael D’Orazio and Taylor MacDougall, tied down for next season, the expectation is that much of last year’s squad will be broken up.

The Capitals hierarchy are charged with building as strong a roster as last season on a limited budget. That’s no easy task.

Neil must be commended for the bold change in strategy he is seeking to undertake. It is not bold in the sense that something had to give after four years of missing the play-offs, while an expanded league next season means Edinburgh have little choice other than trying to stay competitive.

It is however bold in the sense that Neil is brave enough to recognise that something has not been working and that changing coaches every year is not a desirable situation.

The Dobron experiment showed flashes of promise but failed to deliver on the key objective set last summer, that of making the post-season. The new coach, whoever that is, will more than likely have to undertake open-heart surgery of the roster.

In an ideal world, the likes of fan favourites Fullerton, Ian Schultz and Pavel Vorobyev would be among the first to be signed up beyond this season. The reality, however, is likely to be rather different. The uncertainty generated from a coaching search means that recruitment inevitably takes a back seat.

It is unfortunate that those Capitals players out of contract, which is most of the roster, will already be in contact with other clubs – ready to follow captain Jacob Johnston out the door in a sort of Murrayfield exodus.

That said, Neil is right to wait. In previous years he has had a huge hand in recruitment, using his overseas contacts to bring new imports to Murrayfield. It would not be fair to speculate, but it is possible that Dobron had very little hand in recruitment last summer – at least when it came to identifying targets.

Shaping and gelling a roster of new faces is hard enough without factoring in the demands of getting to grips with a new coaching system. There is also the prospect that much of last year’s roster, which hailed in part, if not exclusively, from North American leagues and colleges, may have been unfamiliar with Dobron’s European hockey background. It is all conjecture of course.

What is certain is that the new coach will, in all likelihood, have a greater say in who is brought in and who is not. While Edinburgh are working within financial limitations and though Neil will have undoubtedly identified players, having a coach in place before signings put pen to paper cannot be a bad thing.

Neil recognises that this year is an especially important one for the Capitals. Guildford Flames and MK Lightning are not going to simply make up the numbers – every side will strengthen. The onus is on Edinburgh to do the same.

But more than anything else, the patient and loyal Capitals support will want to see signs of progress and feel that the club is moving forward. A third coaching search in as many years means that the cries for stability are perhaps magnified.

The signs are positive though. The new coach will have to work within testing financial circumstances, but, as the Capitals showed last season, the right players – and players with quality – can be coaxed to the Scottish capital.

Neil is tasked with taking risks in order to put a winning product on the ice. His thorough coaching search and all the rumblings from Murrayfield should fill the Capitals faithful with both confidence and optimism.

(Image permission: Ian Coyle)

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