By Robert Newbolt (www.steelers-stats.com @steelersstats)
THE SEASON THAT WAS
Sheffield Steelers provided the surprise of the season in the EIHL, not least for their fans. They contrived to have their worst season in their illustrious history as they finished seventh in the table.
Head coach Paul Thompson was replaced in mid-October and although there was a resurgence under new coach Tom Barasso, it was apparent that the skill level couldn’t match the likes of Cardiff and Belfast.
In hindsight the removal of Thompson was a masterstroke because it reduced the expectation of the fans, some of which had become alienated by his tenure.
The catalyst for their return to better play was the arrival of British player Ben O’Connor who returned for another stint at Steelers.
But after five straight losses in January and the very real prospect of not making the play-offs, Steelers reacted by sacking three players.
Ironically, the fact that Sheffield got the better of their near neighbours Nottingham Panthers throughout the season was seen as a success by many especially as they did the double over them at Christmas.
Even so they finished inside the play offs even though they did not make the semi-finals and, perhaps most remarkably, ended the season with the highest overall attendance in the league and their highest average attendance (6,147) since 1998.
This was due in a large part to their owners’ foresight in reducing match prices for certain games.
At the end of the term, outgoing Head Coach Tom Barasso said: “We’ve shown flashes of brilliance as a group and we’ve shown moments of indifference which is really the thing you hate to see as a coach.
“You like to see that you’ve kept your team motivated and fired up all of the time, but it happens in professional sport that every now and then players don’t perform well.”
The season’s signings began as early as April when at a fan forum the new head coach was unveiled as Aaron Fox, arriving in South Yorkshire having spent the last six years at Medvescak Zagreb, leaving them last year they hit financial troubles.
As expected, the British core remained as Rob Dowd, Davey Phillips and Kieran Brown have all signed new, two-year deals, with captain Jonathan Phillips putting pen-to-paper on a new one-year contract.
Fox moved quickly to snap up his first new face with the signing of former Coventry Blaze forward Marc-Olivier Vallerand, while also being impressed enough with fellow winger Anthony DeLuca to bring him back.
This was just the beginning of a massive clear out in Sheffield which would see a further 12 new faces.
In May defenceman Jonas Liwing signed to an initial one-year contract and Aaron Brocklehurst completed the defensive corps when he signed in late July, followed by experienced forwards Brendan Connolly from Glasgow Clan and Michael Davies.
Russian Nikolai Lemtyugov soon followed with James Bettauer and Matin St Pierre, a highly experienced KHL forward coming in to great excitement from the fans.
They completed their roster with an import netminding duo from the Czech Republic. Pavel Kantor (27) andTomas Duba (38) will backstop the Steelers this coming season.
It would be easy to say that with the team we have built Sheffield will sweep the board. But at the start of a new season everyone is optimistic, however a touch of realism is never a bad thing.
The most important person on any elite team Is the coach. He must mould a team of strangers into a successful outfit.
However, I think come the end of the season Sheffield Steelers will be challenging with Cardiff for the title with Belfast Giants and Nottingham Panthers not far behind.
I think many fans would take a title win after being tied on points due to overtime wins, I think it could be that close.
It will be nice for Steelers to win the Challenge Cup as they have not done so up to now in the EIHL and a Grand Slam of titles would not come amiss.
A good start is what is needed and a consistent run after that because as we know consistency wins titles.
In a break from tradition Steelers have gone with two import netminders, one of whom is a goalie coach, this and the strengthened defence ought to see them do well in this area.
Looking at the offence You have forwards who cannot be sorted into lines because of their quality in essence it is lines one A, B, and C.
According to his resume the stand out player should be St Pierre but as we know a resume can be deceiving.
As for the top goal scorer, it could be Marc Vallerand closely followed by Anthony DeLuca, who impressed during his first season, albeit with a weak side.