David Simms: Sheffield Steelers' signing spree is a statement of intent
Normally you have to wait until the summer for Steelers signing news. Who is coming back? Who is leaving? And who remains with your favourite club?
Not this summer, it seems, as the Steelers are in the middle of a signing spree.
With Mathieu Roy and Ben O’Connor already signed up for next season, the Steelers announce just before Christmas that fan favourite Zack Fitzgerald would return. Last week, Tyler Mosienko was added to that list; then, this week, the club have confirmed that Guillaume Desbiens (one year) and Robert Dowd (three years) have too be confirmed as returnees. I expect at least two more re-signings to be signed, sealed and delivered as well before the weekend.
The Steelers are building their core; those go-to guys they see as key figures, both on the ice and inside the dressing room. There isn’t a lot wrong with what the Steelers have; inconsistent goaltending from day one has been an issue - though goalie Marek Pinc has been in fine form recently, recording his first shut out last Saturday against Dundee. Injuries to key players can’t be accounted for, either, and Thompson has 50 goals sat in the stands right now with both Fretter and Dowd out.
I believe that Thompson thinks his side needs a tinker, not a major overhaul, in the summer. Of course there will be changes - there always are - but perhaps not as many as usual. Thompson will try and deliver 4 line hockey and he will also try and bring in both additional home grown talent and youth, to back fill the club’s ageing British contingent. Behind the scenes for months now, there has been an ongoing rebuilding process as both coach and owner plan ahead.
I think Desbiens is a wonderful signing. We changed the day he arrived. Unfortunately Mike Duco just didn’t work out, but the moment you saw Desbiens you knew instantly that he would. Head to toe, he is a man. Shake his hand and you know you are dealing with a proper bloke. Off the ice, a strong character. Fun, yes, but serious about his business. On the ice he is no nonsense, mean, tough and with the ability to contribute on the scoresheet.
In re-signing Desbiens, Thompson has ticked one major box when recruiting. Can you find toughness both on the back end and up front that can also play? In Fitzgerald and Desbiens, Thompson certainly has.
Robert Dowd is the “Golden Child” - always has been, always will be. We have seen him develop in Sheffield. We watched him break into the Steelers side under Dave Matson, force his way past proven stars on to the powerplay and score 20+ goals in his first season. We got front row tickets in watching his progression into, in my opinion, the best British forward out there. We felt sick when he signed in Belfast, even sicker when he scored 30+ and helped the Giants win the league. We smiled, though, when he went to Sweden to develop his game. We like to see our boys do well and we knew he was pushing himself.
We then rejoiced when he came home two seasons ago. The Golden Child was home and to have him signed up for another three years, yes three years, is as good a bit of business as the Steelers will do all summer. Look at us right now. You can’t replace Robert Dowd.
He sits in the stands injured and you can sign as many spare imports as you like, you still can’t replace Dowdy. Lose him and you have to completely restructure your whole side and start again - that’s how important he is to the Steelers.
The club now has the two premium British players in the league in him and Ben O’Connor. With import numbers being raised to 14 (11 plus three EU) next season, every team we come up again will, like this year, have danger throughout its line up. The key might be who has those key, go-to British players in their line up. The Steelers have the two best.
Now, Thompson will take a breath. His core is returning. He knows where he needs to strengthen. He also knows many others on the team will want to return and he is looking for a reaction from them. He wants them to show him why they are worthy of a contract next season. A few will, I’m sure.
The question of youth and back filling the Steelers roster with some younger players is an interesting one and something Thompson planned immediately after the Governing Body wrapped up plans for an “Elite” Under 20’s programme.
IHUK’s inability to deliver what was so obviously needed up and down the land meant the Steelers had to change their direction. Change it they have, and shortly you will see the results.
The title race is still wide open, and I have two very different views. On one hand I think, with all the injuries and issues we have faced this year, ‘how are we still in the hunt?’
And then on the other hand, I look at the games we have lost, especially to Edinburgh and Coventry and think: ‘For the love of God, how are we not eight points clear” I guess that’s sport for you.
One thing is certain. We have to win on Saturday against Fife. It’s a must, its also a game we will most likely have another player sidelined for. Desbiens might have a new contract but he will be enjoying it from the press box on Saturday, suspended after receiving a match penalty on Sunday in Coventry. Thompson, already short, might just go and roll the dice. Lock the doctors and medics out of the Arena and play one of both of Fretter and Dowd. The frustrations of sport, his two best shooters sat in the stands, is killing him. Knowing Paul as I do, I know the moment of patience is about to snap and the instruction to lace them up is about to be ordered.
See you on Saturday... it will be huge.