An independent analysis of Sheffield Steelers and the other Elite League contenders

Can Paul Thompson hang on to the League title won by last year's team? Zack Fitzgerald and Cullen Eddy hope so
Can Paul Thompson hang on to the League title won by last year's team? Zack Fitzgerald and Cullen Eddy hope so

Will Sheffield Steelers successfully defend their League title this season?

That's one of the questions Elite League fans will be considering as the new season swings underway this weekend.

Here on the Sports Desk, we aren't impartial - we'd love to see Steelers sweep the board, under new coach Paul Thompson.

But let's take a more independent view.

Below is a look at all the EIHL teams, a preview written by Ronnie Nichol an official statistician for the League.

Steelers are at the bottom of the list - they start their domestic campaign on Sunday at Cardiff Devils.

Here is Ronnie's analysis of the 2015/16 teams in alphabetical order:

Belfast Giants – (last season 5th) plenty of changes in the Giants roster, with some serious demands of improvement on last season where a final mid table finish did not sit well within the newly named SSE Arena.

Steve Thornton has stepped down from his coaching duties to concentrate on his hockey operations duties and brought in a high quality individual as player/coach in Derrick Walser. Walser is one of an all import defence, with only Jeff Mason being a returnee behind the blue line. Amongst the newbies is former Fife Flyer Matt Nickerson – as tough a player as there is in the Elite League and perhaps addressing something that was missing in Belfast last season.

Up front there is speed and skill aplenty with big things expected of the likes of James Desmarais and former Sheffield Steeler Mike Forney.

Braehead Clan – (last season 2nd) Ryan Finnerty’s third season behind the Clan bench with an enhanced coaching team this year with the addition of the experienced former Edinburgh Capitals boss Richard Hartmann as assistant/spare import and former Stanley Cup winner Ric Jackman. Jackman was one of the big signing of the summer for Clan with his vast experience at a high level along with an offensive upside adding a facet to the Clan ‘D’ roster that was missing for most of last season.

In addition the capture of KHL All Star goaltender Chris Holt was huge for Clan and gives the Scots a player with the pedigree to perhaps lead them that extra few metres towards a league title that they missed out on by a whisker last term?

Leigh Salters to Cardiff was a big loss however but Clan have upgraded almost everywhere across the board with tough AHL defenceman Nathan McIver and sniper Alex Leavitt being players to excite the purple army at both ends of the ice.

Cardiff Devils – (last season 3rd) an exceptional first season for Devils player/coach Andrew Lord as his charges came so very close to the league title. Contrary to many teams, Lord has stuck mostly with the guys who served him so well last year and in fact has remained loyal to his complete defence from 14/15.

Up front, as we mentioned earlier Leigh Salters has joined from Braehead and will continue to be a premier power forward in the EIHL. Guillaume Doucet has proved his quality in the UK during his spells in Hull and Nottingham and the return of Tomas Kurka will boost a fire power that looks strong right across the roster.

With the move to their new arena due in mid January 2016 there is much excitement on and off the ice amongst the Devils faithful. Will more silverware follow their Challenge Cup success last year? – we will tell you next March!

Coventry Blaze – (last season 6th) Play-Off glory under Coach Chuck Weber saw Blaze end the season on a major high but that won’t paper over what was undoubtedly a disappointing campaign for the former EIHL powerhouses. The return of Weber itself was a huge boost to Blaze, allowing him time to build his own roster and in that sense it has seen many changes to the Blaze roster.

Stand out goaltender Brian Stewart is back however and will again be a key player for Coach Weber. Four new import ‘D’ include tough guy Boris Valabik and no fewer than half a dozen new import forwards see other EIHL teams raided with the likes of Ned Lukacevik (Fife), Neil Trimm (Braehead) and Chris Lawrence (Nottingham) adding lashings of skill and hopefully game changing presence for the Skydome fans to enjoy.

Dundee Stars – (last season 10th) quite simply after last season the only way is up for Stars. Finishing bottom of the pile the season after capturing the Gardiner Conference title was quite a fall from grace from the Tayside based team and not surprisingly there have been wholesale changes at the club from top to bottom with Marc Lefebvre hired as coach early in the summer, giving him time to assemble an almost entirely new roster but a roster that has excited the Stars support.

A mixture of imports, some experienced in the EIHL and others young and hungry may well be a mixture that works in the North East of Scotland in what is an important season after such a downer last term. Goals will come from ex Flyer Bobby Chaumont and former Capital Curtis Leinweber – both have proved themselves in the EIHL – but it’s the backup cast of EIHL unknowns who will provide the most interest. Stars have hit the jackpot more than once in hiring solid goaltenders and in Vlastimil Lakosil they may well have done so again.

Big Doug Clarkson will add a lot of toughness of Stars and it will be interesting to see Lou Dickenson back in the league after his spell in Edinburgh a few years ago.

Edinburgh Capitals – (last season 9th) another team where it’s all change, with Capitals it will be style as well as personnel after Riley Emmerson replaced Richard Hartmann as player/coach, bringing with him the end of the European style and the return of a very much North American based game that will attempt to compete with all of the other teams this upcoming campaign.

Understandably Capitals have used the lure of Scotland’s capital to entice some young players keen to take their first steps in European hockey and this is a team that may well be an exciting one to watch. Emmerson himself is as tough as they come in the EIHL while exciting forwards such as Ryan Hayes and Everett Sheen will light the lamp many times. Former Belfast goaltender Carsen Chubak will be between the pipes and has a hard act to follow in the footsteps of Tomas Hiadlovsky .

Capitals are difficult to beat at home every year but perhaps now they have the roster that will compete better on the road and move the hockey club up the standings and back into a play-off spot by the end of the regular season!

Fife Flyers – (last season 8th) Flyers are never one’s to build anything but on their own terms and ensure they have a structure in place that is sustainable and allows local players to play their part. This upcoming season has seen a massive change in the import playing staff with no fewer than 11 imports making their Kirkcaldy debuts. It looks like a much more two-way team with perhaps less flair but more hard work at both ends of the ice.

Some interesting players are now in the ranks with goaltender David Brown moving north from Hull and tough defenceman Philippe Paquet moving in from mainland Europe. The experienced T J Craig has proved he can score points wherever he has played in the past and with several other forwards all looking capable of putting ‘team’ first and with coaching team Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart knowing last term didn’t go to plan it looks like it could well be an improved season for the Flyers, backed by their vociferous fan base in the ‘auld barn’.

Manchester Storm – (inaugural EIHL season) Exciting times for the EIHL to have Manchester Storm back in the fold of UK ice hockey and I’m sure everyone connected with the league and fans of all the clubs wish the organisation every success as they enter their first year in the Elite League era.

With the demise of Hull Stingrays during the summer and the rebirth almost immediately of Storm the move was made very quickly to hire ex Hull player/coach Omar Pacha and in time with him came some of the Hull roster who had found themselves out of a job. British stalwarts David Phillips and Matty Davies were key early signings and over the remainder of the summer the club have been building steadily on and off ice to prepare for their inaugural EIHL campaign.

At the time of writing the squad is not quite complete but every import signed so far is brand new to the UK and therefore is an unknown quantity. Average age of the roster is just over 26 years old so far but with exciting looking players like Mathew Sisca and Luke Salazar in the lineup there will be some good nights to be had following this ‘new baby’ and with plenty of supporters showing their delight at the rebirth of their old team it is looking good early doors for Storm to make their mark on the league this season.

Nottingham Panthers – (last season 4th) Corey Neilson enters what is his testimonial season in Nottingham looking to improve big time on last season. Fourth spot and never in the running for the title is not really what anyone involved with the Panthers organisation wanted and there is pretty sure to be a reaction to that disappointment this term.

Not surprisingly Panthers are another team who have made big changes to their import lineup to compliment arguably the strongest Brit pack in the league. Star signings include forward Brad Moran, a player with massive experience and points scoring ability, tough guy Cam Janssen, who has dressed in the NHL or AHL since 2004/05 and Juraj Kolnik, a player who has graced the ice of top teams all over the world in his extensive career.

I doubt we are sticking our necks out too much to suggest this will be a better Panthers team than last year and we fully expect a league challenge from the team from the Lace City.

Sheffield Steelers – (last season 1st) it’s always difficult to follow a league winning season and deal with expectations from fans that are now so high. To most people’s surprise Steelers made quite some statements of intent early in the summer by releasing coach Gerad Adams and bringing in former GB coach Paul Thompson to run what will be a very different culture around the club as they strive to improve further as an organisation.

Thompson already had a solid core of players in situ before he arrived both imports and Brits and he has spent the summer adding to that number with some interesting looking players. Tough guy Zack Fitzgerald comes from Braehead and fellow ‘D’ Russ Moyer has spent many seasons playing in Europe. Of course last season’s EIHL Player of the Year Mathieu Roy was already under contract and will lead the scoring lines again but guys like Mike Duco will quickly become a fans favourite with his all-action style and Fredrik Vestberg will add skill and European experience to a roster that is once again built to compete at the top end of the standings.

The demands at Sheffield Steelers are high – they always have been. Whether this roster comes up with the goods in what will be a different style to last season remains to be seen, such is the quality of the opposition now but they will be in the mix come next March, we are pretty sure of that.