The Belfast Giants' roster for the 2021-22 season continues to take shape and, just under a week after turning heads with their first signings of the off-season, this week they make another triple splash.
Returning are two key pieces of the Brit puzzle in the form of Great Britain internationals Lewis Hook and Ciaran Long, back for their third and second seasons in Belfast respectively, while the third new addition to the squad is a fresh face in the shape of Canadian centreman Slater Doggett, who makes the switch from Slovakian side HC Nove Zamky for the new campaign.
The trio of forwards join Tyler Beskorowany, Darcy Murphy and Kevin Raine in Adam Keefe's stable for the upcoming season, with the Giants continuing to make statement signings to start their off-season recruitment, no doubt a deliberate ploy to whet the appetite of already salivating supporters ahead of September's return to action in 18 months absent.
And while Doggett's CV no doubt stands out most of all from these arrivals, arguably it is the returns of the two local stars that should get the headlines.
While many like to fixate on the flashy new imports coming in, it is worth pointing out the speed with which the Giants have managed to tie down two British internationals who both performed well at the World Championships Latvia over the summer at a time when other sides are seeing their Brits head elsewhere.
Just look around the league so far this summer. Glasgow and Dundee have lost Mac Howlett and Jordan Cownie to Guildford respectively. The Flames themselves have watched both Joshua Waller and Stephen Lee depart for Cardiff and Nottingham. And in the past week, Craig Moore has swapped Glasgow for Dundee to complete a circle of movement.
So, in that context, for head of hockey operations Steve Thornton to tie down Hook and Long for another campaign at the SSE Arena is credit to the quick work the Giants have been doing behind the scenes and, if the duo's performances at the EIHL Series and the World Championships are anything to go by, they have the potential to work their way up the line-up.
After a down year in 2018-19, in which he scored just four goals in 62 games, Long in particular seems ready for an opportunity to step into a scoring role having provided a welcome reminder of his capabilities in the offensive zone in the EIHL Series with the Manchester Storm, bursting out to a hot start by scoring at a goal-a-game pace before cooling off a little, but still netting seven times in 14 games.
The 30-year-old will be the first to say that his maiden season in Belfast was well below his expectations, but his influence extends beyond the ice, and his impact in the locker room made him one of the first names back at the SSE Arena for the new campaign. After his exploits in Nottingham with the Storm, he's certainly put his hand up to be considered for more ice time this year.
Likewise Hook. It's easy to forget the Peterborough man is still just 24, meaning his ceiling is high and, having pushed his output to four goals and 15 points in 2019-20 after five goals and 18 points in 11 more games a season prior, he too will be hoping that his displays for the Nottingham Panthers in the EIHL Series and Great Britain over the summer have given Keefe reason to boost his role.
It's clear to see how the left winger's game has improved since moving to Northern Ireland, too. When he joined from the Milton Keynes Lightning in 2018, Hook's pace was his stand-out quality, but since then he has become a more all-rounded player, with a physical edge to go with his top-tier pace. He still has some developing to do but, if he starts the season strongly, then he too is a candidate to be bumped up the line-up.
But while those two are known quantities for Giants fans, Doggett is less so, though, ironically, had things not fallen by the wayside due to Covid-19 then that might not have been the case.
Indeed, had last season gone ahead then Giants fans may very well have been acquainted with the Canadian already as he was one of their targets in the off-season when it was hoped the Elite League would be played. Fortunately, a year in Nove Zamky did nothing to dispel the Ontario man's interest and, 12 months on, this time the negotiations progressed from just initial talks to the signing of a contract.
You can delve into Doggett's strengths and weaknesses all you want but, put simply, the 27-year-old knows his way to the net. In 128 games for Queen's University - no, not that one - in the USports league he bagged 68 goals and 150 points on his way to two All-Star selections and the 2019 MVP, while he was the leading goal scorer in the shortened 2019-20 Alps Hockey League season when he struck 42 times in 44 games for Sterzing/Vipiteno in his first full season in professional hockey.
It is on the strength of those stats that the Giants have signed him and that is who will very likely be a full-time fixture in the top-six of their line-up this season, if not their top-line centre. While his season in Slovakia saw a dip in his numbers - just eight goals in 35 outings - there should be little concern over that given he both joined the team late and was given a reduced role.
Looking more broadly, there is precedent for players joining the EIHL from the AlpsHL. Sheffield Steelers winger Marc-Olivier Vallerand arrived in the league after a 32-goal season with EHC Lustenau in 2018-19 - note: worse stats than Doggett's - and provided Aaron Fox's men with 26 goals and 51 points in his first season at the flyDSA Arena. Should Doggett produce at a similar clip in Belfast, you can imagine Keefe will be overjoyed at the return.
In all, the Giants' roster is starting to take shape ahead of their long-awaited return to the ice in September, and with two scoring forwards, two depth forwards with the potential to have increased roles and an MVP-calibre defenceman and netminder each signed up, the core of a title-challenging team is in place.
The summer is still young and there is time to go, but the expectations are rising already. It's down to the Giants to keep matching them.