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Belfast Giants facing big off-season after inconsistent campaign, claims head coach Adam Keefe

 

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The Belfast Giants had an up-and-down season, according to head coach Adam Keefe

The Belfast Giants had an up-and-down season, according to head coach Adam Keefe

William Cherry/Presseye

The Belfast Giants had an up-and-down season, according to head coach Adam Keefe

The players have been safely returned home and the long summer now begins, the Belfast Giants with an extended off-season to prepare for the 2020-21 season.

While the front office at the SSE Arena only have an additional five weeks to start their preparations for the upcoming campaign compared to normal, chances are it will feel like the never-ending summer as they sift through countless player profiles to piece together the puzzle for next season.

First, that means conducting a post-mortem of last season, laying everything out on the table and being honest about where a tumultuous 2019-20 fell short and what must change moving forward.

Exit meetings have been conducted with the players over Skype, another unprecedented side-effect caused by the impact of the coronavirus, as head coach Adam Keefe and his support staff dissect a frustrating campaign and ensure next season eclipses what was a below-par title challenge this time round.

The highs of a win over Bili Tygri Liberec to start the season, and two strong displays against Augsburger Panther, in the Champions Hockey League were quickly taken apart by a disastrous Challenge Cup group stage that saw them scrape into the quarter-finals with a last-gasp Liam Reddox goal at the Glasgow Clan and then eventually crash out with back-to-back shutouts against the Cardiff Devils.

A lack of scoring saw the Giants ebb and flow in their league campaign, firing in just below the league average with 3.1 goals per game, and by the time the season was cancelled on March 13, they were four points behind leaders the Devils having played two games more.

"Inconsistent is a pretty good explanation," admits Keefe, who finished a season without a trophy for the first time as Giants coach.

"That being said, I liked us two or three times in our last 15 games where we were able to push back in the third period and won games. That was something we were looking for all season long, where we were able to win games where we didn't have our best performances. That's what good teams do. For the majority of the season we didn't do that.

"Our poor performances, we lost them. If you look at the history of the league, teams aren't going to be at their best every night, but good teams find ways to win. We weren't able to do that for the majority of the season.

"But there were a couple of good signs in some really bad performances. We showed some pushback in third periods and that was good. It would have been nice to see the last six games and see how they went: build some consistency, build some momentum heading into the play-offs.

"That part was frustrating that we didn't get to see how that played out. With the parity around the league, it would have been interesting to see."

But as much as the final few weeks of the season did hold some promise, the season as a whole was one that fell remarkably flat by all expectations, particularly given the thrill of the CHL to start the year. A star-studded roster just never clicked across the board.

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David Goodwin had a big impact late in the season for the Giants

David Goodwin had a big impact late in the season for the Giants

David Goodwin had a big impact late in the season for the Giants

 

The Giants' top points-per-game scorers were mid-season acquisitions, Rickard Palmberg (1.00 points per game), Elgin Pearce (0.88) and David Goodwin (0.85) the only players to eclipse the 0.8 mark. Of those who started the season in Belfast, the best tally came from Jordan Smotherman (0.78). The powerplay was also below average, coming in at sixth in the league with a 17.02 per cent strike rate.

There were line changes and healthy scratches across the board, no trio of forwards able to settle into a regular routine as the coaching staff desperately tried to find even one settled combination they could base their offense around.

In fairness, there were things the Giants could hang their hat on, particularly defensively as they led the league with a 2.6 goals against average, aided by restricting teams to a league-leading 27.88 shots against per game, while also finishing third on the penalty kill (82.35 per cent).

But it wasn't enough to mask what was an anemic season in front of goal from the team, and for that reason, along with a dreadful disciplinary record (13.79 penalty minutes per game) that was only eclipsed by the Sheffield Steelers, they were left playing catch-up for the majority of the campaign.

"From a coaching standpoint there's some decisions and some things I didn't like about my performance this season that I need to change and implement from the start of next season. My performance wasn't good enough to get this team to where they need to be, and that's something I need to work to improve," added Keefe.

"From a team standpoint, we need to look to improve. At times, like we talked about, our level of goal-scoring was inconsistent. We were shutout eight times this year and that's something we need to address, and we'll look to address that this summer.

"It's tough to assess that with the situation around the world and what that will mean for the league, but certainly we know how we want to play - we want to be a skilled, fast team with the physicality and character to play different styles of hockey. Those are aspects we can improve next season with our offense.

"And also be quicker. At times this season I thought we were a step off the pace and that's something I want to improve as a team."

So, to next season then, and what will be a very important off-season filled with more unknowns than certainties. As of right now, the Elite League continues to meet on a regular basis to discuss next season and some of the most important questions surrounding it - mainly when it will start and whether the new roster restrictions will be applied in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some teams across the league will be hit much harder than others by everything that has gone on and, in order to maintain some level of competitiveness, the idea of a salary cap has been one of the things mooted to compensate. The potential of raising the number of imports in a match-day roster back to 14 from the proposed 13 is also on the table.

From the Giants' perspective, Keefe admits that missing out on the gate from four home games at the end of last season has "certainly impacted us financially", however he isn't anticipating a significant decline in budget to work with for next season from last.

As a result, the Belfast front office - Keefe, head of hockey operations Steve Thornton and project manager Shane Johnson - are proceeding as normal when it comes to off-season recruitment, with exploratory talks with "several players" having already taken place.

"Obviously it's tough to negotiate at the moment with the current situation, but players are still concerned about where they'll be next season, so it's important we get ahead of the rush and make contact with players so we have a structure over what we'll look like next season and where we'll improve," says Keefe.

"Players are business as normal in terms of interest level and their willingness to listen and learn about the league. There's also a level of uncertainty about players and staff about the world in general at the moment.

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It was a tough season for Adam Keefe

It was a tough season for Adam Keefe

William Cherry/Presseye

It was a tough season for Adam Keefe

 

"It'll be interesting to see how this all affects the market - we're not the only league in Europe it's going to impact. Players are thinking about that as well. For me, it's just about gauging that interest.

"We've worked hard over the last ten years, certainly since I've been here, to grow this city and this team in the hockey world. There is a level of interest in playing in Belfast, and for us it's about making that connection with players that will improve us and be good pieces in our puzzle."

Ice hockey is, of course, a fairly unique sport when it comes to assembling a team in that the Giants have to renegotiate with the majority of their players season-on-season, so, besides a few select individuals, no player is guaranteed to return for another campaign until they are officially announced.

That then brings up some questions over the roster turnover that Belfast will see from one season to the next. Some players won't want to return to the Giants next season and plans will have to be made to move on from them. Of those players who are willing to return for another campaign, how many will the Giants actually want to bring back given their struggles? In this season as much as any other, the question stands over how many can they even afford to bring back?

This is the intricate and complex puzzle that the Giants must assemble each summer, made even more difficult when you factor in Covid-19. But right now, things are progressing at a steady pace. Players, for the most part, have been informed whether their services may be required next season or not. Now comes the waiting to see how the market looks once normal life resumes.

"There are some situations where we have guys more or less wrapped up. There's other scenarios where we're waiting for more clarity over next season before we start fully negotiating. We need a better understanding of where the market's at, where the league's at and where Europe's at in general," says Keefe.

"We're just trying to gain a bit more clarity on the situation and, when we have that clarity, we can move forward. There'll be some tough decisions to make."

Early roster notes

While there's no negotiating happening yet in the current climate, it's likely that the Giants will extend offers to all of their British players for next season, while defenceman Kevin Raine is an overwhelming probability to return after setting up his new company Personal Best in Belfast... one of the Giants' key questions will be the status of goaltender Stephen Murphy, who last season proved he is still more than capable at this level but, at 38, may be considering retirement, which would put them in the market for two goalies rather than one... after electing to play one import short last season, Keefe refused to commit to whether the team would run four full lines next season, insisting "that's something the league will likely determine for us" over the next few weeks... if the Giants are in the market for an offensive defenceman for next season, which they likely are, then they could do much worse than Drydn Dow, who posted his second consecutive 40-point season for the Dundee Stars last time out... former Giants netminder Tyler Beskorowany may have to wait another year for his dream DEL move after Schwenninger Wild Wings, who he was linked with, signed former Vancouver Canucks backstop Joacim Eriksson for next season

Belfast Telegraph