Eight pressing questions facing the Belfast Giants ahead of the new season
With just two days to go until the Belfast Giants officially kick off their 2019/20 season, hope springs eternal once more.
Adam Keefe's new-look side are intent on defending their Elite League and Challenge Cup titles they won last season while also making a splash on their Champions League debut.
As the team prepare to take to the ice for the first time in a competitive fixture, here are eight questions you might be looking for the answer to:
1. Where are the goals coming from?
Last season, the Giants relied heavily on four players for most of their offensive output, and they regularly delivered. Between Darcy Murphy, Kyle Baun, Blair Riley and Patrick Dwyer, they always had at least one player on the ice who could swing a game by themselves, while the likes of Dustin Johner and David Rutherford would add further points production every so often.
Going into this campaign, it's all change. Not one of those six are in Belfast this season and the pressure is on to find similar players to perform those roles when the going gets tough, but it's easier said than done to find a core group that you can rely on for consistent points production.
In their roster, Belfast do have plenty who have the capability though. Liam Reddox has experience of scoring in the SHL and CHL. Ben Lake scored 38 goals with Coventry last season and Ciaran Long 29 with Manchester. Brian Ward was a feared goal-scorer in the ECHL. Curtis Hamilton was relied on for points in the EBEL last term. Patryk Wronka was a point-a-game man in the Polish league with Katowice.
There's no shortage of goal potential in this team - they just need to prove it.
2. Will Shane Owen live up to the expectations?
One of the big reasons why the Giants were so successful last season was, of course, Tyler Beskorowany. The netminder proved his pre-season doubters wrong with an outstanding campaign that saw him named Elite League Player of the Year having posted a .921 save percentage to go with a miniscule 2.25 GAA.
That, in turn, however, led to a move to Slovakia for the popular back-stop, meaning the Giants had to draft in a replacement for the new season, one who would have plenty of pressure on his shoulders to replicate that. The replacement comes in the form of Shane Owen, who joins from the Fife Flyers having impressed during his time in Scotland.
Owen is already an established netminder in the Elite League, and he has nothing to prove in terms of whether he belongs at this level or not, but the expectations will be high on him to produce at a similar level to Beskorowany. In front of a much better defence than what he ever had in front of him at Fife, which should, theoretically, lead to less shots on his net, there's a strong chance he will.
3. Is the defence really as good as it is on paper?
Going by names alone, the Giants have upgraded their defence from last season and boast arguably the league's best defensive corps thanks to their off-season recruitment.
In Patrick Mullen they have a bona fide two-way defenceman who looks to be on a similar level to that of Josh Roach, but in replacing Jim Vandermeer and Kendall McFaull with Matt Pelech and Jesse Forsberg respectively, Belfast are a stronger side on the back end than they were 12 months ago. Add in the returning trio of Curtis Leonard, Kevin Raine and Paul Swindlehurst and it's a very resolute and exciting back-end group for Keefe to work with.
They've proven that by being stingy on defence already in pre-season, conceding just five goals at even strength across four games, but now the pressure is on them to do that in competitive action when teams have more to play for.
4. Can the special teams replicate last season?
One of the keys of Adam Keefe's tenure in charge of the Giants has been how much emphasis he places on special teams, and it was clear to see how much they influenced the Giants' success last season as they led the league with an 86.73% success rate on the penalty kill, while a 25.2% scoring rate on the powerplay had them finishing second.
Even if you crunch the numbers further, things look just as impressive, with the Giants adding eight shorthanded goals on their league-leading penalty kill - good for third most in the EIHL - and scoring the most powerplay goals on the season with 64.
Already in pre-season we have seen Belfast being very proactive and aggressive on the penalty kill, playing a high rush in both the neutral and offensive zones to try and win back possession, while the powerplay also looked sharp in the early exchanges. It's looking like special teams will once again be a hallmark of this Keefe roster, as should now be expected.
5. Is this team too edgy?
One of the big takeaways from pre-season was that the Giants played a very physical brand of hockey, eager to finish their checks where possible and make life uncomfortable for the opposition. It worked too. Mora were visibly hesitant to go for battles along the boards for fear of being on the receiving end of a big hit, with imposing defenceman Matt Pelech leading the charge.
The style, however, did attract plenty of attention from the referees, and Belfast were on the wrong end of calls more often than not over their four exhibition games, particularly against Herning last weekend. While it's good - and, in many ways, fun - to see the Giants willing to go full tilt at opponents and try and impose themselves, there's a fine line to walk.
Their CHL opponents won't be as lenient on the powerplay than Mora or Herning were - even if the Giants' special teams were strong - and even the sides at the top of the Elite League won't be so wasteful with the man advantage either. Belfast need to be careful with their edge and make sure it stays a weapon, rather than becoming an issue.
6. Was it the right decision not to go with a full Brit compliment?
The Giants made the decision to go into the season down a British player and, rather than icing four full lines, will have a rotation policy that will see them roll three full lines with Lewis Hook and Mark Garside on a fourth line that will have a winger drop down from another line during the game to allow them on the ice.
It's an interesting idea. While it puts your top players on the ice for longer, which is reportedly the main thinking behind this idea, it can lead to more fatigue as the game progresses, particularly for whichever winger is required to double-job on the fourth line as well as playing their full role on one of the scoring lines.
Time will only tell how this ploy works, and the Giants do have the fall-back option of dipping into the market - albeit one that is now very shallow - and bringing in another British player to fill the final wing spot if they need to, so it's a fairly low-risk venture. With the fourth line likely to be used sparingly anyway, this could be a gamble that pays off.
7. Who will captain the side?
This isn't so much a problematic question (not that any of these really are) but more a genuine question - who will captain this team?
At this stage, nobody's quite sure given the wealth of options that Adam Keefe could turn to. Indeed, of everybody on the roster, the only player who seems to have been ruled out of taking on the role is Jordan Smotherman - and that's because he's already been given the role of player-assistant coach!
Logic would suggest that Liam Reddox, given his four years of captaincy experience in Sweden, is the front-runner, but talk within the Giants suggests that Keefe has not made any decision yet on who will lead the team and is willing to give several players a shot at earning the "C" before officially making a decision.
Interestingly, of all the players on the roster, Curtis Leonard, Patrick Mullen, Matt Pelech, Jean Dupuy, Bobby Farnham, Liam Reddox and Jordan Smotherman have all worn letters in their professional careers.
8. Can they balance Europe and the CHL?
This will likely only be an issue early in the season and, given the games are played in place of a weekend's EIHL games rather than alongside them, it's not a particularly pressing issue either. But it is a new experience for the Giants both in terms of style and having to manage the travel as well.
Normally the biggest road trip the Giants would have to do is making the trek up to Dundee to take on the Stars, but now they have to factor in continental flights to Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic, all of which will be a whole new experience for some of this roster.
Add on that they'll be coming up against faster, more skillful opponents from some of Europe's top leagues and the CHL will be a very demanding addition to their schedule, particularly in the early months. How the team cope with the extra demands will be a good indicator of how this team can cope with the rigours of the season as a whole.
Belfast Telegraph Digital