Forty-eight wins. One hundred and two points in the standings. An ECHL Pacific Division championship.
Though it didn’t garner Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Brad Ralph ECHL Coach of the Year honors (he finished third in the 28-team league), it added to an impressive tenure leading the Idaho Steelheads.
“To be recognized and mentioned in the coach of the year conversation is a reflection of our organization and team,” Ralph said of his third-place finish in voting, consisting of ECHL coaches, broadcasters, media relations personnel and media. “We have a tremendous group of players and men here, they have worked extremely hard to win our division. I am proud of this group and the success we have had thus far.”
Ralph, 34, finished fifth in the league’s Coach of the Year balloting following his first season in Idaho, 2012-13, as he engineered a 14-win improvement in the standings and helped Idaho reach the ECHL’s Western Conference Finals. During the team’s ECHL era, which began in 2003, the Steelheads have reached or surpassed 45 wins three times. Ralph’s teams have done it twice in his three seasons with the team – 45 wins in his first season and 48 wins this season.
“Our ownership group expects success on the ice and, clearly, Brad’s teams have met that expectation,” team president Eric Trapp noted. “But the ownership group also demands a group of coaches and players that are good people, that represent this community well. Brad and his staff and players have met that expectation as well. We’re all very proud of the work he and his team has put in at the rink and away from the ice as well.”
In a league that is defined by roster movement, Ralph has managed to keep his teams near the top of the standings as the Steelheads have the longest active postseason streak in the ECHL, reaching the playoffs in each of its twelve seasons in the league. More than 40 different players wore the Steelheads jersey this season. Fifty donned the logo during the NHL lockout season of 2012-13.
“Every team in this league loses some its top players, whether it is American Hockey League callups or big contracts in Europe,” Steelheads media relations director Will Hoenike observed. “What sets Brad and (assistant coach) Neil (Graham) apart is the ability to plug holes. How many teams could withstand the loss of two of its top defensemen (Scott Valentine and Charlie Dodero) to AHL promotion and a third (Eamonn McDermott) to injury mid-season and still nearly set a team record for fewest goals allowed over a 72-game season?”
Idaho allowed 187 goals during the 2014-15 season, narrowly missing the team’s top defensive mark, 183 goals allowed during the 2007-08 season.
Ralph’s recruiting network has enabled him to ease the sting of ECHL roster fluctuation for three years now. Justin Dowling, Kael Mouillierat, Sam Carrick, Austin Smith and Austin Fyten all received AHL promotions during his first season as Head Coach, Ralph was able to replace the losses with Brett Robinson, Tyler Gron, Justin Taylor and Rylan Galiardi.
This season, when the team needed scoring depth upfront, he found Jefferson Dahl and the rookie jumped right in, picking up 34 points and a plus-13 rating in 41 games with the team.
“It’s uncanny,” Hoenike continued. “He’ll tell me he’s bringing in a guy. I’ll say, ‘you’re bringing in who?’ Next thing you know, Dahl has 30 points, Luke Judson has scored game-winning goals in two of his first three games, Chris Rawlings has nine straight wins in net. The list just keeps growing. He knows what it takes to contribute in his system and he knows how to find good players.”
In five years as a head coach, two in the Southern Professional Hockey League and now three in the ECHL, his team has never had a winning percentage below .590.
“He’s proven that he can win consistently with an evolving roster,” Trapp concluded. “He’s proven that he can recruit top-flight talent and he’s proven he can identify good character as well as good talent. We couldn’t be happier with the work he’s done for us the past three seasons.”