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Steelheads’ blue-collar identity was set this season

Tuesday, May 10th
Steelheads’ blue-collar identity was set this season

It’s difficult to honestly assess any campaign in the immediate aftermath of disappointment, particularly disappointment that comes with the sting of a Game 7 playoff overtime defeat. But before the Steelheads left the Allen Event Center on the final night of their 2015-16 season, they already knew they had made tremendous strides in the span of several months to become one of the league’s best teams, and that they had given the defending Kelly Cup Champions all they could handle.

13 days later, the stalls inside the Steelheads locker room are empty and the ice at CenturyLink Arena has melted away. Yet as Head Coach Neil Graham turns his attention to the challenge of building next year’s team, the 2015-16 squad has already set the tone.

“Obviously, this last week gave us a chance to go over things and look back. More than anything I was proud of the constant level of work-ethic. Our guys competed every night,” said Graham. “Win or lose, the effort was never an issue and that goes a long way when you’re building for next season. We have that foundation and when you build around work ethic and the way we improved as a group, the building blocks are there for next season.”

That wasn’t a benefit at the start of the year, when Graham prepared for his first season as a head coach with a roster that had lost many of its go-to point producers and only had seven players returning from the previous season. Only four of them- Shawn Boutin, Jefferson Dahl, Rob Linsmayer, and Colton Beck- had played more than 12 games in Idaho the prior year. The rest of the roster was first-year Steelheads as well as first-year professionals, with ten players qualifying as rookies.

As the players on that roster adjusted to hockey in Idaho, and as that roster changed in the first few months, the Steelheads evolved from a struggling team out of the gate to one of the league’s toughest opponents once everyone learned their jobs.

“That’s difficult when there’s a handful of returners, a new coach at the head position, it’s a huge overhaul. Everybody fights for a first-line role and it probably took us a while to establish the identity of each line and each role,” said Graham. “I think everyone was finding their identity and finding their jobs. It was a group thing, and there are some things looking back that maybe I would have done differently and the players are no different. But we made some personnel adjustments and continually tweaked the lineup to make sure we were improving and finding ways to win hockey games.”

It’s a characteristic of the 2015-16 Steelheads that Graham was most proud of, the willingness of his players to accept adjustments and their roles on the team, and to perform them well. The Steelheads’ coach noted the healthy competitiveness of his squad without any jealousy amongst the players. When the power play was clicking, regular penalty killers like Jake Fallon and Andrew Carroll were the first on their feet to congratulate them. When there was a big shot-block on the kill, power play producers like Jefferson Dahl and Rob Linsmayer met them at the bench door. That selfless comradery can be rare across an entire locker room.

“We found a combination that worked. We were never a team that stayed stagnant, and as a credit to the guys in our room, they all bought in. Whatever adjustment I made or skill I wanted to work on, there was never any push-back,” said Graham.

That was the kind of mentality that brought the Steelheads from a 6-10-4 start, which included a 2-5-2 road trip in November, to earning the fifth-most points in the league after December 10th.

“We weren’t a bad team at all, we were just finding ways to lose,” said Graham of the team’s early struggles. “And once we found ways to focus on the details and to do the intangibles that over 60 minutes add up to victory, guys were having fun with that. And whatever role a guy was in, he embraced it. Guys didn’t care what role they were in as long as we had success, and that’s why we had success.”

And with that team success came individual success, as players like Joe Basaraba, Andre Morrissette, Carson McMillan, and Andrew Carroll saw dramatic increases in their offensive production over the final months of the season and Shawn Boutin and Corbin Baldwin became one of the league’s best shutdown defensive pairs. Linsmayer had a career offensive year, while Dahl and Emil Molin tied for the team-lead with 22 goals.

When the Steelheads found their grooves with set partners and linemates and roles, they were able to function in a larger team concept that encouraged a blue-collar work ethic and a desire to grind out wins each night. It’s because players bought into that concept that the coaching staff hopes a larger chunk of the team could be back next season.

“We’ll make some personnel adjustments and systematically we will adjust in a few ways because we’d like to hopefully create a little more offense by maybe bringing in a few pieces for some more scoring,” said Graham. “But at the end of the day, the keys for our success was that work ethic and depth in our team and we’re excited to bring lot of that back.”

Of course there will be some roster changes, as there always are. Looking back at the regular season, and especially at the playoff series, the Steelheads know they could use an added scoring touch next year to help several areas of their game. The penalty kill was the second-best in the league during the regular season, but Allen’s power play outperformed Idaho’s in the playoffs. The Steelheads were arguably the better team 5-on-5, but the Americans’ power play was the difference in the series.

These are the important decisions in the off-season, honest assessment of the prior seven months to determine where you can get better. For the Steelheads, it will be more of the tinkering that improved the team so dramatically in the regular season. The foundation, the mentality with which they play the game, is already in place.

“I thought the way our group came together as a team, at 5-on-5 and doing the things needed to win games, I couldn’t have been happier and asked for a better group of guys in that sense,” said Graham. “We’ll be reviewing the year, and yes we’d like to probably add some offensive pieces. But we don’t want to change the identity of who we are as a blue-collar team.”

“If we can bring back a solid chunk of returning players and add a bit more of a spark at 5-on-5 or the PP that would be big, but we don’t want to change what did make us successful.”

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