This is nothing particularly new for Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham or his counterparts around the Mountain Division. For the fourth consecutive year, the Steelheads’ division will get a summer face-lift, with two new teams joining the Mountain Division fray to change the landscape of arguably the toughest division in the ECHL.
Last summer’s changes brought some star power further west, as the reigning Kelly Cup champion Allen Americans and the reigning Brabham Cup Champion Kansas City Mavericks became Mountain Division members. This summer, the Mavs will head back to the Central, while the Tulsa Oilers and Wichita Thunder prepare for a healthy dose of Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Allen, and Rapid City this season.
“If you look at the last four Kelly Cups, those teams were in our division. It’s competitive every year,” said Graham. “We’ve had a lot of success in our division and obviously have a very long playoff streak of our own. I expect it to be the top division in the league again and I expect us to be right there among the top.”
Where last year’s adjustments introduced two power-houses to an already tough division, the Oilers and Thunder will be looking for bounce-back years. Tulsa had one of the best starts in the ECHL last fall but tapered off to finish fifth in the Central Division, 18 points from a playoff spot. Wichita finished at the bottom of that division and second-to-last in the league.
Yet with each new season there is a clean slate, and Graham expects the two newcomers to be much improved in October.
“Tulsa just hired former Aces Head Coach Rob Murray, who knows our division as well as anyone. He’ll know exactly what to expect from the teams in our division and the way we coach,” noted Graham, with Murray preparing for his tenth season as a head coach and seventh in the ECHL.The Thunder have already made a splash this summer by completing some futures trades from last season, already adding names like Tyler Currier, Dyson Stevenson, and Nolan Zajac to their stable.
“(Head Coach) Malcolm Cameron just finished his first year in Wichita. He’s a very good recruiter and he’ll have that team ready to go at the start of the year. I expect both of those opponents to be very strong ones this year.”
Cameron is readying for his 12th season as a head coach.
The new alignment certainly makes the Steelheads games against the Oilers and Thunder this season more impactful, their combined ten games against those squads bringing Idaho’s total to 60 divisional games out of 72 contests this season. Beyond the standings, however, the new implications can also offer some new excitement for the fans.
“If anything, I think it’ll be great for our fans to see some new opponents on a more consistent basis. Wichita has never been here and now they’re a divisional opponent. Tulsa was here once for a two-game set two years ago,” said Graham. “To have some new teams in here is special for our fans to get some variety, and it’s good for our league.”
And do two new rivals in the mix, and the many transactions they will make in the coming months, affect how the Steelheads approach their off-season?
“We keep an eye on every team in our league over the summer, but that doesn’t affect our plan. Our plan of attack is to build a team that we think is going to win our division and then go on and win a Kelly Cup,” said Graham. “It’s important to see who’s snatching up who and what players are available and what free agents are out there. But in terms how we’re going to conduct ourselves, we have our own plan and that’s what we’re going to go with.”
“For us the goal is another Kelly Cup. It’s been too many years without one in Idaho. We know what we’re capable of and we have the tools. We have a great facility and an unbelievable fan base. Those are all things we are using in our recruiting throughout the summer.”