Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Idaho Steelheads Report: The Case for a Championship Run

Ryan Button and Austin Fyten, two former Steelheads, dropped the gloves last night.
(Credit: Jennifer Ramos/Texas Stars)
John Mulhern ponders the chances the Steelheads have at a championship in this week's Idaho Steelheads Report...

In this world, there are two sides to every coin. Last week I talked about how I felt the Idaho Steelheads could be viewed as an underperforming team so far this season. This week, I’m going to look at the reason why this Steelheads team could still be playing hockey in late May to early June with a chance to get their hands on the Kelly Cup.

Scoring Depth
With their current roster, the Steelheads have two solid lines that can score. The way the ECHL is stacked with talent right now, teams need to have two solid lines. Here are the top 6 forwards in terms of points on the Steelheads: Mitch Wahl (39pts), Anthony Nigro (38pts), Tommy Grant (31pts), William Rapuzzi (27pts), Brett Robinson (25pts), and David de Kastrozza (18pts). I would take those top 6 any night against any team in the ECHL right now, and I would like those odds on any given night.

You can also look at who is currently in the AHL and add them to that list: Justin Mercier (18pts), Austin Fyten (15pts) and Brock Montgomery (15pts) [Ed. Note: Assigned to Idaho earlier today]. Now you have three outstanding scoring lines and you would be able to arrange them in such a way that each line has a little bit of skill, speed and physicality. For any team to be able to trot out those 9 forwards for their 3 lines at this level, more games will be won than lost.

Finally, since most teams will dress a tenth forward, you can have your pick between Rob Linsmayer (11pts) and Gaelan Patterson (10pts). [Note: ECHL teams only dress 16 skaters.] Both of these guys have been playing outstanding as of late and really earning their ice time. For my money Linsmayer has been one of the best players on the ice for the past couple of weeks, and Patterson is finding out what works best for him and is starting to execute as well.

Power Play
First of all, see 'Scoring Depth' as to why the power play has been working so well this year and can continue to do so. Those top six forwards are split up over your two power play units so immediately with good puck control in the offensive zone you are going to be putting pressure on the opponents’ first and second penalty kill units. The Steelheads are currently operating at 19.0% on the power play this year, which is down from an unmaintainable high number of well north of 22% earlier this season. But they are still clicking along and appear to be working on a couple of different “plays” to get things moving in a more positive direction. Let me be the first to point out that it is better to tinker with things in the middle of the season and possibly have two options come playoff time, than only having one option that doesn’t work come playoff time.

Now you take the scoring depth of the forwards and add to that Patrick Cullity and Damon Kipp on defense you are putting out two 5-man units that now can not only score with a pinpoint shot from the wings but also with a blast from the point. Once again, more options for teams to be aware of. This would also be a good time to point out that Cullity is having a career year in point production with his four goals and 16 assists through 42 games this season. Kipp has also been a fine addition chipping in with six points since his addition to the Steelheads. The only bugaboo that could hurt the Steelheads on the power play right now is they have allowed five short-handed goals against this season with most of them coming in the last month and a half, but I’m confident that will be cleaned up come playoff time.

Penalty Kill
Why not just have a special teams section? Because each of these deserve their own time and space and both units are worthy of that. The Steelheads penalty kill got off to a rough start at the beginning of the season. They were killing off penalties, but only in the mid 70 percent range. As the season has progressed they have battled their way back up into the mid 80s and currently sit at 85.3% on the kill this year. It’s good enough to put them into the top ten in the league.

So what has changed? That’s a good question. I’m not privy to locker room game strategies or if there were any big adjustments to the coverage on the penalty kill, but it appears that since the injuries and early season call-ups have settled down head coach Brad Ralph has been able to go with the same eight guys on a consistent basis. When any team can do that, the communication gets better, the anticipation gets better and as a unit you do a better job of taking away passing and shooting lanes. Any shots that are going towards the net are, for the most part, shots from the outside and bad angles that Pat Nagle and the other Steelheads net minders have been able to take care of without much issue.

The Steelheads look comfortable on the kill right now and because of that they have been able to get aggressive and take chances which have led to six shorthanded goals for, including three from David de Kastrozza.

Growth
Each year teams have rookies. That’s a given at just about any level but especially in the ECHL. This season most of the rookies for the Steelheads were in the defensive zone. You have Tyler Elbrecht, Dalton Reum, and Charlie Dodero, just to name a few. Over the course of the season, defenseman have come and gone. Tyler Elbrecht has played his way into top four minutes, Dalton Reum earned his ice time by being smart with the puck all over the ice, and Charlie Dodero is making a name for himself with his physical play. As the team continues to get closer to the playoff this group will continue to get stronger and learn more and become a solid group of defensive rookies that will be able to compliment Patrick Cullity on the blue line and because of that, they will continue to limit high percentage scoring chances.

For those keeping track at home, the Steelheads finished their series with Alaska last week with a 3-2 SOL and a 4-2 win to bring their record to 6-3-1 over their last 10 in Anchorage. There aren’t too many teams that can make that claim. It is possible that those two games which saw 125 minutes of great effort from Idaho, could very well be the springboard into these last thirty games and a long run to a Kelly Cup Championship.

Until next time…

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