|(Credit: Idaho Steelheads)|
The Idaho Steelheads just finished off a six game in nine day stretch with a 5-1 loss to the Bakersfield Condors (Oklahoma City). The Steelheads did manage to take the series two games to one and gain a point in the standings against the Condors. But it was a bumpy end of November and beginning of December with a trip to face the Aces (Iowa Wild) up in Alaska and a one-off game against the Grizzlies (Norfolk Admirals) down in Utah.
The Steelheads still maintained their position at the top of the Pacific Division through this difficult part of the schedule. Heading into the weekend’s games, (weekends start on Wednesday for my purposes) Idaho sits two points ahead of second place Ontario Reign (Manchester Monarchs/St. John’s Ice Caps) and 9 points ahead of eighth place Stockton Thunder (Bridgeport Sound Tigers). The Steelheads are hitting a critical stretch of games in December where they have a total of 12 games during the month including the 3 already played against the Condors and the one against the Grizzlies. Throw in 3 against the Reign, 3 against Stockton and then two more against the Aces, this stretch of games will help set the team up for the compressed schedule that they will face in January.
The big issue facing the Steelheads right now is that they have jumped right into the “call-up season” instead of just dipping their toe. Of course the team didn’t do themselves any favors by getting off to a hot start; there is a correlation between playing well and player attrition. Here are some notable players that are currently in the AHL: Jason Bast (PTO with Bridgeport), Taylor Peters (Texas), Jesse Root (Texas), and Scott Valentine (Texas). This is only a sampling of what is not currently available to Head Coach Brad Ralph.
In net, Olivier Roy has been steady. Henri Kiviaho has continued to get better. Secondary scoring that was the main talking point of this team for the first month of the season is going to be tested and challenged to become the main scoring for a team that hopes to be a contender come April and May. The most consistent point made around the locker room is that it is better to have to go through call-ups and a bit of a struggle now towards the beginning of the season than towards the end of the season.
With some of the shuffling going on, Ralph went out and picked up some grit in forward Devin Didiomete who has provided a bit of a spark for this team and will seem to have a big roll on the power play going forward as a big body in front that teams will have to account for. Having just seen him over this past weekend, I was impressed with his set of hands. He might not be the type of “sniper” of a Jason Bast, but he is far from the stone handed fighters of the 80s and 90s. As he gets more comfortable, he’ll fit in just fine.
Brett Robinson was also activated from the 21 day IR at the end of November and has started to work off some of the rust from sitting out for the two months of the season. He was able to pitch in with 3 points in limited games, as the new top line of Robinson, Alex Belzile, and Wade MacLeod have found some fast chemistry over the past 6 games. Steve Qualier has continued his strong play of late and has started to find the back of the net, while David deKastrozza now has 9 goals on the year and has filled in for some scoring as well.
If the saying is true that, “Recruiting isn’t what gets you through the first month of the season, recruiting is what gets you through the tough times in the middle of the year,” (I might have just made that up) then Brad Ralph has set himself up real nice to get through this bump in the road in terms of roster construction. With names like Belzile, MacLeod, Robinson, Qualier, deKastrozza, Colton Beck and James Livingston, you’ve still got two lines of good scorers on this roster. Add in the grit of a Didiomete, you’ve got yourself a pretty good compliment of forwards.
The defense is still in pretty in good shape. Mike Dalhuisen has just been returned from Texas, and Ralph went out and acquired Michal Spacek to bolster the defense as well. Add those players into the core they already have in Eamonn McDermott, Charlie Dodero, Patrick Cullity and Matt Case, the Steelheads are set on defense. Not to mention there is still Troy Vance and Colin Shea if Ralph wants to go with some sort of rotation like we saw at the beginning of the season.
If there is another run of call-ups or re-assignments, there might be some cause for concern, but for right now it appears that the Steelheads have figured out the adjustments that they had to make for this past flurry of activity. If they can just continue to keep fighting and scraping together 2 wins out of 3 games, they will have themselves in a nice position a month from now as the race for the playoffs really heats up. Of course that is a lot easier said than done, however it looks like, at least this far into the season, that the Steelheads and Brad Ralph anticipated these moves in the off-season and recruited effectively to minimize them.