|Adam Scheel (Credit: Ross Bonander/Texas Stars)|
I had a chance to chat with the head coach of the Idaho Steelheads during their recent road trip to Rapid City. The Steelheads were one of a handful of pro hockey teams in North America to go dark last season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starting over again wasn't as hard as you might think for Sheen and his crew in Idaho. In case you weren't aware, every single ECHL contract is a one-year deal every year anyways. Sheen has to make the case anew every season that players should stay in Boise and not leave for other ECHL clubs or the always alluring temptress of European hockey.
"We were lucky enough that we brought five guys back from the last season that we played," Sheen told 100 Degree Hockey via phone. "They were all playing elsewhere last year, but we were able to bring them back to Boise this year so that we had a good nucleus to start with. It was helpful to have the nucleus and that then we can kind of show them how we do things here Idaho."
Along with talented veterans, Boise is also hosting a few Dallas- and Texas-contracted players. Yauheni Aksantsiuk was the most electric in the early going, notching 10 points in his first eight games. After two more games, his progress has stalled as he is sidelined with a minor injury and has missed the last four for Idaho. He is expected to play tomorrow night.
Sheen is very complimentary of the young forward's game, saying that he wished Aksiantsiuk would shoot more and defer to his linemates less. "He's got an absolute cannon," added Sheen. The defensive side of his game is also more mature than one would expect for a first-year forward. Sheen also notes his easy coachability and the willingness to learn the pro North American game.
On defense, Michael Prapavessis is on top of Texas GM Scott White's list for a callup. The former Dallas pick went unsigned after Dallas drafted him in 2014. After finishing his collegiate career at RPI, he spent time across six different cities in the AHL and ECHL before heading to Idaho this year. His early play saw him leading the ECHL defensemen in scoring but he's slipped back to a tie for 11th with 1-8=9 in 10 GP. He was briefly on contract to Texas when the Stars were about to face Colorado at home two weeks ago, but the reassignment of Thomas Harley from Dallas nixed that contract. Scott White indicated he was a real pro about the last minute PTO change and that he would definitely be on Texas's radar moving forward. Both Jim Nill and White alike always believe you can never have too many D-men. Sheen calls Prappavessis "steady Eddie" for the Steelheads D.
The callup for Prappavessis would have put Idaho in a bind with just five defensemen, a situation they would have just had to "roll with". Sheen chalks the lower depth up a few factors. Surely the addition of a new NHL team plays some part, but college kids were also extended an additional year of eligibility to make up for COVID. The addition of the Coachella Valley Firebirds in 2022-23 will further exacerbate the issue. Former Idaho HC Brad Ralph kept a good list of SPHL (single A) players in case of callup needs, and Sheen is no different.
Speaking of continuing traditions one team to the next, Idaho is using the same penalty kill system as Texas to good effect this year. The system, which requires speed, agility and the ability to make quick reads, puts offensive minded players in a position to go in shorthanded. The implementation of the system was partly driven by Sheen's seven-game "callup" to the Stars last season in the middle of the pandemic. Without a team to coach, Sheen got the completely unheard of opportunity to come assistant coach the AHL team in-season.
"Normally, that would never happen. So I learned a lot and but I also it kind of reaffirmed what we do here and that we're on the right track. We're doing things the right way. [There were] just a few little details that we didn't normally do and that implemented since."
The Steelheads are 8-6-0-0 on the season and play the Allen Americans in Boise on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.