Returning Edinburgh Capitals defenceman Michael D’Orazio admitted he did have second thoughts about returning to the Scottish capital to honour the second-year of his contract, but insists the lure of his education, the fans, and the chance to right the wrongs of last year proved too big an opportunity to miss.
The Canadian was a key part of the side that underperformed last season and missed the play-offs for a fourth straight year, as the Murrayfield men eventually had to make do with propping up the table for the second time in three seasons.
And the 27-year-old, who figures to be a huge part of new coach Dmitri Khristich’s back-end, was brutally honest in his assessment of where it all went wrong under former coach Michal Dobron last term.
“We had no structure and everyone was on their own page,” stated an honest D’Orazio. “Every other team had systems to shut us down and we did not. We did not have a set breakout, forecheck or neutral zone forecheck. We didn’t match lines and we rarely did video.
“This all contributed to putting us behind the eight-ball before the game even started. We had the players to finish a lot higher than we did.”
It certainly puzzled large swathes of the Capitals’ support last season as the team tried but ultimately failed to address the crippling defensive problems that had plagued the side all season long.
Dobron as a defensive coach would have been expected to find a solution to Edinburgh’s D zone frailties, despite the difficult task that comes from the laborious work it takes to prepare yourself to play and simultaneously coach.
Edinburgh have broken with their custom of appointing player/coaches by turning to their first bench coach since Brad Gratton’s short stint at the helm in 2010.
It’s an ambitious step, especially when you consider the stature and reputation of an individual like Dmitri Khristich, but absolutely the right one in D’Orazio’s mind.
“It is a huge move and it will change the whole dynamic of the team. A bench coach will be able to watch the game and spend more time scouting other teams and creating systems to implement.
“A bench coach doesn’t have to be worried about playing which takes away a lot of effort mentally and physically to begin with.”
D’Orazio’s honest assessment is something that will resonate with everyone at the club. Rather than hiding behind the disappointment of last season and the things the team could have done better, the Ontario native is keen to provide the transparency that is often desperately missing from professional sports teams.
Managing that expectation and delivering on the promise of the Khristich era will provide challenge enough, with the Caps set to sport an entirely new roster in September.
D’Orazio produced a solid first professional season having originally arrived with Matt Tipoff from Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, putting up 37 points in 57 games in all competitions.
But he is only one of three returning imports from 2016/17 along with star man Pavel Vorobyev and Rihards Grigors.
And you sense that learning the lessons of last season, both individually and collectively, factor in at the top of his priorities heading into year two with self-improvement at both ends of the ice a target.
“I want to improve defensively and they [the fans] can expect me to take care of my own zone a lot better than last year,” D’Orazio told me.
“I am a defender that works well defensively when there is a system in place and players know what is expected of them. Last year we did not have a defensive system in place. I found it difficult to play a sound defensive game when no one knew where to be positionally in the defensive zone.
“Under Dmitri [Khristich] I’m sure we will have a great system in place and I am hoping that will help me be a better defender. Offensively, I feel I have more to give. I hope to produce more than I did last season.”
With an expanded Elite League from September following the additions of Milton Keynes Lighting and Guildford Flames, the pressure is on the Capitals’ front office to take the necessary steps to keep the club competitive.
All the signs, however, have been promising. A thorough scouting network of the like we’ve scarcely seen in the EIHL era complemented a coaching search that ended with the Capitals pulling off something of a coup to land Khristich.
D’Orazio did concede that the MBA he is currently studying for at the Edinburgh Business School factored in just as much as the hockey side of things in his decision to come back for a second season, amid interest from other leagues.
Nonetheless, the defender had nothing but praise for the loyal Capitals supporters and the city of Edinburgh as a whole, the very sentiments that you get the feeling are acting as the drivers behind D’Orazio’s determination to respond from an underwhelming season.
He said: “The deciding factor was my education. I wanted to make sure I got all my marks back and that I passed all of them as doing my MBA at Edinburgh Business School is very important to me.
“I did have doubts about coming back and I had offers from other leagues. In the end I think some things on the hockey operations side of things should have been handled differently last year. I felt we had a team on paper that should have at least finished middle of the pack.
“We had no direction and I wanted to make sure Scott [Neil] brought in the right people to lead the hockey operation side of things and he did just that. I love the city and I love the fans so that didn’t make it that hard of a decision to come back.”
With the turnover in the Elite League so high year-to-year, especially among teams like Edinburgh, every season has the feel of something of a new era and a new beginning – no bad thing as the Capitals try to erase the memories of recent seasons.
The familiarity does not end with last season’s teammates Vorobyev and Grigors though, having played against new Caps forward Dylan Anderson in college. Anderson, meanwhile, is also a former college teammate of new Canadian centre Mike Cazzola.
So can Capitals fans expect Anderson, described as a strong face-off specialist with a responsible two-way game, to be of a similar mould to last season’s fan favourite Taylor MacDougall?
“Dylan is a very good centre,” D’Orazio explained. “He will be similar to Taylor in terms of his face-off abilities. Dylan is very good down low in the offensive zone and is hard to handle. He is a great person and I have heard nothing but good things about him on and off the ice.”
While D’Orazio did admit that excessive player turnover is not desirable, he is looking forward to getting back on the ice with his new teammates in what promises to be something of a strategy shift with a predominantly European roster being constructed.
In his eyes communication will be the pivotal element as the team comes together in September. There were some allusions that this was a vital part that was too often found wanting under Dobron last year, and the defenceman hopes that Khristich’s ideas can cross the language divide.
“There will definitely be a different dynamic to this team but it’s really too early to see if it is a good step. We will have to wait and see.
“It’s all going to depend upon how the team gels together and how well we can sort out the language barrier that will clearly be evident. The important thing is to get the same message across to all players whether they are from Russia and other parts of Europe, or North America.”
D’Orazio though was full of praise for the Capitals’ front office and the work they have put in to maximise the club’s chances of on-ice success next season.
The organisation’s shortcomings may be self-evident in some respects, but all the steps taken this off-season point to a brighter future according to the Canadian.
“Scott has definitely had his work cut out for him this off-season and I feel he has done a great job in acquiring a full-time coach,” D’Orazio said.
“This will totally change the dynamic of the team and I feel for the better. He has recruited a lot of players that have played in high calibre leagues and I guess we will just have to wait and see what the on-ice product looks like.
“I haven’t been on the ice with the guys yet, but by the looks of things we are starting on the right foot.”
The club are keeping tight lipped at this early juncture as to what their targets are heading into the new EIHL season, but you can be sure matching or bettering their Challenge Cup quarter-final berth and making the post-season are the two most obvious (and pressing) targets for the club and its supporters.
“It’s going to be an exciting season for sure, and I’m hopeful that we will finish higher than last season. It all really depends on how the team gels together. If we can all gel, I think the sky is the limit.”
The prospect, meanwhile, of working alongside someone as distinguished as Khristich, a man who can boast 800 odd NHL games from a star-studded career, is a mouth-watering prospect for all those connected with the Capitals – D’Orazio included.
“I am sure we will be in contact very soon to speak about what kind of role he wants me to play. I am looking forward to working with him as he has loads knowledge about the game and I want to learn as much as I can from him.”
The Edinburgh Capitals begin their pre-season campaign at home to the University of Manitoba Bisons tomorrow evening with a face-off time of 7.30pm at Murrayfield Ice Rink.
Image courtesy of the Edinburgh Capitals