Elite Ice Hockey League: Gardiner Conference Preview – Dundee Stars

The Student Sport’s Prediction: 4th in the Gardiner Conference

Key additions: Travis Fullerton, G; Jimmy Jensen, LW; Chris Lawrence, RW; Anthony Mastrodicasa, D;

Key departures: Vinny Scarsella, RW; Justin Faryna, RW; Joe Fallon, G; Felix-Antoine Poulin, D

There are a number of questions hanging over the Dundee Stars as they embark on the 2017/18 Elite League season. Chief among them is the nagging question about how negatively impaired the team will be after the shock departure of coach Marc LeFebvre.

Nobody was surprised to hear LeFebvre had suitors after performing such a stellar job on Tayside, though no one connected with the Stars wanted to see him whisked away with recruitment for the new EIHL season well underway.

His departure to join ECHL side Cincinnati Cyclones as an assistant coach in July left a void filled in no time at all by former Manchester Storm player/coach Omar Pacha who arrived as head coach and GM.

Can Pacha, who inherited a squad of over half a dozen players signed by his predecessor, stamp his own mark on over half of a roster he did not recruit himself?

Now it is worth noting that LeFebvre has reportedly given Pacha the lowdown on Dundee’s new signings and how he saw them fitting into his plans for the new season.

By all accounts LeFebvre has done all he can to make the transition process as smooth as possible and to aid Pacha as he acclimatises to his new surroundings. A positive that may be, but unenviable circumstances to inherit it remains.

He has a difficult task on his hands, that much is obvious. Dundee’s playing budget is one of the smallest in the league and rumoured to be less than it was twelve months ago, something only the Stars brass will know for sure.

But the fact he has walked into Dundee Ice Arena and is following in the footsteps of LeFebvre complicates things. In his two years at the club LeFebvre hauled a side, who were basement dwellers during the 2014/15 season under Jeff Hutchins, to two consecutive 7th placed finishes.

Last season he stunned everyone when his Stars side upset the much favoured Braehead Clan in the play-off quarter-finals as Dundee reached finals weekend for the first time in the EIHL era.

They even shutout Braehead on the road leg of the quarter-final. It was an achievement that was perhaps overlooked given the exploits of eventual double winners the Cardiff Devils, who dominated last season in claiming two of the three trophies.

If Dundee deserve credit, so too does Pacha. He became the first coach in the second incarnation of Manchester Storm’s history and delivered a first play-off appearance last season as Storm finished above Coventry and Edinburgh to take the 8th and final play-off position. A significant achievement whatever way you look at it.

And let’s face it, Pacha was the unfortunate victim of Manchester Storm’s takeover. Had Gordon Greig not completed his purchase of the Storm, Pacha and not Finnerty may well have been leading the Storm into this campaign.

Chip on his shoulder or not, you get the feeling this will be his toughest assignment yet. Yes he is an experienced EIHL coach having been player/coach at the now defunct Hull Stingrays before landing in Altrincham, but he will be heading up a team that will be written off by most observers around the league.

The circumstances of his arrival, coupled with the advanced stage of recruitment he inherited, leave Dundee as one of the favourites to be propping up the table come the end of the season.

Pacha and his squad may well revel in their underdog status. Did anyone expect them to make the last four last season? Not a chance.

Being written off before the puck was even dropped will enable them to play the expressive brand of hockey so indelibly associated with LeFebvre, without worrying about external pressures.

With Pacha taking over exclusively behind the bench for the first time, while combining front office duties, it remains to be seen how he handles his additional off-ice responsibilities.

With two new sides joining the league, the margins have grown smaller and the competitiveness has undoubtedly crept up a notch, and filling the voids of some key departures will go a long way to determining whether Dundee can match or improve on their impressive 2016/17 season.

The departures of star forwards Vinny Scarsella to retirement and Justin Faryna to Cardiff will not be easily replaced.

Sure, finding prolific scorers for EIHL level can be done, whether on a budget or not, but losing the offensive production that those two provided adds another layer of complexity to this year’s recruitment process.

Bringing in players who can put the puck in the net is obviously the cornerstone of any off-season, whether re-signing existing imports or scouring Europe and North America for a replacement.

Scarsella lit it up in Manchester before his season stay in Dundee, and was tenuously linked with a move to the Sheffield Steelers before hanging up his skates. He was a proven scorer at this level and you can be sure Pacha will be disappointed not to have had the chance to renew acquaintances next season.

Faryna, meanwhile, is a rare breed of forward that is both tough and prolific and deserves the chance to move on to a side challenging for silverware in the Cardiff Devils.

You can be quite confident that Faryna’s versatility and ability to perform multiple roles in South Wales will make him the kind of fan favourite that he undoubtedly was during his two years in Scotland.

And elsewhere prolific Dutch forward Kevin Bruijsten may have been one of the players the club would have liked to have retained, but he has moved on to pastures new also.

The departures are not just limited to the expected imports. Young Brit prospects Craig Moore and Josh Grieveson have also departed Tayside, moving to Cardiff and Braehead respectively.

Equally, losing Felix-Antoine Poulin, arguably one of the better offensive defenceman in the league last season, means Dundee’s rebuild will be extensive with very few players returning from the previous campaign. That’s not unusual by EIHL standards, but it does not make preparations straight forward.

Recruitment

Everything seemed to be going well as import after import began to be announced. Dundee’s recruitment process was ahead of schedule, but the unusual coaching situation muddies the waters.

Dundee raided conference rivals the Edinburgh Capitals to nab Canadian netminder Travis Fullerton – a fan favourite during his ultimately disappointing one-season stay at Murrayfield.

If Fullerton is afforded the protection he seldom saw during a season in Edinburgh characterised by defensive vulnerability, he will not only prove capable of winning games single-handedly but he may even prove to be an upgrade on last year’s import Joe Fallon.

Pacha will at least have some familiarity to work with after Welsh forward Adam Harding and ex Edinburgh Capital forward Taylor Dickin both swapped Manchester for Dundee.

The club also managed to snag a pair of Swedish forwards in Johan Andersson and Jimmy Jensen from Ligue Magnus side Dijon.

Canadian forwards Malcolm Gould and Gabriel Levesque have also swapped France for Scotland arriving from Strasbourg and Division One side Anglet respectively.

Jordan Cownie’s homecoming from Milton Keynes Lightning, along with the re-signings of Craig Holland, Cameron McGiffin, Kris Inglis and Ben Edmonds compliment a young Brit corps.

Defensively the club will lean heavily on archetypal shut-down defenceman Anthony Mastrodicasa signed from ECHL side Rapid City Rush, while Riley Stadel and Emerson Hrynyk are both intriguing prospects as imports – the latter arriving straight out of Mount Royal University.

The only confirmed returning import is Canadian defenceman Joey de Concilys, who committed before Pacha was appointed, having originally arrived from Strasbourg in 2016.

In total, 14 players, both Brits and imports, had put pen to paper before LeFebvre departed Dundee Ice Arena. Pacha has only signed half a dozen of his own choosing, though there is no telling whether they were targets identified by his predecessor or not.

But that did not phase them in game one of the new season as the Stars entered competitive hockey without any pre-season exhibition games behind them.

A stunning shootout win over the Belfast Giants in the Challenge Cup on the opening weekend was the perfect start, but since then a disappointing 4th place finish in the inaugural Scottish Elite Cup earlier this month means Dundee remain a work in progress.

 

Image courtesy of Edinburgh Capitals

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