Elite Ice Hockey League: Gardiner Conference Preview – Edinburgh Capitals

The Student Sport’s Prediction: 2nd in the Gardiner Conference

Key additions: Mike Cazzola, C; Konstantin Teslyukevich, D; Sergei Banashkov, FW; Marek Tvrdon, LW/RW

Key departures: Ian Schultz, RW; Travis Fullerton, G; Jacob Johnston, D; Jared Staal, RW

It is another season and another fresh start for the Edinburgh Capitals as they embark on the 2017/18 campaign seeking to end their play-off drought which currently stands at four years.

Only once in the last seven years have the Murrayfield men made the post-season, a period in which they have become more accustomed to propping up the rest of the league having finished rock bottom in three of the last four seasons.

Yet despite all of those less than flattering statistics, things are beginning to look up. Whisper it quietly, but there is a sense of optimism emanating out of the Capitals this season of the kind that perhaps was not even evident a year ago.

A notable strategy shift has been warmly welcomed with Edinburgh casting aside the player/coach model in favour of a bench coach for the first time since Brad Gratton’s short and ill-fated spell in charge in 2010.

And, in Dmitri Khristich, the Capitals have pulled off something of a coup to land the Ukrainian former NHL all-star as their head coach, a man whose pedigree is arguably the most distinguished out of anyone in the entire EIHL era.

By grabbing Khristich, the Capitals’ third coach in as many years, Scott Neil is making quite the statement. Not only did he recognise that something had to give after several barren years, he felt that an out and out head coach gives his side the best possible chance of success moving forward.

Granted there are no guarantees that this experiment, or ‘Russian Revolution’ as it has been dubbed, will work, but Edinburgh are surely entering a season in the best shape they have been in in recent memory.

A comprehensive scouting network of the kind we have scarcely seen from the club in the Elite League era has recruited a combination of experienced Europeans, promising North American imports and British players, and they look to have built a strong looking roster.

Now the proof will be in the pudding and no one connected with the club will underestimate the challenges ahead of them. Ultimately the Capitals will be judged, as all 12 sides will be, by the on-ice product and not by the moves made in the off-season.

Indeed in a league that improves year on year and with two new teams, Milton Keynes Lightning and Guildford Flames expanding the number of sides to 12, statistically it will be the hardest season in years.

Only eight sides will make the post-season, the same total as last season, with Edinburgh charged with putting out a competitive product in a league environment in which the standard of professionalism increases with every season.

You can be sure that learning the lessons of last season will be top of the agenda, at least for those with the ability to recollect a campaign that promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver the primary objective – making the play-offs.

Three returning imports complement the new arrivals as Edinburgh seek to improve on their 10th placed finish last term.

Star 35-year-old forward Pavel Vorobyev gave everyone a lift when he agreed to return to the Scottish capital for a second season, having shown his class night in and night out in 2016/17 on route to 50 points in 50 league games.

He promises to spearhead a rejuvenated forward corps and time will tell whether Khristich pairs Vorobyev with star recruit Mike Cazzola, a combination that would surely be prolific in front of goal, or if he decides to put Vorobyev alongside the likes of compatriots Alexander Islamov and Sergei Banashkov.

Elsewhere, Canadian Michael D’Orazio, who dons the ‘C’ this season, returns with the aim of tightening up a leaky Edinburgh rearguard and seeks to thrive in Khristich’s defensive unit alongside fellow returnee Rihards Grigors who does not yet know whether he will be solely deployed as injury cover or not.

The key to determining the destiny of Edinburgh’s campaign will rest on three principle things that are crucial every year owing to the high levels of turnover within the squad.

Making Murrayfield a fortress is crucial and exploiting the biggest sheet of ice in the league has to be a target. It goes without saying that long road trips out of the conference rarely yield much in the way of points so maximising their return at home will be vital for the Caps.

Indeed, that is intimately tied to conference form. Though each of the three conferences look incredibly tight with this year shaping up to the most competitive season we have ever seen, Edinburgh have to do better in games against Gardiner rivals than they mustered last term.

With Braehead Clan undergoing major restorative work under new coach John Tripp, and Dundee sporting a young roster with a coach in Omar Pacha that was whisked into Dundee Ice Arena as late as July, Edinburgh should fancy their chances of, at the very least, competing for the conference crown.

Now small steps and avoiding making predictions would be wise. With the league in flux, no one is quite sure what will transpire over the next six months.

While the Capitals will obviously be targeting progression on the ice and making up for last year’s disappointments, there is a sense of futility about making predictions so early on.

In fact it will take four to six weeks before we can really begin to make our impressions known about this Edinburgh team and their prospects for the season, particularly once we know how they appear to have gelled.

But recruitment has been strong with the acquisitions of players who, if they and the coach can navigate the language barrier, should prove to be astute signings with the ability to make an impact in this league.

So if Braehead remain clear favourites for the conference, then Edinburgh should have what it takes to push them all the way in an attempt to halt the Clan’s Gardiner domination of recent years.

Recruitment

The Capitals’ recruitment has seen the club predominantly shift away from the North American heavy imports of recent seasons and towards Russia and other areas of Europe in a similar mould to the Richard Hartmann years.

Leaning heavily on the expertise of former NHLers Darius Kasparaitis and Andrei Nikolishin as North American and European scouts respectively, Edinburgh have recruited experience and versatility this off-season.

Replacing fan favourite Travis Fullerton in net is 24-year-old Russian Pavel Shegalo who swapped Belarus for Scotland. Priority number one will be giving Shegalo more protection than his predecessor was afforded last term.

In defence, Konstantin Teslyukevich touched down from Kazakhstan while Denis Trakhanov, another Russian who experienced his best scoring season in Poland in 2016/17, adds a two-way presence to the back-end.

If Trakhanov can prove to be even close to outgoing captain Jacob Johnston in terms of his production in front of goal, Edinburgh will be sitting pretty offensively on the blue line.

And up top, the Capitals have gone down the versatility route when it comes to identifying and snagging forward recruits.

The arrival of 31-year-old Kazakh-Russian Sergei Banashkov alongside the return of Callum Boyd from Braehead Clan provides the Caps with two players comfortable playing anywhere across the front three.

Down the middle and, at the second time of asking, the club got their man in Mike Cazzola having failed in an attempt to bring him to Murrayfield a year ago.

That was probably a good thing in retrospect as Cazzola walks into the building fresh off a stunning 76-point ECHL rookie year with Fort Wayne Komets. Good things will be expected from the 5ft7 centre.

Moreover Canadian Taylor Stefishen, the brother of popular former Cap Adam Stefishen, is at home on either wing just like former Detroit Red Wings prospect Marek Tvrdon.

Stefishen put up 35 points in 44 games with Ligue Magnus side Dijon last season, similar numbers to Jared Staal, so he figures to be a key part of Khristich’s plans.

And if he can make even half the impact his brother made about a decade ago, he will surely be a fan favourite.

Elsewhere, Dylan Anderson continues the club’s penchant for poaching players directly out of North American colleges, arriving straight from Queen’s University, while Juris Upitis, a Latvian winger who can play centre, moves to the Scottish capital with glowing references from compatriot Rihards Grigors.

Alexander Islamov’s move to Edinburgh gives Khristich plenty of experience at centre, with the 30-year-old listing KHL side HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk among his former clubs.

Meanwhile, the Capitals have not stumped for an out and out enforcer type, a position that is in decline in most leagues, bringing in 36-year-old Igor Valeyev who will be expected to do more than simply bring physicality.

Indeed, on a budget constrained team like the Caps, it is not advantageous to carry an enforcer type who will not also contribute points. Perhaps, in Valeyev, they have found the perfect hybrid in the same mould as the departed Ian Schultz.

It was not just all about the import additions though, not so for a club with an ethos focusing on developing local talent as they wasted little time in strengthening their Brit pack.

The return of Boyd complemented the re-signings of Harry Ferguson, Jordan McLaughlin, Tyler Plews and Jay King, as well as the additions of forward Duncan Speirs and the Robertson brothers, Aaron and Caly.

One could argue that the Brit corps are stronger this time around than they were twelve months ago, despite the departures of both Jordan Marr and Sean Beattie across the Forth to the Fife Flyers.

And, as the Brits – and most notably Caly Robertson showed – against the University of Manitoba in pre-season, they are more than capable of logging minutes should they be called upon by coach Khristich.

The new Brit U23 rule introduced for this season means the coach has plenty of options over who he includes on matchdays, with the Capitals now having enough to run an additional (fourth) line rather than their customary three.

Time will tell, but the early signs are certainly encouraging for all those connected with the club. The Caps are unlikely to have enough to win the conference outright in year one of the Khristich era, though they have enough to suggest they will come close.

 

Image courtesy of Edinburgh Capitals

 

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