Image: The Boar / Luke James
Image: The Boar / Luke James

EIHL: Coventry Blaze have taken a different approach, Stewart should be praised for it

The Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) returns next month, with the Coventry Blaze, Nottingham Panthers, Manchester Storm, and Sheffield Steelers taking to the ice in the Elite Series.

The Elite Series, a five-week mini-season designed to prepare Team GB for the IIHF World Championships, ends the 12-month wait for the return of top-flight hockey in the United Kingdom. Last week, the four participating teams took part in the EIHL’s inaugural draft – a radically different system to the approach usually taken in European hockey.

The Sheffield Steelers stole the show by protecting NHL draftee Liam Kirk, the news of his signing came as a shock.

The Nottingham Panthers and Manchester Storm combined to create the second most significant headline; trading picks that eventually saw Team GB goalie Ben Bowns join the Panthers.

By contrast, Danny Stewart’s Coventry Blaze crept under the radar. But that’s why I’m so impressed.

Coventry selected seasoned-pros Mike Hammond and Paul Swindlehurst in rounds one and two

Coventry began Monday by protecting Jordan Hedley, David Clements, Alex Forbes, Ross Venus, and Luke Ferrara. Ferrara’s participation is the only unknown factor, he can only play for the Blaze once his season in Poland comes to an end.

With five players on the roster, Stewart added a further ten through the Draft. In rounds one and two, Coventry selected seasoned-pros Mike Hammond, 31, and Paul Swindlehurst, 27.

Hammond, who is currently playing in Denmark, is a talented centreman with ECHL and DEL2 experience. In the words of Todd Kelman, the 31-year-old is a “good pick up.”

Swindlehurst, a talented left-handed defenceman, joins Coventry from the Belfast Giants, where he made 47 appearances last term. The former Sydney Ice Dog is a D-first defenceman who will give the Blaze solidity on the blue line. In other words, Swindlehurst is exactly what Coventry need.

Then came Stewart’s final eight picks:

  • Cole Shudra, 22-year-old two-way player, 160 EIHL appearances
  • Sam Duggan, 22-year-old centre/right-wing, 96 EIHL appearances
  • Mac Howlett, 21-year-old centre, 103 EIHL appearances
  • Toms Rutkis, 23-year-old left-wing/centre, 73 EIHL appearances
  • Ivan Antonov, 23-year-old right-wing, 0 EIHL appearances
  • Sam Russell, 20-year-old defenceman, 0 EIHL appearances
  • Will Bray, 17-year-old goalie, 0 EIHL appearances
  • Austin Mitchell-King, 19-year-old forward, 0 EIHL appearances

Before the arrival of Coventry’s eight imports, the Blaze’s roster is considerably less experienced than those in Sheffield, Nottingham, and Manchester.

  • Coventry Blaze: 1114 Games, 132 Goals, 220 Assists, 352 Points
  • Manchester Storm: 2864 Games, 525 Goals, 780 Assists, 1305 Points
  • Sheffield Steelers: 1977 Games, 325 Goals, 542 Assists, 867 Points
  • Nottingham Panthers: 1902 Games, 127 Goals, 303 Assists, 430 Points

In the Elite League’s post-Draft show, Dundee Stars head coach Omar Pacha called Ivan Antonov “an unbelievable pick” after Stewart selected him 27th overall.

Pacha said: “I think that’s one that all the coaches will be looking at because he was dominating that lower league for a while… he’s been producing and having a lot of success.”

Essentially, the Coventry Blaze were willing to roll the dice on unproven talent when other teams were not. The average of players on Coventry’s roster is 22.62, which compares to 24.4 (Nottingham), 27.07 (Manchester), and 27.86 (Sheffield).

Coventry’s young guns are the unproven quantity at this stage

With imports still to arrive, Coventry have a solid base to build from and plenty of space to grow.

The format of the Elite Series could also play into Stewart’s hands. After 12 regular season matches, the Blaze, Storm, Panthers, and Steelers will contest two-legged semi-finals. The victors will then progress to a best-of-three final.

The Elite League has created an exciting format where teams will be required to play roughly three times per week through April. Coventry’s young guns are the unproven quantity at this stage – but their energy will prove vital through the stretch.

Nice pick-ups, Coventry Blaze.

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