SYLVAIN Cloutier admits Braehead Clan are rightly considered favourites to win the Gardiner Conference this season - but believes his Hull Stingrays team are capable of springing a surprise.
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The Stingrays, now operating under new owner Bobby McEwan following a protracted takeover procedure in the summer, begin their season on Saturday night with a Challenge Cup tie at home against Nottingham Panthers (6.30pm).
Again, the Challenge Cup will come a poor second for most teams this year, particularly given the significant changes made to the structure of the Elite League during the close season.
Owners decided to introduce a two-conference format, which placed Hull in with four Scottish teams in the Gardiner, or ‘northern’ conference.
Braehead, part-backed by Panthers’ owner Neil Black, are considered by many people to be favourites not only for the conference title, but the overall regular season trophy.
On paper, they certainly look to possess the strongest roster – adding further quality while retaining the baulk of last year’s team – but Cloutier knows how difficult it is to transform that promise onto the ice and, along with Dundee Stars, Edinburgh Capitals and Fife Flyers, will be pulling out all the stops to ensure it is not plain sailing for their Glasgow-based rivals.
“Obviously, when you look at Braehead’s team and the players they’ve signed they’ve got a pretty good team,” said Cloutier.
“And if you look at our team last year then we had a pretty good team on paper. But if you don’t gel it doesn’t go your way and that’s what happened with us, we didn’t gel.
“There were guys in the room that didn’t get along, the kind of stuff people don’t see, and we had to move on from certain players. After that, we gelled but sometimes it takes time.
“You have to say that Braehead do look favourites on paper in our conference. But you never know what will happen. Everyone is saying they are favourites, but we’ll just have to see.”
On the whole, Cloutier believes the conference system can work for the league and, more importantly, for the Stingrays, despite the additional travel they will endure as a result of the new structure which will see them play 16 times in Scotland.
“I think it’s good,” added Cloutier. “For our fans and our team I think it gives us a chance of winning more home games and, if you can stay injury-free and everything else goes well, when you look at the table it might be that instead of seeing us seventh or eighth all season like people are used to seeing us, we could find ourselves second and up the other end.
“That’s the kind of thing that could make a difference with people coming to watch us in Hull.”
Given how last season finished for the Stingrays - reaching the Final Four Weekend in Nottingham, Cloutier is keen for Hull to make it a regular occurrence, something he feels has also been enhanced given the new conference format.
“We’d love to go back to the play-off finals weekend. I think last year it was a big thing for our players - even the likes of Tendler, Silverthorn and Dulle. They were all there for the first time and I’m sure they’re going to want to go back again.
“If you look at the other conference, they’re going to be taking a lot of points off each other.
“If we can win our series’ in our conference and steal enough points from the other side, maybe we could finish high enough in the standings where we might end up meeting somebody else in our conference, and give ourselves a better chance of making the final four. I’m sure that’s what Dundee, Fife and Edinburgh are also thinking.”
Hull will be without defenceman Shane Lovdahl for tonight’s encounter with the Panthers, with visa issues meaning the 28-year-old has been delayed.
Fellow American Dominic Osman, one of Hull’s leading goalscorers last season, will play after arriving in the UK on Friday.