THE 2018-19 SEASON may open for Sheffield Steelers tonight with the first of many battles to come against bitter rivals Nottingham Panthers – but head coach Paul Thompson admits it will be a while yet before he knows what his new-look roster is capable of.
A total of 16 new faces have come into Sheffield Arena since April’s play-off final defeat ensured Cardiff Devils could celebrate a double-winning 2017-18 campaign, the Steelers finishing a season without a trophy for the first time in five years.
While Nottingham and most of the Steelers’ other Elite League rivals were playing pre-season games last weekend, Thompson’s players were not, effectively taking the weekend ‘off’ for further practice and conditioning having already played two games against visiting Swedish teams Leksands IF and Timra.
Those four games had left the Steelers nursing some injuries along with the regular bumps and bruises, although Thompson heads down the A52 tonight with a fully-fit roster to choose from as his team takes on the Panthers in the Challenge Cup.
“There are a couple of niggles, but nothing that is going to keep anybody out,” said Thompson.
“I think I’ll know a lot more tomorrow on how we staged it this year with having the four games early then a weekend off to give us time to heal and get over the soreness and everything else that comes with the start of a season and pre-season.
“We’ve been practising with a great pace and a great attitude, but I’m still learning a lot about my team.
“We had a lot of injuries and there were six guys who missed the last two pre-season games. Chris Lawrence hasn’t had a game at all yet, this will be his first game.
“But I’m excited to see what I’ve got.
“I like the look of our roster, I like the way we’re working in practice and the attention to detail that we’ve asked the guys to buy into.”
I like the look of our roster, I like the way we’re working in practice and the attention to detail that we’ve asked the guys to buy into.Paul Thompson
While it remains to be seen whether Thompson has indeed upgraded his roster compared to last season, the former GB and Coventry Blaze head coach believes the league as a whole has taken a further step up in terms of the all-round quality of both the hockey and on-ice personnel.
“I don’t see any team looking any weaker in the whole league, if I’m being honest,” added Thompson, who yesterday retained veteran Jonathan Phillips as his captain, while naming fellow GB international Robert Dowd as an alternate captain, along with experienced newcomers Aaron Johnson and forward Evan McGrath.
“It’s tough to say whether our roster is better than last season’s when we’ve not played a competitive game. But we feel we’ve addressed the areas we needed to and, as a result, have got better team energy and better team speed.
“The league has stepped up again. If you look at the guys Cardiff have brought in to replace the players they have lost, it doesn’t look like they’ve downgraded at all.
“Nottingham look a very strong outfit, again, as do Belfast, with us, the usual four.
“Guildford have got better and stronger and I don’t see why Manchester won’t have another good year.”
A stronger and more highly-regarded Elite League will only attract better players, with Thompson convinced the credibility of the UK’s top-flight both in Europe and North America is crucial to its long-term future.
“The league as a whole has a lot more kudos than it has had previously,” he added.
“It’s about building the credibility of the league as a whole, for all of the teams, that then attracts these kind of players and that is what has happened more and more over the last two-three years.
“For instance, we’ve signed two players straight from the German top-flight DEL – that doesn’t normally happen.
“And we’re also signing young guys from North America who aren’t looking at this simply as a destination league – but they want to come over here, be successful and move on.”