|Idaho Steelheads head coach Derek Laxdal knows there will be a bullseye on his team all season.
Now that he has devoured that delicious taste, he wants to experience it again. This time, though, he’s fully aware things are going to be different.
With teams across the ECHL set to open training camp this weekend, the reigning-champion Idaho Steelheads can no longer play the underdog card. They will be the hunted rather than the hunter. And, once again, the left side of North America looks to host several talented squads in the ECHL this season. The road to glory may be even bumpier than last season.
“We achieved the ultimate goal last year with winning the championship,” Laxdal said. “The biggest thing that excites me is we have to face it a little bit differently. We have to go and defend it and try to win it again. Obviously, everybody’s going to be shooting for you. You look at the success the Alaska Aces have had over the last four years with Davis Payne in there … it’s great for the ECHL to have so much success on this Western side. We’re proud of the teams out here. I think it’s almost become about bragging rights between the East and West right now. It’s kind of a neat, little rivalry. The Western teams have been a great addition to the ECHL.”
With so many terrific teams out west, Laxdal has the difficult task of assembling a squad that can continue to keep pace. Steve Silverthorn is gone, as the top-notch goaltender has earned a well-deserved promotion to the American Hockey League with the Iowa Stars. Left wing John Lammers, who had 19 points in 22 postseason contests, is also expected to return to Iowa, where he appeared in 52 games last season. Right wing B.J. Crombeen, who also helped Idaho win the Kelly Cup after arriving late in the season from Finland, has made the jump too.
Because of the tremendous turnover on his roster, Laxdal is prepared to open the 2007-08 campaign with as many as 10 rookies. While some would shudder at such a scenario, Laxdal thrives on developing young players and helping them move up to the next level. He’s excited about the inexperienced group coming in, but realizes his team could be a work in progress.
“The biggest challenge (this summer) was losing some key components of our hockey club,” Laxdal said. “We lost Lars Helminen to Finland. He’s a great young player. We lost Tuomas Mikkonen to Finland, too. Guys like that are hard to replace, but you have to move on. Obviously, we’ve lost some of our affiliated players, too – John Lammers, B.J. Crombeen – those guys are going to be solid players in Iowa. But then you get the next crop and you go about your business and try to rebuild. We’ve got a bunch of solid, young players coming in that have to fill the spots.”
Unquestionably, the biggest hole the Steelheads have to fill is between the pipes, where Silverthorn thrived last season. After winning 36 games during the regular season, Silverthorn went 16-6 in the Kelly Cup playoffs. He posted a 1.77 GAA over 22 postseason games with a .931 save percentage and three shutouts to earn MVP honors.
With Silverthorn in the AHL, the Steelheads signed rookie netminder Kellen Briggs, who won 84 games over a solid four-year career at the University of Minnesota. The 24-year-old went 17-7-2 with a 2.13 GAA with the Golden Gophers last season.
Briggs will compete with John Daigneau for the starting job in training camp. Daigneau went 5-6-0 with a 3.02 GAA in 17 appearances as Silverthorn’s backup last season.
“Kellen had a pretty good camp in Iowa,” Laxdal said of Briggs, who was not drafted. “(But) they both have a shot at being the No. 1. It’s almost like a 1A and 1B, or whatever you want to call it. It’s a chance for Kellen to get his feet wet in the pro game. John had a good year last year, even though he didn’t play a lot. It’s his time to shine. We’re pretty comfortable right now.”
Laxdal is also comfortable with the job he performed in helping Silverthorn get to the AHL. He’s confident that the 26-year-old is going to make a name for himself in the Dallas Stars’ organization. After all, Silverthorn has spent the better part of his career making the most of the opportunities presented to him.
“Anytime your goaltender signs a deal in the AHL, it’s tough to replace,” Laxdal said. “Steve has worked for everything he’s got. He worked for his college scholarship. He worked for his first American League deal. He worked for his one-way deal this year. I know he’s going to succeed up there. He understands he has to work for whatever he gets in life. He’s a great character kid. I think he’s really opened some ice in the Dallas organization. I think it’s a matter of time before he wins consistently at the American League level.”
New coach in Dayton -- The Dayton Bombers have hired Bill McDonald as their new head coach, it was announced Wednesday.
McDonald replaces team owner Don MacAdam, who will retain the general manager duties. McDonald spent the past two years as the head coach and director of hockey operations for the Austin Ice Bats in the Central Hockey League. He was an assistant coach under Ken Hitchcock for the Dallas Stars during the 1999-2000 season.
“It’s important to build on the success of last year,” MacAdam said in a statement. “Our ability to bring Bill in will go a long way to reach that goal.”
Around the ECHL -- The Alaska Aces have extended their affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues and the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen. … The Texas Wildcatters signed forward Paul Caponigri, who played in the ECHL (San Diego, Atlantic City, Johnstown, Idaho) from 2004-06. The 28-year-old spent last season in the United Hockey League and had 12 points in 19 playoff games for Kalamazoo. … Ryan Mougenel is returning as the assistant coach of the Fresno Falcons for a third season. … The Stanley Cup will be at the Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown on Oct. 18, when the Chiefs open their season against the Wheeling Nailers. … The ECHL will honor an on-ice official for his contributions and dedication to the league officiating staff with the Ryan Birmingham Memorial Award, named in honor of ECHL linesman Ryan Birmingham, who tragically lost his life in an automobile accident in May. … The Phoenix Roadrunners signed rookie center Peder Skinner, who had 70 points in 60 games for Kingston (OHL) last season. … The Columbia Inferno signed rookie forward Tyler Doig. … The Stockton Thunder signed center Chris St. Jacques. … Goaltender Davis Parley re-signed with the South Carolina Stingrays. … The Las Vegas Wranglers re-signed Mike McKenna, a two-time All-Star, and rookie forward Josh Sciba. … The Utah Grizzlies re-signed captain Travis Rycroft and forward Scott Burt. … Center Lee Falardeau signed a new deal with the Charlotte Checkers. Falardeau split time between Charlotte and AHL Hartford last season.