After little over a month into the start of the UK ice hockey season, it is still too early to tell whether the Cardiff Devils’ erratic start will undermine their chances of silverware.
A mix of Elite League and Challenge Cup competitions has thrown up a mishmash of performances and results that essentially leaves the team with eight wins and four defeats through their first 12 games of the domestic season.
Do they look the same formidable outfit that went toe-to-toe with the very best in the league before the pandemic outbreak? No, but nor do they look like a team who are missing too many key pieces to be challenging come the business end of the season.
The team’s owners and management have a confident track record of getting it right when it comes to recruitment and identifying talent, but forced into a summer rebuild, far bigger and more restrictive than anything they’ve had to previously muster, even their capabilities will have been stretched to the limits this time around.
The effect of such a heavy duty rebuilding process that saw no less than 15 new players brought in to work under new head coach Jarrod Skalde meant that a period of adjustment and transition was always going to be necessary if the team were to return to their previous heights.
— Premier Sports Elite League | #EIHL (@officialEIHL) October 30, 2021
Results this weekend served as a clear reminder that as a new team, the Devils are still feeling their way on that transitional pathway.
Boosted by a positive midweek Challenge Cup win over the Guildford Flames, Saturday’s test against the Nottingham Panthers at Ice Arena Wales was one that they failed miserably.
The Devils never looked like getting the better of Kevin Carr in the Nottingham net in a scoreless opening two periods, before exposing their own goaltender, Mac Carruth, as the Panthers fired in three of their own without reply as the Devils’ game unravelled completely in the final period.
Carruth smashing his blocker stick into pieces against his goal in sheer frustration with his teammates performance summed up a meek display in which the Devils looked alarmingly short of intensity, composure and ideas in their attacks and on the power play, whilst at the other end of the ice, unnecessary individual errors were punished.
The harsh reality of the Covid-era has meant the Devils have had little choice but to move on from the possession-retaining board work of the likes of Joey Haddad and Matthew Myers, the smooth-skating ability of Gleason Fournier to effortlessly carry the puck up from defence to offence, and the vision and technical ability of Joey Martin to spot a pass or slip past his man. Those days are part of Cardiff Devils history and this is a different Devils team – but at no other point of the season so far, has the absence of those players looked so sorely missed as on Saturday night.
It was the lowest point of the season to date and Skalde felt as much: “We have to learn from this, our work ethic has to get higher, we’ve got to compete a little bit more otherwise we’ll get outworked.
“You can just throw your stick out and out-skill teams in this league, it’s a competitive league and we have to compete with the teams we’re playing against.”
Perhaps there were some frank words exchanged and a collective admission of the team’s failings within the group after the game as the Devils delivered a strong bounce back performance in Coventry on Sunday.
The Devils raced into a 4-0 lead in the first period as they romped to a 5-2 win over the Blaze in the Cup. Cole Sanford rediscovered his scoring touch with two goals while there were multi-point games for Stephen Dixon, Justin Crandall and Ben O’Connor.
It was a welcome reprieve from the night before but with the Devils having already qualified from their Challenge Cup group, it’s difficult to read too much into the result.
The challenge moving forward is for Skalde to iron out the current deficiencies within the team and coach his players into finding more consistency and to play with more nuance at both ends of the ice. If all else fails, the team could even consider replacing current players mid-season, something the organisation typically has refrained from doing.
Regardless, time remains on the Devils side and it was inevitable there would at least be some bumps along the way. I still wouldn’t bet against them not getting it right.
Featured image courtesy of James Assinder