BOISE — The Idaho Steelheads’ championship aspirations came up two rounds short this season, with a loss to Tulsa in the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
But given the chance to bring a number of guys back from this year’s roster back for the 2019-20 season, the team believes it can make a run for the Kelly Cup again next season.
“It was such a good group, we’d like to bring a big chunk of this group back,” said Idaho coach Neil Graham. “Hopefully that gives us a foundation to build around. But we’ll have to assess here as we go through the process. We’re always looking for ways to improve. But there wasn’t a guy in this room that wasn’t the character we seek. The work ethic was there and we’d love to have this core back. But it’s a developmental league, guys are going to get AHL offers, guys are going to get high-end European offers, and we’ll be proud of those guys when they get those looks.”
Idaho saw its season come to a close with a 3-1 loss to the Oilers in Game 6 of the Mountain Division Finals on Sunday. Idaho had dropped the first three games of the series, but rallied back to win Games 4 and 5.
All four of Idaho’s losses came in close games. In addition to their 1-0 loss in Game 3, Idaho’s other three losses in the series were one-goal games until the Oilers scored empty net goals late in the third period.
“It was not the way any of us planned on going out, but that’s sports,” said alternate captain Mitch Moroz. “I felt like we played our best hockey down the stretch, myself included. It was a big growth for me coming off of tough injuries. It’s one of my favorite teams I’ve been a part of and it’s going to be a long summer thinking about what could have been.”
The Steelheads met for exit interviews on Wednesday, after flying back from Tulsa on Tuesday. The players left CenturyLink Arena not knowing who would be back next year, as ECHL players typically play on one-year contracts. But many of them expressed interest in returning next year given the chance.
“I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else,” said Moroz. “Even if you do get up in the American League, I know I can play in less minutes in a smaller role up there. The culture in place here, there’s nothing quite like it. If I’m in North America, I probably want to be here.”
Players who said they’d like to come back were hopeful that if players see others from this year’s team back for next year, others will follow suit.
“I know the guys that do want to return always try to do a little extra recruiting on guys that are iffy on what their doing next year,” said captain A.J. White, who was also firm in his desire to come back. “We’re definitely going to be doing that this year and hopefully we have a good group of guys coming back.”
ECHL rules limit teams to just four veteran players, excluding goaltenders, on their squad, with the league defining a veteran player as a position player 24 years or older who has played in at least 260 regular season games as a professional as of opening day. Players on NHL or AHL contracts who are assigned to the ECHL don’t count against the limit.
The Steelheads have three players signed at the end of the year who would count as veterans next season — Charlie Dodero, Reid Petryk and Henrik Samuelsson. Kale Kessy would have also counted as a veteran, but he signed a contract with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles towards the end of the regular season before being assigned to Idaho for the playoffs.
In other words, it is very possible that the Steelheads could see a lot of familiar faces back in the locker room next season.
“We’ll have to see how it sorts out, but there’s not a guy in there I wouldn’t take back with open arms,” said Graham. “Right now it’s a little fresh with the loss. But we can hold our heads high knowing we played well right up until the final game. The only thing we’d change is that we didn’t score more goals than the opposition.”