On paper, last season was a bit of a disappointment for the Idaho Steelheads. Boise’s minor-league hockey team was eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year, the first time that’s happened since joining the ECHL in 2003.
Upon closer inspection, Idaho probably deserved better than a one-and-done playoff run.
The Steelheads pushed defending Kelly Cup champion Allen to its limit, losing a Game 7 overtime thriller in Texas. The Americans went on to repeat, winning their next three series with relative ease.
A new season begins Friday and Saturday against the Utah Grizzlies, with the Steelheads eyeing a return to championship contention under second-year head coach Neil Graham. The Steelheads play their first home games Oct. 21-22, also against Utah.
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“We did a lot of good things last year,” Graham said. “It was a hard-fought battle with Allen, and we were disappointed, but it gave our guys a taste of what it takes to win it all. Our returning players are extremely hungry, and I like our mix of new players as well.”
As the season begins, Idaho has nine players with previous experience in Boise, including four high-scoring forwards from last season.
Rob Linsmayer, who has played parts of four seasons in Idaho, led all Steelheads players with 57 points in 70 games. Jefferson Dahl, entering his third season in Boise, scored a team-high 22 goals before missing the playoffs with an injury. And in-season arrivals Kyle Jean (42 points in 52 games) and Joe Basaraba (32 points in 47 games) provided a huge spark. Basaraba tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with seven points.
“It says a lot about the program here that guys want to come back and play in Boise,” Linsmayer said. “With the chemistry of our core group, I feel like we have a head start on a lot of teams.”
On the blue line, defensive stalwart Corbin Baldwin, hard-hitting enforcer Zach Bell and smooth-skating Charlie Dodero — who played in Boise two seasons ago — give Graham a reliable trio to build around. The team also has three goalies on its opening-night roster: Idaho veterans Branden Komm and Henri Kiviaho, and newcomer Landon Bow.
“We recruited based on our structure, and we brought in a lot of good hockey players,” Graham said. “We have skill, size, speed and a lot of high-character guys, which is a good recipe for success.”
The 2016-17 ECHL season will have a slightly different feel after realignment and a new playoff format. Idaho plays in the Western Conference’s seven-team Mountain Division with the Colorado Eagles, Utah Grizzlies, Rapid City Rush, Alaska Aces, Allen Americans and Missouri Mavericks.
The top four teams from each of the league’s four divisions (two in each conference) will qualify for the playoffs, with the first two rounds featuring divisional matchups. The Steelheads will play 53 of their 72 regular-season games — plus two potential playoff rounds — against divisional rivals, starting with four straight versus Utah.
“When you play divisional opponents, the excitement and intensity builds as the year goes on,” Linsmayer said. “There’s a lot at stake, and so it’s always heated, but always fun, too.”
Steelheads’ opening weekend
Idaho opens regular-season play on the road, facing the rival Utah Grizzlies on Friday and Saturday nights. Each game starts at 7.
Both games are broadcast on KTIK — 93.1 FM on Friday and 1350 AM on Saturday.
The Steelheads play their first home series Oct. 21 and 22, hosting Utah at CenturyLink Arena. Home games begin at 7:10 p.m. Tickets are available at the CenturyLink Arena box office or idahosteelheads.com.
Steelheads’ opening-day roster
- Forwards: David Glen, Anthony Luciani, Travis Ewanyk, Joe Basaraba, Kellan Lain, Jefferson Dahl, Rob Linsmayer, Will Merchant, Brian Nugent, Caleb Herbert, Connor Chatham, Kyle Jean
- Defense: Joe Faust, Corbin Baldwin, Zach Bell, Travis Walsh, Brandon Anselmini, Kyle Bigos, Charlie Dodero.
- Goaltenders: Branden Komm, Henri Kiviaho, Landon Bow