TULSA, OK– The Idaho Steelheads have enjoyed a successful start to the 2017-18 campaign, currently sitting second in the ECHL’s Mountain Division behind only the defending Kelly Cup Champion Colorado Eagles. Success is nothing new to Idaho, as they have had but one losing season since 2000 and still made the playoffs that year (2011-12, 31-32-2-7).
A beneficial affiliation is a major part of success in minor league sports and Idaho has developed such a relationship with the Dallas Stars and their AHL counterpart, the Texas Stars. The teams have been affiliated since the Texas Stars joined the AHL before the 2009-10 season. With the Steelheads playing in Oklahoma over the weekend, I went to Tulsa to take a look at some of the younger players in the Stars’ system.
The Steelheads were very impressive to watch in person, winning a pair of competitive games against the Tulsa Oilers. Idaho received contributions from throughout the lineup but the play of three Stars’ prospects, in particular, stood out to me, Philippe Desrosiers, Cole Ully, and Eric Sweetman.
Desrosiers, a second-round pick by Dallas in 2013, started both games between the pipes for Idaho. He was consistent all weekend, stopping 51 of 56 Tulsa shots in route to a pair of W’s. The 22-year-old from St. Hyacinthe, Quebec did allow a few goals, but more importantly, he made the key stops when called upon to guide the squad from Boise to a four-point weekend.
He started off with a steady performance on Friday, stopping 26 of 28 and blanking the Oilers in the third period to allow Idaho to snap a 2-2 tie and win 4-2. His best weapon all weekend was his quick legs, as multiple times I thought a puck was behind him only for his cat-like reflexes to obstruct it at the last moment. His play provided the foundation on which the Steelheads would build on Saturday as well, making 35 saves on 38 Oiler offerings.
His most impressive moment of the weekend came in the third period Saturday when he was faced with an avalanche of Oiler momentum as they tried to rally from a three-goal deficit. Idaho had been ahead 4-1 after two, led by 25 saves from Desrosiers, but now Tulsa was swarming and had already scored twice in 1:59 to make it 4-3. Just 90 seconds later Tulsa’s Charlie Sampair came streaking in all alone, he fired five-hole, but Desrosiers slammed the door shut on the Oiler momentum. Tulsa would muster just one more shot over the final eight minutes as Idaho held on for the win.
I spoke with Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham after the game Saturday, and I asked him about Desrosiers’ timely save.
“A lot of it is timing and making the key save at right time, which gives you chance to win every night.” Graham said. “He’s been very consistent and when you feel that consistency in the locker room, you know you’re going to have a chance each night and you play that much better in front of him. So that breakaway save when the game was 4-3 for us, that is as timely of a save as it gets, and obviously, that was a big help in getting the two points.”
Desrosiers has made major strides in his development this season and is having a career year with his record sitting at 17-4-2-1 after the two wins over Tulsa.
“I think he’s matured on a personal level,” Graham began. “He’s had an unbelievable attitude and an unbelievable work ethic since day one of this season, and I think that’s reflected in his results. So it’s fun when you’re winning and it makes it that much easier to, you know, show up early, put in the work, he’s done a great job of that.”
The play of Cole Ully also stood out to me, in particular, Ully impressed with his work ethic and willingness to put his body on the line. The 22-year-old from Calgary has a real knack for knowing where to be and has no qualms about taking one for the team by blocking shots. His effort and energy provided a spark for the Steelheads all weekend long, and then to top it off, he added a three-assist effort to his resumé on Saturday. His best assist came during a 2-on-1 when he patiently waited, drawing the defender and goalie towards himself before quickly sliding the puck to Justin Parizek who found the yawning twine.
“I think Ulls has been terrific,” Coach stated. “Immediately well liked in the locker room, he’s a funny kid and he’s really gelled well with this group, and you can tell he’s enjoying it. So, that goes a long way and you can see that in his play on the ice,”
“We’ve had multiple clips of him, you know, The first guy in the backcheck, putting in the work on the defensive side, then that’s been reflected in him being awarded on the offensive side as well. So, when you see a “skilled guy” putting in that kind of work defensively, and then obviously finishing his chances the other way, it’s contagious and you know guys are invested.”
While Desrosiers and Ully have each played in the AHL and are names known to Stars fans, the final player that stood out is one that Stars fans will come to know soon. Eric Sweetman is a 23-year-old rookie from St. Lawrence University and has been very impressive in his first pro season. Sweetman has eleven points from the blueline (1G, 10A) and is a stingy plus-12 on the campaign. He punches above his weight physically, as the 5’11, 175-pound defenseman is possibly the hardest checker on the squad. His physicality combined with great puck handling skills and a brain for the game makes “Sweets” a player to watch for Stars fans.
“Yeah, he’s been great and it’s fun watching Sweets, because you can see different levels of his game throughout the first ten games to the next ten games,” Graham said. “He’s really taken some steps here over the last month I’d say, and a lot of it as a first-year pro is confidence, and you can see him growing in confidence. You see him taking more risk, but knowing when to take it, and when maybe to get a puck in deep or have a tighter recovery route. Now that he’s making those decisions second nature, good things have been happening for him. So he needs to stay with it, needs to keep working, and the good things will continue to come for Eric Sweetman.”
The Steelheads now have a few days off before returning to action Wednesday with a big game in Colorado against the division-leading Eagles. Idaho was eliminated from postseason play by Colorado last season, and are currently eight points behind the Eagles in the Mountain Division. I wrapped up my conversation with Coach Graham by asking him about the matchup.
“Yeah, it’s definitely circled on our calendar, they eliminated us in (the) playoffs last year,” Graham said. “I know our older players, you know, the rivalry is there and our new players have inherited that rivalry. So I know our guys are excited, but it’s important to take some here rest for a couple days, make sure we get some good practice in, then we’ll be ready to go when we see them.”
Face-off for Wednesday’s battle in Loveland, CO is scheduled for 7:05 MST. You can keep up with the Steelheads all season by following @SinBinIdaho on Twitter, and as always you can follow @SinBinStars for all your Texas Stars needs.