Comment: Time right for ‘coach only’ approach at Capitals

Scott Neil, below, hopes to have his Capitals squad firing on all cylinders for the start of the new Elite League season
Scott Neil, below, hopes to have his Capitals squad firing on all cylinders for the start of the new Elite League season
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AS Edinburgh Capitals search for a new boss following the departure of player-coach Michal Dobron, co-owner Scott Neil has spoken of a “new direction” for the Murrayfield men.

The club, desperate to avoid their third-straight wooden spoon in UK ice hockey’s top flight, is in the market for a non-playing head coach to lead the team ahead of their new Elite League campaign, which gets underway in September.

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Success-starved fans may not have to wait too long to find out the identity of Dobron’s successor, Neil revealing he is hopeful of having his new No.1 in place by the middle of next month.

It is no secret Edinburgh, who will be attempting to qualify for their first play-off appearance in five years. do business on a shoe-string budget which is even dwarfed by new boys Guildford Flames and Milton Keynes Lightning, who join the Elite League this season from the now-defunct English Premier Ice Hockey League. With 12 teams now battling for eight play-off spots, this will surely be Edinburgh’s toughest assignment to date.

With their small budget in mind, Edinburgh have predominately gone with a player-coach – an approach once commonplace in UK ice hockey. However, as the Elite League has developed over recent years, player-coaches have, in the main, been replaced by the conventional non-playing head coach.

And despite the strain it could place on Edinburgh’s recruitment budget, a standalone head coach would surely be the right path for Caps to follow.

Some fans will point out that last season’s stand-out team, Cardiff Devils, were coached to league and Challenge Cup success by Andrew Lord, who also chipped in on the ice with 16 goals plus 18 assists. And they’d remind me that Edinburgh’s most successful campaigns in the Elite League era have always come under a player-coach. Indeed, the last time Edinburgh hired a head coach, Brad Gratton in 2010, the year ended disastrously, with the club close to folding and the majority of the team, including Gratton, leaving halfway through the season.

However, while mistakes were made back then, lessons were definitely learned. Therefore, Edinburgh should not find themselves in a similar situation this time round.

So, what could Edinburgh be looking for in Dobron’s replacement?

One name touted by fans is that of Richard Hartmann, who served as player-coach at Murrayfield between 2011-15. The Slovakian, now 41 years old, was the last man to lead Edinburgh into the play-offs. He still lives in the city, and was rumoured to have been close to a return to the Caps last year. Instead, Hartmann has spent the last two seasons behind the bench as assistant coach to Ryan Finnerty at Braehead Clan, invaluable experience should he become Neil’s next appointment.

Another local option could be fellow Slovakian, and current Caps SNL coach Martin Cingel. A legend amongst supporters, Cingel spent 11 years as a player at Murrayfield but, as Dobron discovered last season, the transition from on-ice fans’ favourite to coach isn’t always an easy one.

When speaking to the Evening News last week, Neil hinted his new coach “could possibly also help drive forward other areas of the club”.

So perhaps Edinburgh are on the look-out for someone in the mould of Doug Christiansen? The articulate American was player-coach at the club for three years between 2007 and 2010 – never failing to make the play-offs – which on reflection was an outstanding achievement.

Christiansen was an excellent recruiter, bringing former ‘NHLers’ such as Colin Hemmingway and Cody Rudkowsky to the club. He was great with the media and sponsors alike, and worked tirelessly to keep his players happy in Edinburgh once they’d arrived. In his final season at Murrayfield, Christiansen even sourced a recording studio for GB international forward Mark Garside to realise his musical ambitions and record an album. When Christiansen left Murrayfield to become head coach at Belfast Giants, Garside was just one of a number of former Caps to follow him.

Possibly the closest thing to a Christiansen available in the British market currently is Hartmann’s former boss at Braehead, Finnerty, who has not had his contract renewed by the ambitious west coast outfit despite winning back-to-back Gardiner Conference titles.

However, many would be surprised if the Canadian would consider a move to Murrayfield. Having spent ten years playing and coaching in Britain, he will be acutely aware of the problems previous Capitals coaches have faced in trying to bring a winning team to Edinburgh (and keep it together).

Despite last year’s disappointing league placing, it would be amiss not to mention what Edinburgh got right last year, playing in a league that showcases ice hockey at the highest level ever seen in this country.

Caps, for the most part, were competitive, winning more than 20 games, and qualified for the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup for the first time.

Unlike previous seasons, when ultimately the play-offs were out of reach, Edinburgh felt like a club that were doing things right, or at least improving, at any rate.

Neil’s attempts to bring a coach to Murrayfield who doesn’t have to worry about his own on-ice performance and can focus solely on his players to get the best out of them, should only add to that.