Trophy drought prompts Giant decisions

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Player-coach Walser and captain Keefe ponder future with Giants

The Belfast Giants' season finished with a 2-0 defeat by Sheffield Steelers on Saturday in the Elite League play-off semi-finals.

It was a game they dominated, out-shooting the Steelers 31-18 but as their coach Paul Thompson succinctly pointed out after the game: "I didn't care less about our performance, it was only the result that counted."

Twenty-four hours later his team was skating around the National Ice Centre with the play-off trophy after a dramatic 6-5 double overtime win over the Cardiff Devils, ending the Welsh side's Grand Slam ambitions.

For the record the Giants finished third beating up the Dundee Stars 15-8 in an unnecessary and embarrassing spectacle for the Elite League. Did anyone really celebrate?

It left the Giants without a trophy for the third consecutive season, something that has never happened before. It shows how successful the Giants have been in their short history for this to be their longest drought but it also means their fans demand and expect success. Three years seems like a lifetime.

Winning is everything

In ice hockey only the winners are remembered. Unlike the Premier League in football there are no celebrations for fourth place.

It was a good season for the Giants and certainly an improvement on the previous campaign. League runners-up, Challenge Cup semi-finalists and Final Four in the play-offs show they were in contention for all three trophies.

Disappointingly however, the team failed to bring its 'A' game to the biggest and most important contests.

They held a one-goal lead going into the home leg of the Challenge Cup semi-final against Cardiff and after dragging back a 14-point deficit to the Devils in the league they had a home double-header against the Welsh side and a 3-0 lead going into the final period of the first game.

They lost all three games…at home…coupled with another defeat at the SSE Arena to Sheffield shortly afterwards and two trophy chances disappeared in the space of two weeks…at home.

So what now?

Head of Hockey Operations Steve Thornton has some difficult decisions to make. Some players will be told they won't be offered new contracts; others such as Blair Riley, Steve Saviano, Stephen Murphy and Jim Vandermeer are on two year contracts and provide a solid foundation to build from.

But the key decisions involve Derrick Walser and Adam Keefe.

Giants captain Adam Keefe gets to grips with Sheffield's Zack Fitzgerald
Giants captain Adam Keefe gets to grips with Sheffield's Zack Fitzgerald

The Giants were Walser's first coaching appointment and having arrived new to the league two seasons ago he learned from early mistakes and his second season in charge was very different and more successful than his first.

He's also worth his place in any side as a player but admitted after Saturday's game that now might be the right time to hang up the skates.

Keefe gamble

If Walser doesn't return the natural solution from within the club would be Adam Keefe but he would be another rookie coach and could the Giants justify bringing a firm fans favourite back as a player?

No-one questions Keefe's 100% commitment to dropping the gloves to defend a team mate or throwing himself in front of the puck to block a shot. But he only scored one goal this season and admitted this had been a "tough season" for him.

The option of a player-coach allows the club to divert money to other personnel but it's worth noting that three of the four Giants league titles have been won by bench coaches.

Who leads the Giants next season will be the most important decision Thornton makes as the pressure to win silverware grows.

Bench coach or player coach? Keep Walser or promote Keefe? Hire from outside the organisation?

The long off season begins….

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