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Has coach’s instincts saved Sheffield Steelers from another trophy-less season?

Sheffield Steelers' head coach, Paul Thompson. Picture: Dean Woolley.
Sheffield Steelers' head coach, Paul Thompson. Picture: Dean Woolley.
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Sheffield Steelers will have a “significant amount’ of money to sign an AHL-standard defenceman after Ben O’Connor’s shock departure.

The British ‘quarter back’ has announced he is leaving the club to join Barys Astana, in Kazakhstan.

He will become the first British player to play in the KHL.

Players of his pedigree routinely have a buy-out clause in their contract - he had a year left at Sheffield - and in this case it will be a generous sum, in British ice hockey terms.

That and O’Connor’s wage-saving means the pot will be bigger for coach Paul Thompson to tempt overseas talent to Sheffield, including the GB star’s replacement.

While the d-man’s decision to leave for a bumper KHL salary is undoubtedly a set-back to the club and indeed the Elite League, it is legitimate to suppose that Thompson, who often works on his instincts, had protected the club against such a loss before it happened.

O’Connor, at the peak of his powers at 29, is on the scouting list for clubs every Summer as was wonder kid Liam Kirk, who will be in the NHL draft next month.

Fellow Brit Robert Dowd is also a player foreign clubs frequently show interest in - and he could not and would not turn down a lucrative offer which would help secure his family’s future.

Knowing the club would be exposed if any other British player was to leave, additional to Kirk, Thompson took the surprise decision (at the time) to replace import goalie Ervins Mustukovs and bring in British passport holder Jackson Whistle and his winger brother, both Canadian-born, but classified as homegrown players.

Now, as long as Whistle plays as well as he did against Sheffield for Belfast Giants last season, that looks good business because O’Connor can be replaced with an import, without encroaching on the balance of the club’s overseas-domestic quota.

Ben O'Connor - a credit to British hockey

Ben O'Connor - a credit to British hockey

Steelers’ high-command are of the view that other rival EIHL clubs would perhaps be thrown into turmoil by losing their top Brit and highest points scorer.

Steelers, at least, feel Thompson’s manoeuvering in the market has cushioned the blow before it happened.

Clearly, in overall terms, that will depend on how good his raft of new signings will be.

There are only 10 players on the roster so far - the same number of imports that left after the Play Off final defeat.

I understand solid progress has been made with at negotiations with several players though, so time will tell.

Given O’Connor’s release - something he engineered himself by using contacts at GB’s World Championships recently - the hoped-for return of Mark Matheson can also be seen as invaluable.

He was behind only O’Connor as the top points scorer in a season where goals from forwards were sometimes hard to come by.

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