Leeds Chiefs wasting little time in recruitment for next season
SAM ZAJAC says Leeds Chiefs’ players are now on an eight-game trial to see if they have what it takes to be invited back for next season.
Home defeats to Bracknell Bees and Basingstoke Bison at the weekend, coupled with two wins for Raiders IHC against Hull Pirates, has ended the Chiefs’ hopes of gatecrashing the NIHL National playoffs.
Zajac’s team can still mathematically draw level on points with Raiders - who currently occupy the eighth and final playoff spot - but with the Romford-based side still to play ninth-placed Bracknell twice more, one of those two teams will still amass more points than the Chiefs can, even if they win their last eight games.
But, while bitterly disappointed at missing out on the post-season, player-coach Zajac insists there is still plenty to play for, not least pride and being able to put together the kind of winning run that has proved elusive all season and that would give them momentum to carry over into the 2020-21 campaign.
Zajac already knows who he wants to retain on his roster for next time out and has held talks with a number of existing players, with conversations to be had with others in the coming days and weeks.
Offers have been made to several members of the current roster, but Zajac is also weighing up a number of changes in order to make his team more competitive.
“We’re not going to have a three-week holiday camp to finish the season,” said Zajac. “We don’t want to cash in our chips with three weeks to go and take our foot off the pedal - we want to get as many points on the board and beat as many teams as we can.
“There is no way that we will be simply going through the motions between now and the end of the season.
“We’re looking for an improvement on how we’ve played these last three or four nights, that’s for sure.
“We’re looking towards the future and next season and guys that want to be here and guys that we want to be here.
“Effectively, it is an eight-game trial period now for guys and they are aware of that.
“You’re never going to have the same team back, we’re going to be looking to improve, that’s for certain and this team with this new rink is going to be an attractive proposition for a lot of players next season.
“There will be changes and it is up to guys to use these next eight games to secure their jobs.”
One thing for certain is that Zajac starts his roster-build in a far better position than last year when, after being appointed in May by team and Elland Road rink owners Planet Ice, he was forever playing catch-up with rival teams who had begun their recruitment weeks and, in some cases, months earlier.
“We’re obviously light years ahead of where we were this time last year in terms of putting the team together,” added Zajac. “We didn’t exist at this time last year, there was no building. I’d never even heard of the Leeds Chiefs, there was nothing.
“We’ve spoke to guys already and we’ve got a few offers out on guys that we’re really keen on getting back. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the players that we have spoken to.
“So if we can sign up the ones that we’re keen on - I’m sure there are some who we do want to keep that will get other offers and move on but that’s part of the game - it is up to us to get that solid core in place.”
Zajac, 30, has endured a baptism of fire as a first-time coach, firstly thrown in at the deep end to put together a roster from scratch, spending two-thirds of the season without a home rink in which to play games or practis, as well as putting up with countless other issues including stolen equipment and several untimely player departures.
“I truly believe we’ve got the nucleus of a team that can go on and be successful at this level,” he said.
“This year has been a massive learning curve - for the whole club, for me as a coach as it is the first time that I’ve done this and, for a lot of the players, it is the first time they have played at this level.
“But we’ll be better for it and we’ll come back stronger.”