#13 Shaun Thompson
Born: Slough, Berkshire
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 28th July
#21 Matt Towalski
Born: Stafford, Staffordshire
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 21st July
With the Bison roster nearing completion, Doug Sheppard announced the return to the club of experienced forward Matt Towalski.
Whilst relatively new to the Bison, having joined the club just before Christmas 2015 when Grant Rounding was lost to injury, Towalski is a veteran of the EPL with over 650 league and playoff games under his belt as he enters his 17th season in the league.
A product of Slough’s junior system, Towalski’s first forays in to senior hockey came with the Jets in the BNL whilst playing juniors for the Slough Comets as well as making appearances for the then England u20s side that played in the EPL just after the turn of the millennium.
After 3 solid years establishing himself with the Jets and earning 14 Great Britain junior caps, Towalski moved from Berkshire to Milton Keynes for the 2005/06 season and the move paid instant dividends as the Lightning finished the season with the playoff title. In all, Towalski would spend 7 seasons with the Lightning totalling 325 regular season and 36 playoff games for the Buckinghamshire side, winning the league title in 2010. Statistically, 2008/09 was his best year as he scored 12 goals and 34 points in 53 league games.
At the end of a lack lustre 2011/12 season for the Lightning, then coach Nick Poole had a bit of clearout of the roster, fan favourite Towalski moved back to Slough along with Michael Wales. The first campaign in Slough went OK but the Jets well publicised issues made 2013/14 a long season at The Hanger. While some like Michael Wales and Ciaran Long left, Towalski stayed and battled it out with the Jets for the duration as he played the full 54 game campaign.
With the Jets withdrawal from the EPL, Towalski remained in Berkshire and moved to Bracknell to provide veteran presence for the Bees. His first season in black and gold saw a productive 17 points in 48 games but the 2015/16 season was, again one to forget for hockey in the royal county. Finance issues at the Bees saw Towalski and others leave the club, with Matt being announced by the Herd on Christmas Eve 2015. Towalski scored 7 points in 29 games en route to his second league title as a player.
Anyone notice that Matt Towalski’s got a half decent shot? Just thought I’d throw that out there. He only scored 4 goals in the regular season for the Bison but a couple of them were really nice shots.
If you go back to Christmas time and check back on what I said about Matt when he joined, I was actually right for the most part. He didn’t set the world on fire but contributed a few points, was much needed depth on the roster and did whatever was asked of him. It worked. Matt Towalski joining the Bison did exactly what it was meant to do; the signing filled in a hole and a need we had in the roster that we had at the time, he came in, did his job and was part of the success.
What I personaly enjoy about us signing players like Matt Towalski who have been around a while is we get to watch them much more. If you’re new to Bison hockey then this is all new and great so we get to learn this together. Matt will be honest enough to admit that he’s been around the block a few times and those of us who have been around British hockey a bit will be familiar with him but we’ve had that chance to watch him week in, week out so I’ve really enjoyed getting to see how his mechanics work. It’s like what I’d mentioned above; I’d never really taken the time to notice that he’s got that a decent shot before but Sheppard signing him allows us to get more familiar with these kind of players. Maybe that’s the nerd in me coming out but hey, this is my blog so if I can’t geek out here then where can I?
We’ve talked before about how the Bison have role players and versatile players and Towalski will be the later; he is a veteran presence on what remains a mostly young team. He will be the calm head along with Baird and Vantroba. He will be shuffled around the lines when needed and the special teams as well. Being able to do that is what brought him to the Bison and it’s why he’s back. That and the fact he’s had a bit of chemistry on a line with Vanya Antonov won’t hurt.
Welcome back, Matt.
And now, my favourite GIF from last season.
#?? Lewis Turner
Born: Woking, Surrey, England
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 14th July
With the Bison roster already nearing completion, Doug Sheppard has moved to strengthen his defensive unit with the addition of Lewis Turner from the Bracknell Bees.
23 year old Turner started his hockey career in the Guildford junior system starting with the u16 Firestars in 2007 and carrying on through to the well-respected under 18 Phoenix side.
Turner started the 2009/10 season in Guildford but swapped Surrey for Berkshire as he moved across to Bracknell. Lewis made his senior debut in the old ENL as he split time between the Hornets and the u18 Drones. He carried on between u18 and ENL hockey the next season, scoring an impressive 15 points in 16 games for the Drones.
When his time in junior hockey came to an end to start 2011/12, Turner continued to split his time but that campaign it was between ENL and EPL as he was called into the Bracknell senior side for the first time. Lewis appeared in 31 EPL games and 23 ENL games in yellow and black as his first full campaign as a senior saw him establish himself as an EPL player.
2011/12 was Turner’s last season in the ENL as he stepped up full time to the Bees for 2012/13 and enjoyed an impressive campaign. Whilst Bracknell didn’t soar very high, Turner’s stock rose. He appeared in 50 games and earned a call up to the GB under 20s side, appearing in all 5 games for the national side.
After another impressive campaign with Bracknell in 2013/14 where Turner made 52 appearances, he returned to Bracknell with the added bonus of being on a two way contract with Cardiff Devils, making 2 appearances for the South Wales side.
Turner has made 222 appearances for the Bees across the last 5 seasons, scoring 19 points and tallying 228 penalty minutes.
So I think it’s safe to say that the defence is finished and this is a really handy addition to round out the blueline corps. Whilst nobody who played for Bracknell is going to remember last season with a great amount of fondness, it wasn’t for the want of some decent performances by individuals and both recent Bison signees are in that category.
Turner is a really solid, stay at home defenceman with a physical edge. Have you noticed much of him during Bison games against the Bees? No? Then that probably means he’s been doing his job for the most part. He’s one of those defencemen. What I really liked from the article in today’s Gazette was Lewis’ quote where he said “I enjoy the physical side of the game and stopping players scoring.” Yes, excellent, that’s what you want from a physical defenceman. The last thing any team needs is to sign a guy to be that stay at home guy but then find they like to wander off and be bad positionally. That’s not saying we don’t want defencemen jumping into the play if the chance appears but Turner’s there to shut things down.
If nothing else, given the style that the Bison play, he should fit right in to things. We’re all used to that Bison game plan where they get the lead then shut things down so having 6 guys involved rather than 5 not only helps when injuries hit but makes things really solid to start with.
Where does Turner fit in to the line up? I have him forming a traditional shut down pairing with Joe Baird. Yes it’s 2 right handed shot players together but the Bison only have two left shot defencemen in Reynolds (who I have staying partnering Mogg) and Balmer (who I have partnering Vantroba) but Turner and Baird together is a good mix of youth and experience and some good old fashioned grit. Some will argue that they might be susceptible to taking penalties but we need to keep the jokes about the Bison being goons alive somehow. (15/7/16 – well this is daft of me. Elite Prospects has Reynolds as a leftie. He’s actually a right handed shot. Sorry Kurt. What does it change? Not much really I don’t think. My prediction still stands though we know the pairings will be rotated.
Welcome to Basingstoke, Lewis.
#18 Miroslav Vantroba
Born: Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 7th July
As the Bison roster races towards completion before the summer has seemingly began, Doug Sheppard announced the final of the club’s 5 imports for the new campaign with the return of Slovak defenceman, Miroslav Vantroba.
37 year old Vantroba enters his 4th season with the Bison after 3 very successful campaigns with the Herd. Having moved to England in 2013, Vantroba has 105 points in 157 regular season games along with the full set of EPL trophies as a league, cup and playoff winner.
Vantroba’s career started with his home town Spisska Nova Ves before moving to Kosice where he would spend the next 3 seasons tallying 59 points in 162 games. Vantroba moved to the Czech Extraliga where he played 48 times for Karlovy Vary before retuning to Kosice in 2004.
Vantroba was with Kosice for another year and a half before he moved to MHC Martin proving to be a popular player with Martin fans, spending 3 and a half years with Martin. Vantroba’s performances earned him a call up to the Slovak national team, making 4 appearances and scoring 0 points.
After his time with MHC Martin finished in 2009, Miro moved on to Banska Bystrica making 100 appearances in 2 seasons before moving to Zvolen for 2011/12 for a single season.
For 2012/13 Vantroba started the year back with his home town Spisska Nova Ves in the second tier before moving back to the Extraliga with HK Nitra to see out the year. After some discussions reportedly with Edinburgh, Vantroba chose to accept Doug Sheppard’s offer to move to Hampshire.
This signing shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone. Anyone who has watched the Bison for more than a couple of years will be starting to see the pattern; given the Bison are generally there or thereabouts in terms of competing, Sheppard does not blow the roster up and start again. He maintains a core of players. If he needs to upgrade or sees the chance to, then he will but he won’t do it for the sake of doing it. Given that Vantroba has been at the heart of the most successful Bison team of recent times, the fact that Sheppard has brought Vantroba back shouldn’t shock anyone in broad terms.
Having been one of the higher scoring defenceman in the EPL for the last couple of seasons (the highest in 2014/15) Vantroba is generally a really solid, all around defenceman. He is generally positionally sound, he’s not afraid to take the body, he is always looking for that pass to start the breakout, he can add secondary offence and his big shot is always useful. If you sit back and examine the other import defenders that have come into the league during the time that Miro has been here, how many are still here? How many have genuinely been that massive step above him in terms of quality? Yes, people will have their favourites and there’s certainly arguments to be made that there are better defenders in the league than Vantroba but that much better?
I have no issue with the signing at all though over the last season, I spoke to people who at times were losing patience with Vantroba. The two main criticisms of him were that he got caught out of position and that he gave away the puck too much.
I’d say over the course of last season that they are valid criticisms of him having watched a lot of his game. When someone is drawn out of position, Vantroba tried to cover all the bases at once which stretched him and the team on the ice. Against some teams you’ll get away with that, against others, not so much. The turnovers get noticed a lot but were a mixture of things from the Bison’s high press and pressure on the powerplay to the fact that at 37, Vantroba just isn’t as fast as he once was.
The questions that we need to ask ourselves are 1. whether the risks of Vantroba’s game are worth the reward and 2. could Sheppard find anyone better either here or elsewhere to replace him. Sheppard has obviously made his decision on that question. I’d also argue that Sheppard’s recent record means his decision making on players is worthy of getting the benefit of the doubt. The analyst in any of us can generally rectify ourselves to any player recruitment decision at EPL level with enough time. Swapping my analyst hat for the fan hat with Bison horns, I really like Vantroba as player so I’m really pleased to see him back. If he was going to be replaced then that’s a big step for Sheppard to have to take given that the defence is a relatively stable unit and again conceded the fewest number of goals in the league. Yes, Vantroba makes mistakes but so does everyone. Do we replace Reynolds or Mogg or the netminder for x number of mistakes over the season when those mistakes are not numerous and the end goal keeps getting achieved?
The discussions will rumble across the season no doubt and there will be Miro quietly pocketing another 20-30 point season from the blueline while the rest of the team rushes around beside him. He is not immune to criticism, especially justified ones but I do think he’s earned the right to be given another year in the jersey. The blueline corps is strong. The blueline corps works. The day is coming when it will need to be changed but I don’t think right now is that day.
Welcome back, Miro.
So it’s been a month so time for another summer update. We throw our usual format out the window as Anthony is joined by On The Prowl’s Ben Callaghan and they just chat through the EPL and all the big news that they can think of.
It’s just a nice hour long block of hockey chat covering the new rink for the Phoenix, the old rink for the Bison, the calming influence of Grant McPherson the coach and more.
The BOTW Podcast; the news, action and views from the EPIHL and all levels above, below and in between.
#9 Daniel Lackey
Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 30th June
Along with the return of Grant Rounding, Bison head coach Doug Sheppard announced that former junior Bison product, Daniel Lackey would be returning for the next season.
The 26 year old who can play forward or defence is well known to long time watchers of hockey in Basingstoke having only played 1 senior game for a team not based in the town, that being a lone game for the Solent Devils in 2014/15.
After coming through the junior ranks at under 16 and under 19 level, Lackey made his debut in senior hockey with the Buffalo the old ENL 1 South in the 2007/08 campaign playing 11 times whilst registering 12 points and 100 penalty minutes in 17 games for the under 18 side.
That season was the start of Lackey’s long running association with the Buffalo for whom he has played in 8 seasons with a break from hockey in 2013/14. Lackey’s Buffalo career spans 151 games, mostly in the NIHL 2 South for a total of 140 points. Lackey has spent most of his time with the Buffalo playing on defence and has regularly been towards the top of league scoring for defencemen during this time.
Lackey has also made sporadic appearances for the Bison during his career, generally as a forward. He was first called in to the EPL by then coach Steve Moria in the 2009/10 season where he appeared 3 times then made 13 appearances the following season, scoring his lone Bison goal.
After a long break from playing at EPL level, Lackey was announced at the start of 2015/16 as being on a 2 way contract but due to being over the age of 21, it meant the Bison could only use him for 3 appearances before needing to take him on full time. With injuries mounting up and the title race looming, Sheppard pulled the trigger and Lackey moved permanently from the Buffalo to the Bison full time at the start of February. Lackey provided much needed depth for the Herd, playing in a variety of roles but finding a regular spot alongside Tomas Karpov and Alan Lack in the later stages of the season as he appeared in 16 games and scored 3 assists. Lackey’s career numbers for the Bison stand at 4 points from 32 games.
One thing you need in every roster; depth, glorious depth. Today (Friday) Manchester are rightly trumpeting the fact that they’ve re-signed the league’s top point scorer from last season in Robin Kovar. Manchester’s on-ice problem last season of course was that they had little to no depth of their roster. Kovar’s really good but there’s an argument that he scored so many points because all of Manchester’s effective offence went through him. Whilst it’s not accurate to put all of the Bison’s title winning glory onto signing Dan Lackey, having that depth in quality in its roster is what won the Bison the championship. Having some depth, some extra bodies to take away that extra shift or two to stop your top end guys getting tired is important. The Bison are just fortunate that Lackey is both capable and flexible.
He rarely plays on defence for the Bison but can do so. He rarely scores points but was able to be of use creating space for Karpov and others. Sheppard notes his physical style which is what is needed from Lackey. He’s scored points at lower levels but here, the demands on his time and game are different. Never afraid to mix things up, Lackey will throw the hit and take one to make the play.
Whilst he will more than likely be the Bison’s spare forward, I’ve labelled Lackey as a utility player above and I think that’s accurate. Then again, Lackey is symptomatic of a large amount of the Bison roster; guys who can play different roles at different times supporting those who are signed to play a particular role. I don’t think we see Dan Lackey scoring 60 points and playing week in, week out to set up Rene Jarolin. If he gets 10 points, I think most of us would be happy with it. What I think Sheppard wants is for Lackey to just play because the benefits will come whatever he does.
Welcome back, Dan.
#17 Grant Rounding
Born: Johanesberg, South Africa
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 30th June
Doug Sheppard added some depth to the Bison squad with another two returnees this week. We start with the return to the Bison of British/South African forward, Grant Rounding.
Like so many EPL players playing in the South, 25 year old Rounding is a product of the excellent Bracknell system. Rounding came through the under 16 Stingers and impressed along the way. He started under 19s hockey with the Drones in 2006 and by the end of 2006/07 had made his debut in senior hockey with the Bracknell Hornets in the old ENL South.
Rounding continued to split time between the Drones and the Hornets until he became too old for junior hockey at the start of the 2008/09 season when he moved full time to the ENL. Over the next 3 campaigns he scored 59 points and in 2010/11 his efforts saw him called into the Bees squad on 20 occasions.
For 2011/12, Rounding made the move over to the Isle of Wight but had his season cut short after 16 points in 16 games due to injury. After recovering from his injury, Rounding headed back to Bracknell for 2012/13, starting the season with the Hornets but was called up to the EPL and the Bees full time as he finished with 9 points in 49 games.
It was enough to earn Rounding another contract in Bracknell for 2013/14 where he continued to turn heads as he registered 19 points in 52 games.
That was enough to peak Doug Sheppard’s interest who coaxed Rounding into the Bison side to defend their newly won double and he has remained with the club since that time.
To say the last couple of seasons haven’t gone quite to plan for Grant Rounding would probably be something of an understatement. Injury has limited Rounding to appearing in less than 50% of available games over his time in Basingstoke with 9 points, last season seeing him score 1 solitary assist before being rewarded with a beauty of a goal in the playoffs as he rifled one past Stephen Fone.
As a result, we enter the 3rd season of the South African in Basingstoke without ever really having seen the best of Rounding. We’ve seen flashes of what he can do without ever realy getting the full experience. There’s an argument that last season he even came back too soon as he pushed to prove that he was worth taking a chance on again.
So what do we get from a fully fit Grant Rounding? For me, a lot of what Rounding can do was summed up in one game in his first season. During the Bison’s first away trip to the newly refurbished Milton Keynes rink, it didn’t go well. The team didn’t play brilliantly but were nearly single handidly dragged back into the game by Rounding. He used his speed to get to the puck before others, he skated and skated and skated, he used his quick reactions in the slot to get shots past the netminder. The Bison lost the game but it was one of the easier man of the match selections I’ve seen live.
Rounding is somewhat architypical of a “Doug Sheppard player”. Sheppard is not averse to signing role players as we know but on the whole he likes his players to be a bit like he played. He likes players that will keep their feet moving, that will run themselves ragged for the cause. He wants players that will not quit which is why Rounding is the sort of player that has stuck around. Yes, his injuries have hindered his progress. At 25, any hopes of Rounding being a top line free scoring winger might be something that falls by the wayside but when 100% on any given night there are options that he provides. If he gets fully fit then he can be that 3rd line energy player or maybe a speedier 2nd line winger. He can do a job on special teams and provided his speed stays with him, there’s a real job he could do in 3on3 OT with a lot of ice to use.
Given the last couple of years there is no real point in putting great predictions of how many points he will score out in to the world because Grant needs a bit of fortune on his side. We’ve seen what could be, we’ve seen the trailer. It is time for the full show.
Welcome back, Grant.