Home ice: Deeside Ice Rink (Phoenix Nest 2.0 coming soon)
League position 2014/15: 6th, cup finalists, playoff finalists
Team preview: Stuart Kilburn, live from a Deeside car park as part of the Official Manchester Phoenix Podcast
It seems an eternity since we saw Phoenix take to the ice in the playoff final against Peterborough. It has been a long and arduous summer for everyone connected with the Manchester Phoenix organisation, and now thank goodness its time to get back to what really matters – watching and playing hockey!
So, now based out of Deeside Ice Rink in North Wales, what can people expect from the Phoenix Squad for the 2015/16 campaign?
Phoenix has maintained the services of Steve Fone as their starting netminder. In what will be his 7th season with the club. Icing in only 27 games of last season’s campaign, Fone achieved his best save percentage to date with the club of 91.6%, maintaining his status as arguably one of the best netminders in the English Premier League. Declan Ryan, who shared the starting position with Fone last year, has taken some time out of the game this year, and has been replaced by Phil Spanswick. Spanswick aged 22 and originally from Manchester, has spent a significant amount of time in Calgary, Canada and it is from here is where he joins the Phoenix/ There aren’t many stats available about his previous form, but I’m sure he will benefit from training with Fone and will do a good job for the team should the need arise.
A change of flavour in the Phoenix defence this year, sees an all-British unit take to the ice for the first time since we joined the EPL back in 2009/2010. Captain Luke Boothroyd returns to the fold after a lengthy period on the sidelines last season due to injury. The familiar faces of Ben Wood and James Neil keep their place on Tony Hand’s roster, which maintain some continuity in the D core. The addition of Ben Russell from MK Lightning brings a defenseman, who appears to be eager to please, and improve his game under the leadership of #9. The homecoming of ex Sheffield-Steeler Mark Thomas adds a player who it could be argued is as good as, or better than a lot of import defenseman. Icing for 9 years for the Yorkshire outfit, and regular appearances for Great Britain throughout his career, Tommo coming back to the club that gave him his first shot in the Elite League was music to the ears of the Phoenix faithful.
The forward lines have seen a lot of changes this off-season, with only 3 players from last years attacking unit maintaining their place on the Phoenix roster this time out. With Bobby Chamberlain and Jack Watkins departing to play under Pete Russell at Milton Keynes, Frankie Baklirk going to join Bracknell and the monumental hole that had to be filled with Tony Hand retiring to the bench this season, coupled with the uncertainty earlier in the summer of where Phoenix would be calling home for this coming season, recruitment was always going to be a challenge for the Phoenix coach.
The standout signing for Phoenix fans was the addition of Czech centre man Stanislav Gron. With a CV that wouldn’t look out of place in most Elite League rosters, icing over 200 games in the AHL, and over 350 in the top league in Slovakia, it is testament to Hand’s recruitment that he is still able to bring a player of this talent to the club. He is joined by 27 year old Finnish winger Nico Aaltonen, who joins Phoenix from the Kazakhstan league, where he obtained 30 points in 24 games, and has also iced for just shy of 200 games in Liiga in Finland. Michal Satek, a Slovakian left-winger completes the new import recruits for Phoenix this season. Satek joins Phoenix from a stint playing in Romania, where he has averaged over a point a game. He again, has had a sustained stint in the Slovak top league, and along with Aaltonen, Gron and returnee Czech centre man Robin Kovar, I am sure they will prove to be valuable additions to the Phoenix roster.
The Brit Pack of forwards for Phoenix this year will have a crucial part to play in any success the team may enjoy. Gareth O’Flaherty, who guested for the Phoenix last season, signs up full time with the club (on a 2-way contract with Elite league Coventry Blaze). Trent Hope, who like Phil Spanswick has spent some time on the other side of the Atlantic, joins Phoenix for his first season in Phoenix colours. Previously icing for Cardiff Devils in NIHL 12 (2013/14), Hope is said to have improved his game during his time over the pond, and is looking forward to contributing some good numbers to the Phoenix points account. Phoenix stalwart James Archer remains at the club, and is likely to feature heavily on the top line with 2 imports this season. Last years unsung hero, Jacob Corson-Heron keeps his spot on the roster, and one has to think that he will be getting regular minutes this season, rather than being the 10th forward as was the case for some of last season. With Ryan Jones and Ross Kennedy icing on 2 way contacts with the Deeside Dragons, this completes the Phoenix roster for 2015/16
How will we do?
So, the $50 million question… How will we do?
Finishing 6th in the league last season was a disappointment for a lot of Phoenix fans. The team was hit with a lot of injuries, and the character displayed by the boys to make the Crossover Cup Final and the Playoff final in Coventry was testament to the sheer grit and hard work displayed by the team.
As said above, recruitment has obviously been difficult for Hand, particularly in the Brit forward department this year. However, the imports he has brought in appear to of a very high quality, and playing with these kind of players week in week out can only help to improve the game of the young Brits we have on our roster this year.
This season is going to be tough for the Phoenix, there’s no denying that. However, I would write us off at your peril. I think there will be a few surprises from this Phoenix team this year, and they will certainly be looking to take a few scalps.
If we can match or better last seasons performance, both in terms of league position and the knockout competitions, then I for one will be very happy with that.
All that remains for me to say is Lets Go Phoenix and see you all in Wales! Don’t forget your passports when you come to visit.
The BOTW Take
This is not going to be yet another piece that goes over the summer’s insanity in any great detail. It was avoidable, it was stupid, let’s move on.
It’s a small Manchester roster that Tony Hand has put together; a very noticeable 1 and 2 in net, 5 regular defenders and 8 regular forwards with a couple of additions from the Deeside Dragons. There’s undoubted quality players in the roster but given discussions between myself and my friends from the Phoenix Podcast generally mention them having injuries affecting their season at least two or three times across the season, I do wonder how the smallest injury will affect the campaign.
Stephen Fone is one of those netminders who I have to slightly alter my opinion on. I maintain that there’s a book on Fone (draw him down, shoot high and you need to make him move) but you can’t deny the numbers; he’s incredibly consistent. No matter what seems to get thrown at him, Fone seems to keep rising above it on the ice and keeps making those key saves at key times. He has a decent looking defence in front of him, most of whom knows how he works and it won’t be hard for the others to slot into that system. If there’s an issue with the Phoenix, Fone is low down that list. He’s being backed up for the season by Phil Stanswick for whom there is virtually no book on. Tony Hand’s never been one for picking a backup to particularly challenge Fone (bar Declan Ryan) but the hope will be that Spanswick can step in when and if required.
I’ll be honest, I really like the look of the Phoenix defence. As a regular 5 man unit with the addition of Dragons’ defender Ross Kennedy as a two way player, this is arguably one of the better looking blue line groups in the league and for added joy, it’s all British.
The disappointing Johan Burlin has departed for France and Joe Graham has joined the big brother of the Red Hockey family over at Telford but Hand has made decent replacements in the form of Mark Thomas and Ben Russell. Thomas gets a bit of stick at EIHL level for being too slow but he will be that solid stay at home presence of the Phoenix blueline who will hopefully do for Manchester what Burlin was meant to do. He won’t score tons of points (his highest EIHL points total is 16) but will stand people up at the blueline and just get in the way. Russell (no relation) enters his 3rd senior season and I’ve generally been impressed. He’ll start the season as 5th defenceman but was a bright spot in a somewhat dull season last year for MK. All the noise went on Cownie and Hook but Russell falls under the “solid but not spectacular” category and you need those guys.
Luke Boothroyd, Ben Wood and James Neil are now mainstays of this Phoenix roster and it was unlikely they’d go anywhere anyway but they’ve been the foundation of the blueline for so long, Boothroyd especially, that keeping those guys to be a solid core in front of Fone was key if the Phoenix are going to have any success this season.
It’s up front where the real question marks start to appear about the Phoenix because of the small numbers but make no mistake, there is definitely quality in the forward lines and that’s with the loss of Frantisek Bakrlik to Bracknell and Michal Psurny moving to France.
1 game NHL’er Stanislav Gron is the jewel in the crown of signings for Hand this summer. Part of the Kosice side that won 3 back to back Slovak Extraliga titles, Gron was a 2 time Extraliga all star and comes to the Phoenix after 3 productive years in Italy’s top flight with Cortina where he’s averaged over a point per game and it’s widely expected he’ll do the same here. A lot of offence for Manchester will rest on Gron’s shoulders and any link up he can make with the returning Robin Kovar, largely recognised as the man to step into Hand’s playmaking role is going to be crucial.
Nico Aaltonen joins from Arlan Kokshetau in the Kazakh league but the 27 year old has been a well established player in the SM-Liiga and Mestis in Finland for a number of years, culminating with winning the Liiga title with Ässät in 2013. Aaltonen has not been a massive scorer in Finland but those leagues are not massively high scoring. Coming from Kazakhstan with over a point per game is a good indication of how he’ll score points on the EPIHL.
The reaction to the last import signing Michal Satek was muted from around the league but I think some have been unduly harsh. Satek has a decent record in Slovakia and played most of last season in the MOL Liga (the combined Hungarian/Romanian league) with 36 points in 37 games with a team that finished bottom of the table before finishing off the season in the Romanian league playoffs. It’s not the most auspicious of places to play but he’s not coming in to be the number 1 guy so some of the pressure on him seem odd. He also impressed in the games against Swindon so perhaps it’s a case of the right guy in the right position.
The issue for the Phoenix is British depth; James Archer could walk into any team in the league and Jacob Corson-Heron is starting to blossom under Hand’s coaching. Gareth O’Flaherty is improving but has always been something of a fringe player for Manchester and now really needs to step up as the guys behind him are untested at this level or are additions stepping up.
The recent big pre-season win over Swindon has given some hope that this Phoenix team is more than the sum of its parts and it probably is. For any criticisms of Hand’s coaching, he’s a really good recruiter with the resources given to him and he deserves a lot of credit for that. The issue is this roster really is so small that the inevitable injuries that do come will really have an impact on this roster that at time of writing has 9 forwards including Ryan Jones. Now whilst they’ll have Deeside players on hand to call upon if needed, this will be a long season and this roster will be tested and somewhere it will run into difficulties. Having a big heart is great, Phoenix teams always have a lot of heart but heart alone will win you one or two games, not 30 or 40.
This is a real transition season for the Phoenix as a club given all the upheaval of the summer and playing at Deeside and potentially returning to Manchester for next season. This season will test the players, the club and the fans. A few pundits have the Phoenix missing the playoffs altogether. I am not one of them but I do think this might be a year of trial and tribulation for Manchester more than one of celebration.
Basingstoke Bison 5-4 Milton Keynes Lightning
Long Hook x 3
Rand x2 (1pp)
Back to work: The Bison headed into the game with their newly announced two way additions Alan Lack, Daniel Lackey, Jacob Ranson and Alex Sampford with Grant Rounding still on the sidelines. The Herd started Tomas Hiadlovsky in net who came out last which threw the crowd as Dan Weller-Evans came out first and the crowd is so conditioned we all thought the young Welshman was starting. The Lightning were without James Griffin and Ross Green and started former Bison netminder Dean Skinns between the pipes.
The game was a bit ill tempered right off the bat as both sides came charging out of the gate and comings together after shots; Hiadlovsky saved, Jamieson and Baird yapped at each other. Skinns saved, Bison and Lightning players yapped at each other again. It would be something of a theme.
One person who was really getting stuck in was Alan Lack; clearly out to make an impression, the London Raiders forward was hitting anything that moved which got under the skin of a couple of Lightning players early and when Markku Tahtinen raced to make the hit, he boarded Lack to give the Bison the first powerplay chance of the night. It wasn’t the smoothest of powerplays though Ryan Watt forced a good save from Skinns as the man advantage expired.
The teams swung back and forth with the chances though the Bison were probably edging the attacking play. Watt had another shot gloved down by Skinns after a mesmeric run from Karpov and Joe Greener went close.
The somewhat aggressive undercurrent nearly boiled over shortly afterwards. When young MK forward Glen Billing snow showered Hiadlovsky, this didn’t set well and the teams came together quickly. Greener and Grant McPherson had a hold of each other and the gloves were off but the linesmen weren’t having any of it and both were quickly escorted off to sit matching roughing minors.
After a bit more back and forth with the chances, Ciaran Long finally got his hands on Grant McPherson and we had our first fighting penalties but it wasn’t much of a fight. The players tangled behind the play, grabbed a hold of each other and fell over.
The Lightning had their first powerplay when Aaron Connolly was called for delay of the game and a well worked move nearly saw Lewis Hook open the scoring but his tip was caught by Hiadlovsky under his arm. The Bison had the better chances on the penalty kill as first Joe Greener then Joe Rand had breakout chances but both missed the net, Rand’s chance signalling the end of a tight first period with the score tied at 0-0.
After waiting a bit for the ice to dry, the second period started out very bitty with the teams gaining the zone but not really having many high quality chances. The better ones that did materialise went MK’s with Hiadlovsky having to make a couple of crucial saves.
The Bison’s best chance came as almost by accident; Ryan Watt tried to feed the man pinching in but his pass deflected off a stick and into the air. Watt batted the puck out of the air but Skinns was equal to the task. He could do little about what came next as off the ensuing faceoff, Karpov won the puck back to Stuart Mogg who wristed a shot through traffic that Skinns couldn’t see and the Bison had the lead at 26:04.
The Lightning came more into the game and started really stretching the Bison defence and were putting a lot of shots onto Hiadlovsky’s net. However the Bison’s new Slovakian netminder seemed unfazed and was continuing to make a string of fine saves.
The teams traded powerplay opportunities that neither could capitalise on and Joe Rand had a shot ring off of the outside of the post before a bizarre 20 seconds of play. With the MK top line pressuring the Bison’s 4th line of Lack, Ranson and Sampford inside the zone, the Bison were stretched and Rene Jarolin fed the puck into the wheelhouse of Leigh Jamieson. With Hiadlovsky’s near constant movement, the Bison netminder was an inch too central in his net and Jamieson’s shot went just past the outstretched leg pad at 37:03 to tie the score. The Bison responded just 20 seconds later as some neat work saw an entire line get in on the act; Greener fed Pitchley who fed Long for the tap past Skinns. 37:23 and the Herd had their advantage back. The second period wound down with the Bison sitting on their one goal cushion.
The third started with yet another clash of players, this time Aaron Connolly and Lewis Christie both taking matching roughing minors to lead to 4 on4. It was the visitors who would take advantage, Lewis Hook credited with the tying goal as his shot appeared to deflect off of a Bison player and past Hiadlovsky who was going the other way at 42:08.
The Lightning pressed on and when Dan Lackey was called for holding (read throwing over) Josh Cook it put MK back onto the powerplay but they couldn’t capitalise.
It would be the Bison who would edge back ahead; Tomas Karpov’s darting run round the back of the net saw the puck squirt off of the pads of Dean Skinns and right into the path of Ryan Watt who fired home at 46:26. After not scoring a goal in the 2014/15 season, the Scotsman appeared delighted to get one in pre-season action, his confidence only bolstered by the quality finish.
The undercurrent of aggression kept on as teams threw big hits as well as clashed off the play with lots of stray slashes and the like, David Clements and Tomas Karpov both seeing 2 minutes for delay of the game for their clash behind the play.
The teams were still having their chances either way with good saves by both netminders but it was the usual Bison high press that got them caught out. Chamberlain and Hook were set away 2 on 1 against Stuart Mogg. Chamberlain took the shot which Hiadlovsky got a piece of but the puck trickled through the Bison netminder and was on a plate for Hook to tap home his second of the night at 50:52.
The tie would be broken just under 90 seconds later; Ralfs Circenis sprinted into the zone and was tripped by Lewis Christie. The Bison took just 4 seconds to make the powerplay count; faceoff back to Mogg, Mogg to Baird, Baird to Joe Rand and past Skinns at 52:20 to give the Bison the lead back.
The Lightning refused to go quietly into the night as they capitalised on some sloppy Bison play in their defensive zone; JJ Pitchley was caught out by Marko Luomala who fed the puck to Hook who fired past Hiadlovsky for his hattrick at 54:49 to tie the score at 4-4.
When Ryan Watt was called for holding, it looked like the visitors would swing the game their way and when Hiadlovsky was caught out of position it seemed they would get their wish before the puck was cleared off of the line by Kurt Reynolds. The Herd had a good chance of their own to level the score on a shorthanded 2 on 1 rush but Aaron Connolly’s shot was saved by Dean Skinns.
The Bison got a let off when Blaz Emersic was called for holding the stick behind the Bison net which ended up giving the Bison a shortened powerplay. The Herd put the pressure on and were keeping the Lightning pinned in their zone. After the powerplay expired a faceoff saw MK stung once again by a familiar combination; faceoff to Mogg, to Baird and his drive along the ice was tipped past Skinns by Joe Rand at 59:13 for a 5-4 Bison lead.
The Lightning would call the timeout and pull Skinns but to no avail as the Herd kicked off the pre-season with a win.
A promising start: As pre-season games go, this was exactly what the Bison needed it to be; it was a serious test whilst allowing them to try things out ahead of what is going to be a very competitive EPIHL season.
Stuart Mogg was deservedly man of the match. A few people worried about whether he would adapt to full time on defence but if he plays like he did in this game then he will have very few troubles. He did get caught out once by Bobby Chamberlain but otherwise he did all the right things in all the right places and linked up very well with Joe Baird on 2 very well taken goals. Going 1+2 on the night and with the rest of his performance I’d say is beer worthy.
Of the regulars, it was a case of getting up to speed. Once it settles, the line of Joe Greener, Ciaran Long and JJ Pitchley could do some serious damage and after a chunk of last season and the partnership between Ryan Watt and Tomas Karpov looks like it will have a chance to blossom again in 2015/16. They were partnered with Ralfs Circenis who was skating in his first game at this level. It will take the young Latvian time to settle into things and realise he doesn’t have as much time on the puck as he did at NIHL 1 South but the potential is certainly there.
The line that of new captain Aaron Connolly, new alternate Joe Rand and old/newcomer Shaun Thompson is one I wasn’t expecting to see straight away but looks like a really solid combination. Both Thompson and Rand have really solid two way games but can break quickly which should allow Connolly to revert to a more offensive minded role rather than just grinding away. They showed it last night with some of their breakouts and rushes and when it comes together, this line could cause a lot of problems at both ends of the ice.
Despite shipping 4 goals, Tomas Hiadlovsky looks like a very solid netminder. People will talk about the change from EIHL to EPL and there’s a few bits that will take getting used to. Tomas likes to play the puck and luckily he seems very confident and capable in this area but it’ll take some getting used to for his team mates as evidenced by him nearly being checked by Kurt Reynolds. Where Hiadlovsky differs from Skinns is more to do with how he moves. It’s a stylistic change rather than a better or worse deal; Skinns’ movements are very staccato at times but it works for him. His movement is very pointed as has a purpose. Hiadlovsky is a bit taller, has quite long legs and his movements look very fluid so what he does seems effortless. It makes him look very relaxed as a goalie which is a change to watching Skinns’ slightly more kinetic style.
Overall I think Doug Sheppard can be pleased with it as a first outing and I think the Bison were worth the win. There were some trademark Bison defensive lapses but this is what games like this are for. There’s 3 more games to work on such things and we await what Guildford throw up on Saturday.
A word on our opponents: Milton Keynes play like a Pete Russell team; they’re focussed, they’re physical and direct. It was the Lightning’s first game too so whilst I wasn’t left with the highest of impressions, you can see the quality there. As I said above, on the balance of play the Bison were worth the win. It just felt like there wasn’t quite something clicking for MK across the lines but you have to imagine they’ll find it in time. After 1 pre-season game, it’s too early to make much in the way of substantive judgements.
Lewis Hook was an easy choice for man of the match with the hattrick and his linkup play with Bobby Chamberlain, his line mate in the gold medal winning GB u20s last season, was understandably superb.
I was also quite impressed with Leigh Jamieson who looked like the Leigh Jamieson of old with some of his shooting and passing as well as new defenceman David Clements. Clements’ shooting wasn’t great last night but his defensive positioning and work taking the body was really good. He’ll do very well in this league.
I thought the imports for MK were a bit quiet across the evening on the whole. The one who stood out the most was Markku Tahtinen whose faceoff percentage last night must have been in the high 80s, low 90s because he appeared to win every single faceoff he took.
I mentioned in the MK preview piece that it will be fun to see how this team gets on and I stand by that. Being as objective as I can, this should be an entertaining team. There’s goals in the roster and despite the overhaul there’s the maintenance of that MK charm; that sort of honest, gritty hockey that’s always been something of a Lightning hallmark. That’s good to see.
Lowlight of the night: Not a great deal to complain about bar Glen Billing snow showering Hiadlovsky, unnecessary really.
Highlight of the night: Ralfs Circenis offering out the MK bench was funny but I’ll go for Ryan Watt’s goal. It’s been a long time coming, roll on the regular season and the drive for 20.
On the eve of the Bison’s first pre-season game against Milton Keynes, the Bison announced a bolstering of the line up with the addition of two way contracted players. All four are set to be part of the pre-season games against the Lightning and Guildford Flames.
Alan Lack (forward)
23 year old Lack is yet another product of the very successful Bracknell junior system, making his under 16s debut 11 years ago with the Bracknell Worker Bees. Lack worked his way through the junior ranks at The Hive before moving on to time with the Hornets and the Bees with 2012/13 being his first full season in the EPL. In September 2013, Lack moved to Kent to join the Invicta Dynamos but struggled to settle and struggled to find work outside of hockey so returned to Berkshire joining Slough in their final EPL season scoring an impressive 23 points from 40 games. This led Slava Koulikov to sign Lack to his Phantoms side at the start of last season but a mixture of family and work commitments saw Lack leave for London (formally Romford) Raiders at the start of 2015. Lack will play for the Raiders this coming campaign as well.
I really like Alan Lack. I have a theory about players like this, the agitator/rat/niggly player/whatever you want to call them; sign the best one you can. Lack’s age means that he can play a maximum of 3 games in the league for the Bison before they either sign him permanently or leave him in the NIHL and I have to confess, the hockey fan in me wants them to bring him onto the roster permanently if possible. There’s a level of grit, checking quality and sheer determination that makes Lack a very useful commodity at EPL level and hopefully he impresses enough to be kept on.
Dan Lackey (defence)
25 year old Lackey will be no stranger to Bison fans. A Basingstoke boy and product of the junior Bison, Lackey played for the junior club and has been a mainstay of the NIHL2 Basingstoke Buffalo since 2007/08. Lackey has played a total of 16 games for the Bison, his last coming in 2011. Lackey had a year out of hockey in 2013/14 before returning to hockey in 2014/15 where he made 12 appearances for the Buffalo and guested in a game for Solent Devils. Lackey has a total of 111 league games for the Buffalo with 118 points from the blueline.
Lackey is another player that can only play a maximum of 3 games for the Bison in the season but is another who can probably earn himself a full time roster spot as the 6th defenceman if he impresses in pre-season. Whilst many would wonder the point of adding a 25 year old who has spent the majority of his career in NIHL2 to the roster, Lackey is an experienced, reliable and determined player who has impressed for the Buffalo in his years with them. He didn’t stick last time with the Bison but with some more experience behind him, he will certainly be a useful player to have on hand should injury dictate.
Jacob Ranson (forward)
20 year old winger Ranson is available to be used throughout the season. Having spent time in the Romford and Chelmsford junior systems, Ranson moved to Canada and was a part of the Pursuit of Excellence hockey academy in Kelowna, British Columbia for 2 seasons. Ranson moved to Sweden for 2012/13 to play for the under 18 side of Mjölby making 20 appearances and scoring 5 points. Ranson came back to Britain in 2013 starting the season with the London Raiders before moving to the MK Thunder in the January. Ranson returned to the Raiders for 2014/15 scoring 16 points in 36 games before agreeing to move to Invicta for the coming campaign. Ranson finished the campaign for the Raiders as player’s player, coach’s player and supporters’ player of the season.
I’m not overly aware of Ranson but the word on the lad is that he’s quick and plays both ends of the ice well. Experience in Canada and the very competitive Swedish junior league, even for a season will stand him in good stead. Raiders fans as well like their players to be full of energy and effort so to sweep the board in the end of season awards like that in a team that included Lack and former Bison Liam Chong speaks volumes about the young man’s potential.
Alex Sampford (forward)
The Basingstoke born former Slough junior, Sampford turns 19 in October and will be focussing this season on really establishing himself as a regular at NIHL level. After originally signing for Solent early in the summer, Sampford has instead moved his way across the water to join Jeremy Cornish and the Wightlink Raiders. Sampford made his senior debut with the old Slough NIHL2 side in 2013 before heading to be a part of the junior Bison and Buffalo in 2013/14. Last season gave Sampford a chance to show Bison fans his talents after 4 impressive performances in the Challenge Cup and his debut Bison goal against Invicta. Sampford also managed 1 league appearance. After the chance arose for Sampford to move to the NIHL South 1, he moved to Gosport and impressed with the Devils going a point per game.
As mentioned above, I’m not convinced we see a great deal of Sampford this season as this is a year for him to really get to grips with regular games with frequency at a level above what he has been playing. A full season of NIHL1 time with training and occasional Bison appearances is what I predict. Sampford is more one for the future than the now but if that chance arises for him at EPL level, I look forward to seeing what he would do with it.
Welcome aboard, guys.
Milton Keynes Lightning
Home ice: MK Arena aka The Thunderdome
League Position 2014/15: 7th, playoff semi-finalists
Team Preview: Mike Walls, MK match night DJ
A look back at last year’s preview (written by yours truly) highlighted the excitement and anticipation of the Lightning returning to Milton Keynes and there is excitement and anticipation ahead of this season albeit for some different reasons.
No sooner had the final buzzer sounded on MKL getting knocked out of the play-offs by the Phoenix, then fans were speculating on what changes would be made on what was a disappointing campaign for Lightning. Finishing in their lowest ever position of seventh resulted in a number of changes however no one was expecting former GM, Vito Rausa, to announce he was stepping down and Nick Poole was to no longer coach the Lightning and would become the General Manager.
Team owners, Planet Ice, had the unenviable position of replacing the only head coach in the Lightning history but by bringing in GB coach, Peter Russell, they certainly made their objectives clear.
The next shake up was in player personnel, a number of the team had verbal agreements with the previous management but these became null and void with the arrival of the new coach. Out went imports Milan Kostourek, Petr Horava and Curtis Huppe along with Brits Stephen Wall, Jordan Hedley, Ross Bowers, Chris Wiggins, Ben Russell, John Connolly and Jordan Cownie – Cownie joining Braehead Clan in the Elite League.
In the spring, a number of Lightning fans were worried about the upcoming season and future of the side. A fans forum in May was called to ease the concerns and to also confirm the plans for the upcoming season, with the season about to start it appears the concerns were unprecedented.
Russell has put together a squad with established local players in Leigh Jamieson (who moves back into defence), Lewis Christie, Michael Farn, Adam Carr (team captain), Grant McPherson, Ross Green plus Lewis Hook who returns for his second season. Experienced imports in Blaz Emersic (the only import retained from last season), Rene Jarolin from Edinburgh and experienced Finnish forwards Markku Tahtinen and Marko Luomala. The remainder of the squad is then completed with young Brits from other UK teams and also from the US. Defenders James Griffin and David Clements have signed along with Josh Cook, Bobby Chamberlain, Jack Watkins, Ed Knaggs, Glenn Billing and Luc Johnson, the former two impressing with Okanagan Hockey Academy.
The other big change was in the netminding department with Wall and Headley being replaced with James Hadfield and Jordan Marr. An injury to Hadfield a few weeks ago meant that the Lightning then had to move quickly for a number one netminder and they wasted no time in signing Dean Skinns. A move that shows the quality of player Russell can call up at short notice and an established EPL netminder that will fit in at Milton Keynes, despite the “banter” he has endured from the Barmy Army over the years.
One issue with last season, and it was well documented, was the issue with the fourth import. MK started with Stanislav Lascek, before he left shortly after the rink was reopened and replaced by Czech forward, Marek Curilla. It didn’t work out for Curilla and he was then replaced with Huppe, who was slow to get going but did chip in with some big goals in the play-offs.
For MK to succeed this year they need the imports to be firing from the get go. Emersic is Mr. Dependable and will turn up every night, Jarolin will be expected to replace the goals of Kostourek and Tahtinen will be looking to be used as a playmaker for the likes of Luomala, Jarolin, Hook and Chamberlain. With Lightning going with four import forwards, it is expected that goals scored will be higher than previous years.
This year, the team must work on their away form as well. Lightning did not travel well, the fact they only got two four point weekends last season showed why they finished so low down in the standings.
On paper, this is the most skilful Lightning roster assembled and with four full lines, plus the ability to call on other talented the MK, it is the biggest squad in terms of numbers.
The worries are regarding lack of toughness (Wiggins departure especially) and the netminding. In terms of size, players like Jamieson, Griffin and Clements are not small and forwards like Chamberlain, McPherson, Cook and Watkins can stand up for themselves, so this will not be a team that will be bullied off the puck. As for netminding, the coach is a former nettie, so knows how to get the best out of them. Some teams have gone the import netminder route and, if done right, it works as Peterborough proved with Auzins but Marr, Skinns and Hadfield are goaltenders that are solid and dependable – which will win games for the team.
In the preview last year, it was stressed how important it was to get the crowds back and this has been achieved despite the indifferent form by the Lightning. The school programme being run by the club has been a huge hit. Sell-out crowds for the opening night and when Lightning hosted Telford, plus big crowds for the play-off game with Guildford and matches against Basingstoke and Bracknell have shown an increase in attendances.
With Planet Ice backing and a link up with the Coventry Blaze, the set up of a “Southern Planet Ice academy” with a ladder from junior to Elite in place looks to be a good step forward for hockey in the UK. The cynic in me, and others, may say this is a reaction to Red Hockey but if it results in better opportunity for youngsters playing the game, I’m not going to argue with it.
Off-ice the Lightning are in a great position having secured a title sponsor in Smiths Construction & Recycling plus having retained and gained more sponsorship, it is now down to the team on the ice to deliver as expectation in Milton Keynes is high.
The BOTW Take
Despite making the 2015 playoff semi-final and having a nicely refurbished rink to play in, a 7th placed finish was a bit of a disappointment for MK last season. The on ice play was inconsistent despite there being quality in the side. The one word that kept coming up was “stagnation”. The Lightning had always had a familiarity about its roster and its style of play, it was a style and approach that I respected but I am inclined to agree. It was time for the Lightning to change tack.
The movement of Nick Poole “upstairs” and the appointment of GB national team coach Pete Russell was the first big move. Coming off of a gold with the u20s and a silver with the national team, it was a bold statement by the Lightning about how this team was going to be built.
The list of names who have departed made it sound like a true rebuild from the ground up was under way; both goalies were gone, a all-star import defenceman wasn’t re-signed, two of three import forwards gone along with the talented Jordan Cownie lost to Braehead.
However Russell didn’t completely start from scratch and kept the core of what might have been an underachieving side but a good one. Ever presents like Adam Carr, Leigh Jamieson and Grant McPherson have been kept; players who very much embody the spirit of the Lightning and have been there through times both bad and good. The link with the Coventry Blaze has assisted in keeping the very talented Lewis Hook (albeit his performance in the Blaze’s recent pre-season game has people wondering if he’ll last the year in MK) and one of the most consistent imports of recent EPL times, Blaz Emersic is the only import retained from 2014/15.
The new coach has very much put his stamp on the team and that appears to be experienced imports and quality young British players to play alongside them.
The 4 imports including Emersic average age is just under 35; Rene Jarolin joins the Lightning with a record of being over a point per game in the EIHL with Edinburgh with 2 seasons being over 70 points. Finnish winger Marko Luomala joins from Italian side Gherdëina but comes to Buckinghamshire with a long and storied career of over 500 games in the top tier in his home country and regular if not record setting goalscorer whose numbers should translate well to the EPL if he settles. The last import addition is Markku Tähtinen who won the EIHL Challenge Cup last season with Cardiff. Tähtinen has similar numbers in Liiga to Luomala which also bodes well. Combined with Emersic, the Lightning have a case to having the best import unit in the league.
The young Brits around them, lured no doubt with the chance to learn from one of the best coaches in the country will provide ample support; on defence, James Griffin and David Clements with forward Bobby Chamberlain are on two-way contracts with Coventry so will be getting regular training time with higher quality players. Younger prospects like Glenn Billing, Luc Johnson and Edward Knaggs will get the experience of training and playing alongside some quality imports and good British talent like Jack Watkins and Josh Cook.
The netminding was a question for the Lightning with the departure of Stephen Wall and Jordan Hedley. It was originally set to be James Hadfield combined with 24 year old Scot, Jordan Marr who returns to Britain from Finlandia University in Michigan. Then Hadfield got a “lower body injury” widely rumoured to be a broken leg and suddenly Dean Skinns is thrust into the fray. I think Skinns is a better netminder than Hadfield and with it being uncertain how long Hadfield will be out for, adding a netminder of Skinns’ talents and winners medals is no bad thing.
This is the most interesting MK roster of recent times. As I said above, I always had respect for the way the Lightning played but the time had come for change. This is some change and it’s a change that should wake up the EPL. The Bison will get the first look at the new Lightning in a few days time and you know what? I’m quite excited.
This is a roster with a lot of potential but a lot of questions about it; will the old players work in the new systems? Will the young Brits be able to step into their pressure roles? Will a set of imports who should be scoring freely be able to settle? If the answer to those questions is yes, then the Lightning are back in the title discussion. If you asked me solidly to put money on them winning the league, I’d not do it. Aside from not gambling, those questions above need to be answered first. I tell you what though, we’re going to have fun finding out.
Home ice: Peterborough Arena
2014/15 league position: 4th, playoff champions
Team preview by Dan Breen, Phantoms match night announcer and host of Centre Ice on Peterborough City Radio
Before I began writing this year’s “Standing in the way” I decided to re-read what I’d written last year. Some of it was spot on, (playoffs, league position), and some of it was way, way off, (Edgars Apelis, Challenge Cup), but such is life.
Last year for the Phantoms was everything that the tail end of the 13/14 season promised: A solid team, playing together and for each other meant that for the first time since That Season the Phantoms finally looked like fulfilling the promise the pre-season had hinted at, and fulfil it they did – reaching the heady heights of 2nd in the league at one point, before settling down and beginning the run into the post season. After the quarter finals had played out with some very surprising results, (Bison and Flames going out), there was a belief in the locker room and among the fans that there was only one team truly in the running. Whether you see that as self confidence or arrogance, (and the line between the two is monomolecular), the results speak for themselves.
The New Boy
The off season was a strange one for a number of reasons, upheaval in normally stable camps, and the reverse here – stability in what is normally one of the more unstable teams. Only 5 new players signed this season and the majority of last year’s team returning for the Phantoms makes picking the new boy almost a default choice.
Lloyd Gibson – as a Steeldog he was a player you love to hate, not a flashy high scoring player but one who seems to have an awful lot of potential. Coach Koulikov seems to have a knack of bringing the best out of players, so this could be a good move by Gibson. If he commits to the Phantoms like he did to the Steeldogs, he’ll be a very good pick up for us.
I have the opposite problem to usual – too many returning players to choose from. I feel I was correct in marking James Ferrara as the key returnee last season, and his re-signing this year is a reassuring one. As with the new boy, the returning player should also be a no-brainer – Janis Auzins – a Player I know all Bison fans absolutely love…or maybe not.
It took him a little while to settle in, but once he did, he showed why Slava had shown so much faith in him. He also learned how to play the league too. While his seasons stats looked mediocre, his play off stats showed him as comfortably the best netminder of the tournament.
Now he knows what to expect, I suspect he will continue where he left off from last year, and show why he should be considered one of, if not the best netminders in the EPIHL and against much tougher opposition this year.
How we’ll do this year
With the improvements among other teams, getting 4th again may be a struggle, however between 4th and 6th looks like it will be a reasonable achievement, although again, I think we’ll be aiming more towards the Playoffs than league or cup success.
The BOTW Take
When the final buzzer sounded on the 2015 EPL playoff final I don’t think many people would disagree with the assertion that over the weekend, the right team won. Slava Koulikov, rightly the EPL coach of the year for 2014/15 had outcoached Tom Watkins on the Saturday and his team had outplayed the Tigers. Heading into the final, many wondered if they’d emptied the tank the night before but they were wrong. Whilst that final won’t go down as a classic game for the ages the Phantoms stuck to their game plan and played a tired and shapeless Manchester off of the ice to send Tony Hand into retirement with a runners-up medal.
In that respect it is understandable why Slava Koulikov has only made minimal changes to a roster that won Peterborough their first trophy since their grand slam in 2009. However the major enforced change was the loss of Luke Ferrara to the Sheffield Steelers. Ferrara was arguably the Phantoms’ best player British or otherwise last season, certainly the most talismanic for the roster and the fans and there’s an argument I think as to whether his offence and his leadership been replaced like for like at the moment. Stats are stats, if you win a game 2-1 instead of 4-1, you still won the game but who will step into that void left by Ferrara remains to be seen.
One player that Koulikov has managed to keep a hold of tha t will stand them in good stead? Janis Auzins. The Latvian was robbed of a place on the all star team because the IHJUK read stats rather than appreciate performances when it comes to the EPL and yes, I laid into him a fair amount over the course of the season because of his attitude and I stand by those criticisms; when you throw a hissy fit and start a bench clearance there’s no other way to paint it but Auzins was superb in net last season. When he settled down and realised Slapshot was a comedy film and not an instructional video, he showed why the investment in an import netminder is such a staple of Koulikov’s game plan. When his eye is in, he’s a brick wall. He’s got decent support behind him in the form of the very able Dan Lane and new addition Adam Long who joins from Chelmsford’s NIHL2 side.
The defence is virtually unchanged with only James Hutchinson leaving the side to join Hull’s new EPL adventure. I wax lyrically about Tom Norton regularly because he should really be playing in the EIHL rather than the EPL. Cam McGiffin and Scott Robson proved themselves to be clutch performers at the playoff weekend, McGiffin in particular was superb against Telford and the key for them will be to start replicating those performances regularly in league competition this term. Rob Ferrara and Jason Buckman will add stability at the back and Greg Pick will add his usual dose of grit.
Up front is where the majority of the minimal changes have been made; Luke Ferrara gone as mentioned and additional British depth added as Lloyd Gibson joins from Sheffield and Craig Scott returns to Britain from Canada and a spell in minor junior leagues and a spell at the University of Manitoba. It’ll be hard to make much of a comment of Scott but I’m really intrigued to see how Gibson will be used by the Phantoms. He was one of the larger proponents of the much maligned “Dogs hockey” during Payette’s reign so now he doesn’t have such pressures on him, I’m looking forward to see his adjustment to a new game plan.
Import wise, an unsurprising return for Milan Baranyk and Darius Pliskauskas was announced and I fully expect the two of them to be leading the scoring for Peterborough with more to be asked of Edgars Bebris to add to his totals from last season. Donatas Kumeliauskas hasn’t been retained which wasn’t a huge surprise. The Lithuanian was good but not great and has been replaced by former Slough forward Ales Padelek and it’s a signing that I have to confess to being slightly confused by. Since staring for the final EPL Jets side and going under a point per game, Padelek has spent most of his time in the Czech 3rd tier. Koulikov obviously thinks a lot of Padelek and he may well be able to get the most out of him but I’m interested to hear how a 35 year old forward who spent the last 12 months playing in a level well below EPL and then in Australia is the man to help take the side forward.
Odd signings aside, the depth guys have always been a strength at Peterborough. Adding Gibson and Scott to names like Marc Levers and Will Weldon added to the regular raft of prospect signings and the impressive potential of Martins Susters makes for a decent mix of skills.
On my appearance on the Bison’s official podcast, I said that Koulikov appears to have made a side built to win the playoffs which is all well and good. Why wouldn’t want to defend your trophy that you worked hard to win. The problem is the most prestigious one to win is the league title and this side doesn’t look like one built to win that. They’re entertaining, I have no doubt that again they will be more than the sum of its parts because Slava is good at getting the most out of his players. That said, Koulikov isn’t a miracle worker and this team looks good, rather than great. They played good hockey regularly last season, the issue is they need to play great hockey regularly to make that dent in the title discussion and I’m not sure this is the team to do that.
Home ice: Ice Sheffield
2014/15 league position: 8th
The Sheffield Steeldogs have gone through a rollercoaster ride this summer. Firstly the signing of Dominic Osman as head coach, only to have him transferred over to the newly formed Hull Pirates. Fans were also excited to see Vanya Antonov on the roster for next season, especially with his previous stats, but sadly, for both Antonov and the Steeldogs, he was unable to attend university in Sheffield and as a result will not be signing with the dogs. It was not all bad news though as the Steeldogs caused quite a stir after announcing, the very talent, Nicole Jackson as their back-up net-minder. She is the starting net-minder for the Great Britain Women’s team and played for the Steeldogs last season during the cross over cup. She is a very talented young women who will make an excellent addition to the team.
Greg Wood has taken the helm for the Sheffield Steeldogs this season; the fans should see a new approach to the game, including less the time in the penalty box, with a more cultured style. He is looking at improving the fitness of the team and maintaining that level throughout the season. Wood is a great advocate for discipline and preparation. He wants to nurture each player’s talent, encourage individual styles of play to be more prominent and bring back the enthusiasm and passion for the game that the fans thought was lacking towards the end of last season.
With the appointment of Ben Morgan as captain, the Steeldogs are taking footsteps in the right direction. Morgan is a natural born leader- that is very clear in the way he plays and he is an excellent role model for the rest of the team.
Having recently filled all the import slots, the Steeldogs are shaping up to be a powerful team. With Dalibor Sedlar back between the pipes, the Dogs have a strong net-minder, he kept them in a fair amount of games last season, with Wood hoping for a more offensive mind set and slightly more support in defence this year, he can only go from strength to strength.
The rest of the import roster is completed with the return of Lubomir Korhon who has a proven success record with the Steeldogs. He is joined by Arnoldas Bosas, who comes with an impressive CV, representing Lithuania at U18, U20 and Senior World Championship level. He is a real power forward and has some size behind him, standing at 6’4, should be an asset when making more offensive plays. Wood hopes to put him on a line with Korhon and Tom Squires, which will bring more of a physical presence to an already talented line. This brings us to our final import, the return of Stanislav Lascek, who played injury cover for the Steeldogs last season. After a particular rough game in which he was involved, he was released, but with new leadership that is all in the past and his stats speak for themselves. Lascek is already familiar with the EPL having picked up 41 goals for the Lightning in a previous season and in three games for the Steeldogs scoring a goal and five assists. He was a draft pick for the Tampa Bay Lightning and has experience playing in the AHL and ECHL.
The Steeldogs have welcomed back Tom Squires and Andrew Hirst. Both strong players who have shown dedication and commitment season after season. Wood also took the initiative to sign Craig Elliot who, although spent some time injured, has more heart and passion for the game than most players I know. He is not afraid to get into the corners, stick up for himself and his team and even at the worst times never gives up – that makes him one of the strongest assets.
A team isn’t all about offence though; in fact some people would say it is defence that wins games. Luckily on the Steeldogs side, they welcome back Tim Smith, who improved no end last season and this season is set to become an integral part of the Dogs line-up. He joins Haywood, Duncombe and Morgan, who have developed an excellent bond on and off the ice and will be key to Steeldogs success.
Last, but by no means less, on our radars are Callum Pattison and, newly signed, Jack Doane, both powerhouse players who will provide protection for the rest of the team and be a physical presence both on the ice and the bench.
Overall, I think the Steeldogs fans, and the rest of the hockey community, are in for a treat. They are going to see a much higher standard of hockey than they are used, with more player development and discipline than in previous years. Although other teams have formidable rosters, I think Steeldogs will be a team to watch, but then again I am slightly biased.
The BOTW Take
It’s certainly been an unusual summer in the steel city. When 2014/15 season ended with a damp squib and a hammering in the playoffs, it signalled the end of the Andre Payette era. Where Andre had the dedication and the heart, his tactics just weren’t working any more and the Steeldogs that finished third were a distant memory. The change was made to Dominic Osman which for many, myself included, seemed like a good move. It would be a move away from the somewhat bizarre style of hockey that seemed to ignore hockey altogether.
Then the Hull Stingrays folded.
When the dust had settled the EPIHL had 10 teams again, Dominic Osman, the man who built the majority of the roster for the season had departed back to Hull and Greg Wood who had been the team captain under Payette was suddenly head coach at the ripe old age of 28.
Despite that upheaval, the only player lost to Hull that had been announced as signing at Ice Sheffield was former Solway Sharks forward Craig Thurston who spent last season in the WSHL with the Cheyenne Stampede. This was coupled with the recent news that arguably the league’s hottest prospect, Vanya Antonov had not achieved the grades required to attend university in Sheffield and wouldn’t be joining.
A couple of recognisable names have also gone from last season; former EPL player of the year Janis Ozolins couldn’t stop the rot upon his return last season and has returned to Latvia, Lloyd Gibson has headed to join Edgars Bebris in Peterborough and “Sideshow” Brad Day has become the backup at the Steelers.
As is normal with the Steeldogs, a large core of the roster from the season before is back with the “Made in Sheffield” mantra still looming large with the added extra of a Sheffield born coach.
The majority of the defence is back with the only real addition being Jack Doane who slots in with the established names like Steve Duncombe, Lee Haywood and Ben Morgan. The Steeldogs defence has ranged from being really rather good to distinctly average depending on what Payette was wanting them to do but it’s always been a solid and well established unit that generally does more right than wrong even if they aren’t particularly spectacular. I won’t lie; after their fantastic fight a couple of years ago, I’m interested in the possibility of a rematch between Lewis Bell and Callum Best.
The bigger focus is on the netminding for a couple of reasons. The first is the addition of GB women’s netminder Nicole Jackson who is set to become the first female netminder to play in an EPIHL league game since Lita-Lee Jarold with the Wightlink Raiders 10 years earlier. Jackson has impressive numbers in women’s hockey and last season posted a respectable 3.93 GAA and a .893 save percentage with Widnes in NIHL2 North. Some may question women playing in a men’s league but I will make my view crystal clear; if she’s good enough, let her play and if you’re going to get all weird and say “women shouldn’t play with men” then I shall make use of the vernacular and tell you to get in the sea.
The other for me is the re-signing of Dalibor Sedlar to start. Sedlar is alright but in some ways that’s also the problem. There are arguably better import and better British netminders in the EPL and whilst the Steeldogs are comfortable with Sedlar, is he the man to take Sheffield forward and challenge for trophies?
Up front, Ozolins has been replaced by Lithuanian international Arnoldas Bosas who doesn’t have the most impressive of numbers but players from those Eastern European leagues have always scored well in the EPL if they settle with Payette’s spot being filled by the return to British hockey of Stanislav Lascek (helmet jokes sold separately). Whilst last season was not one that Lascek will want to remember with fondness (he played for 4 different clubs) this is a man who had a 76 point season with the Lightning 2 seasons ago. The talent is definitely there and at only 29, it’s not like he’s over the hill.
Lubomir Korhon is the other import and is up front to help push the scoring along with players like Wood and Tom Squires while depth comes from familiar faces like Craig Elliott and Andrew Hirst.
Two new additions that will have eyes on them are Liam Charnock who returns to Britain from the WSHL to a 2 way contract with the Dogs and the Steelers and 17 year old Cole Shudra, son of Sheffield legend Ron who will be on the EPL roster for the majority of the season. How and how much both will be used remains to be seen but I am interested to see how both do.
As I’m sat here looking at this Steeldogs roster, I have to confess that I’m not knocked back. On the surface, this team goes back to what I said about Sedlar; it looks OK but not spectacular. I certainly wouldn’t put the house on them being league champions by any means.
What then occurred to me reading it is that people including myself have forgotten the great intangible here; what we’re used to being Dogs hockey isn’t going to be Dogs hockey in 2015/16. Greg Wood isn’t an idiot and will know how to get the best out of this group of players who are now free of needing to be physical for the sake of being physical. Nothing may change at all and they might be exactly the same as last season but it’s a weapon in Wood’s arsenal that he needs to make use of. I can’t help feeling that it’s the best way for the Steeldogs to make a dent in the EPIHL this season is for them to catch people by surprise.
Home Ice: The Link Centre
2014/15 league position: 5th, cup semi-finalists
Team Preview by Ben Callaghan of On The Prowl
Last Season In A Nutshell
Last season, as ever, was a rollercoaster for the side based in the Swindon Ice Arena. The trio of new arrivals (Kenton Smith, Callum Buglass and Tomasz Malasinksi) all settled into the side quickly and we started the season well. Early wins against Chelmsford in the new cup competition swiftly saw the side get underway on the right foot followed by a penalty shot win against the Phoenix in Manchester. The league was the ultimate focus and we struggled for the consistency needed to be a top 4 side in the EPL.
Despite being the first side to shut out the newly dominant Telford Tigers in early October the call was quickly made to a Wildcat legend to come and aid the lack of scoring problem. Yes, Jonas Höög was back in Wiltshire and made an immediate impact in his opening few games back with the side. It was truly like he’d never been away. Coach Aldridge took the decision to sacrifice Kenton Smith to the bench and the Canadian became an unofficial Assistant Coach for the majority of the season.
Towards the end of 2014 Swindon managed to put together their best winning streak in the franchise history getting 10 victories in a row which included many season highlights. Scoring 11 goals in the new MK Ice Rink, qualifying for the cup semi-finals for the first time and another victory against Telford saw them into the New Year.
A mid-season personnel change was forced upon us when Henri Sandvik, who’d been having a tough 2nd full season in Swindon, decided a career in Norway was the best move for him and left the club on the eve of the cup semi-finals. Tomas Kana was chosen as his replacement and the Czech quickly went about making a name for himself in the EPL for hard-hitting and lethal finishing. Swindon found it tough in the cup from then on and Manchester went through to the final after a massive 10-5 victory in Altrincham.
Heading into the playoffs Swindon the side felt similar to the one that started the season, the consistency couldn’t be found and the Cats weren’t in best shape heading into the playoffs. A tough home leg saw the Cats go 4-0 to Peterborough at home, despite rallying for 3 late goals the Cats were unable to turn the contest around in Peterborough. A tough season came to end against the eventual playoff champions and Swindon had a summer to rebuild under incoming player/coach Stevie Lyle.
There have been lots of changes to the Wildcats roster since the end of the season. However the vital pieces of the puzzle have been snapped up early and one of the most important returnees was the 3rd announcement of the summer. The only player to take home more than one award at the end of season awards night last year. Stevie Whitfield is a massive key to the Wildcats defence this year. Stevie is the exact type of player you want on a team. He will give everything to the shift he is on. A true 110% guy who is loved by the fans and his coaches. Voted Supporters player of the year and Best Defencemen shows how much he is valued in Swindon. He may not be the flashiest of players but that’s not what his game is about. Stevie is the player you want to block every shot on a powerplay (I think in a game against Basingstoke I counted 6 blocks all from Vantroba in the same shift!). He’ll fight scrappily in the corners and clear out the pucks from the front of the net.
At the young age of 24 Stevie still has room for improvement, something which he’s been able to do each EPL season. Heading into the new season Swindon will operate with 6 British D men, the space will be there for one or two to stand up for big minutes and will want to lead the other younger D men through the season. Stevie will be one of these guys I’m sure, he plays hard on every shift and players such as Harvey Stead and Callum Buglass will be able to learn lots from him over the course of the season. As I said at the start, Stevie may not be the most obvious part of the team but he’s probably the guy Swindon will miss the most if he’s not in the line-up, and for that reason he’s the key returnee for me.
The New Boy
Last season there were 3 new arrivals in Swindon, this summer there have been a whole load more arrivals in Swindon. Jordan Hedley, Matt Selby, Harvey Stead, Neil Liddiard, Miroslav Zalesak, Sami Ryhänen and Corey McEwen have all joined the Cats. This season in genuinely tough to name just one who’ll have a big impact on the Cats. For me though, Sami Ryhänen comes with one main aim. To provide the passes for Aaron Nell to neatly tuck away. With Jonas Höög departing once again Sami arguably comes with the ideal pedigree to replace the Swede. He was the top assist scorer in the EIHL a couple of seasons ago, Sami already has a knowledge of the British game having played for the Nottingham Panthers and Dundee Stars.
If he and Aaron can link up well and replace the points of the outgoing Höög then Swindon will have one of the deadliest lines in the EPL with promising youngster Corey McEwen alongside them, it will provide Swindon a great foundation to build their offence behind. They key for coach Lyle will be to keep Sami focused with some criticism in the past of him not being the best guy to have in the changing room, ultimately though as long as he’s scoring points then Swindon fans will be happy and the players will be happy as well. He was a big signing of the off season and should be a hit in this year’s EPL.
How We’ll Do
I almost feel like a broken record by saying how tough this season will be in the EPL and how much it has improved over the summer again. Telford ran away with the league last year and even they have strengthened with the arrivals of Phil Hill and Joe Graham. 5 years ago if Swindon had signed a similar roster I’d have said we’d be league champions come March. For the 2015-2016 season I find myself saying again the aim for us has to be the top 3 or 4. We’ve a new coach with lots of new ideas and new players which should prove to be a breath of fresh air in Swindon. Whilst Stevie Lyle will be in a much unfamiliar role, he isn’t the first person in the world to be a rookie player coach, and also not the first in the EPL. Doug Sheppard and Tom Watkins were just starting out in the EPL and they both have won trophies since. There is no reason to suggest Swindon couldn’t do that under Stevie Lyle.
I think the top 4 has to be the aim again this season, we were incredibly close to it last season losing out to Peterborough on goals in games between the two teams alone. If the new imports find their feet quickly and adapt to the EPL then our import quota could well be one of the strongest in this year’s EPL. They’ll also be backed up well by the experienced brits in the side of Aaron Nell, Stevie Lyle, Lee Richardson and Neil Liddiard. In the past few years Swindon have struggled with depth. This year I do not seeing that being as much of a problem. The forwards we have will allow us to run 4 lines up front and for one of the first times we’ll have 3 full lines of D. The D may not look as strong as others but everyone of them is more than capable of EPL minutes and if they can keep the shot count to around 25 shots a game with Lyle in goal we shouldn’t be conceding as many each night. I would expect our lines to look something like this for the opening challenge game against Manchester:
Aaron Nell – Sami Ryhänen – Corey McEwen
Tomasz Malasinski – Adam Harding – Miroslav Zalesak
Jan Kostal – Sam Bullas – Toms Rutkis
Michael Stratford – Floyd Taylor – Owen Griffiths
Matt Selby – Stevie Whitfield
Lee Richardson – Callum Buglass
Neil Liddiard – Harvey Stead
The coming season will have significant similarities to seasons before. There will be tough nights, there will be moments of genius. There will be moments of frustration and moments of brilliants. There will be defeats and losses. There will be criticisms shouted from the stands as well as joy when the next goal flies in. Ultimately in some regard 2015/2016 will be no different to any other year. In that regard it’s just business as usual, but for Stevie Lyle and his team this is a new chance to create their own history. Will we see some kind of silverware in Swindon this season, who knows but this Swindon Wildcats side will work their socks off to try and bring some back to the Swindon Ice Arena.
The BOTW Take
So the final ride into the sunset for Stevie Lyle wasn’t to be; shock horror and instead we’ve been treated to the ultimate swerve as Swindon become the first British team that I can remember since the Bison in 2005/06 to have a netminder as the player/head coach.
It’s a brave move, a bold move and something that really I wasn’t expecting out of Swindon. In some ways like MK had been, Swindon had always been the team where you expected some of the same things to happen every year and to see the same faces so if you’d told me that Ryan Aldridge was leaving, I’d have probably put more money on a return for Jan Melichar as coach than Stevie Lyle.
That said, whilst that trope wasn’t adhered too, they managed to adhere to at least one of them.
The Wildcats have slowly become a more rounded side over the last couple of years and looked like the move towards being deeper was really happened…and then they signed Sami Ryhänen and Miroslav Zalesak as their import forwards alongside Kostal and Malasinksi. Sometimes the jokes do write themselves. It’s still a pretty handy looking set of forwards though with the Wildcats looking likely to run 4 lines which will certainly help. It’s pretty much a given that Ryhänen and Nell will be at least tried together though what do they do if that doesn’t work? The top line Ben mentions above is one that’s been mooted in the local Swindon press but I do wonder how long that line of Nell, Ryhänen and new comer Corey McEwan (son of Cardiff and Peterborough legend Doug) will stay together when a goal is needed or doesn’t come as soon as is required and Zalesak is moved up to that top line instead.
McEwan will be an addition worth watching having not played last year but is one of a couple of young additions to this Wildcats forward ranks that I’m actually quite interested in. Okanagan graduate Toms Rutkis caused waves last season with the Wildcats and along with fellow Okanagan player Michael Stratford combined at u18 level for 124 points in 14 games last season. Owen Griffiths joins from the Isle of Wight Raiders after a point per game with the NIHL1 South playoff champions and was one of the Raiders players that really impressed me last season. I personally think that Swindon fans will really take to him if he settles.
The defence has seen a few changes to it thanks to the retirement from the EPL of captain Shane Moore who moved to Oxford and the apparent retirement from the sport of Alex Symonds (which if true is a crying shame as he’s a cracking player). In terms of like for like replacements, Lyle’s done a decent job. Moore’s stay at home game and leadership is replaced by the evergreen Neil Liddiard, a victim of the Guildford cull. The replacement for Symonds appears to be Matt Selby and if fit, that could be the signing of the summer. I don’t watch the Wildcats as much as Ben does but I’m not massively hot on Steve Whitfield but I am on Lee Richardson and there’s the veteran presence and quality on the back end that I think needs to be relied on and can look to lead and guide players like Buglass and the arriving Harvey Stead.
Then there’s Stevie himself; 35 years young, arguably the best netminder in the league last season and he’s upgraded his backup by replacing Michael Crisp with Jordan Hedley. It’s sort of an odd move for Hedley; has he really moved to just sit on the bench? Sure, learning from Lyle is a great idea but at this age and with the potential he has there has to be a way to get him game time in meaningful situations.
So where does this leave Swindon when the chips fall in 2015/16? As far as I’ll pin it down, I think this team finishes top 5 and have a shout at the cup and the playoffs. I wonder about their longevity across the full season. The netminding and forwards look solid but the defence is a question mark for me particularly if Selby struggles for fitness. The “score one more than you” method appears to be the way that this Wildcats side will go which will likely serve them well given the fire power they have. The only problem is what happens when they don’t score.
It’s been a long silverware drought for fans at The Link and in what looks like it’ll be a really close season, this team looks capable of doing it. I’m not as confident about them doing it as I am some other clubs but the Wildcats are finally back in that discussion.