Standing in the Way – Telford Tigers

Another day and another one of the Bison’s EPL rivals have announced a completion to their roster. This time around we head a bit further north than our recent entries to Shropshire to look at Telford Tigers.

Name: Telford Tigers

Home ice: Telford Ice Rink

Player/Coach: Tommy Watkins

Last season’s position: 9th

Top Scorer: Scott McKenzie, 30 goals + 35 assists = 65 points

Match night ticket price: £10 adult, £5 child/OAP, £25 family (2 adults and up to 3 children)

Goalies:

After last season’s 9th place finish, Coach Watkins has shuffled things around with his netminding corps. Gone is Martin Clarkson arguably the better of the two keeps for Telford last season but staying and starting according to a recent Tigers press release is 18 year old Declan Ryan.

Ryan recorded Telford’s only shutout of last season and finished the season with a 5.07 goals against average. However the large amount of shots he faced last season left him with a not terrible 88.04 save %. He faced an average of 42.34 shots a game. That’s not a bad result considering Telford’s defence last season let in more goals than any other team in the EPL.

Announced as backup in his press release was Telford junior system product Josh Nichols who returns to Shropshire following two seasons with Coventry Blaze’s ENL side. Nichols was coached by Watkins when he was in the Telford U18’s side, the Venom so is well aware of what Josh’s skills are. At 20 years old it seems like an ideal time for a young goalie to be making that step up into the EPL (even if he is behind an 18 year old) but there are likely to be chances for Nichols to see some ice time. He posted good stats in the ENL for Coventry. The ENL North 1 is a very good league which has been tough for goalies and Nichols posted over 90% save percentage in his two years at the Skydome.

Looking that you’d likely argue that they’re a bit inexperienced but that there’s potential there for a decent netminding tandem that can lead the Tigers into the future. However this is British hockey, when did stuff ever make much sense?

Joining Ryan and Nichols and in the netminding crew was a choice that left many wondering what the game plan was for Telford. Former Wightlink Raiders keeper, Canadian born Greg Blais signed on as player/assistant coach. Ontario born Blais, a graduate of Suffolk University is now based on the Isle of Wight and is apparently relieved to be playing back in Britain. Question is, will he actually play?

Now do not get me wrong, Greg Blais is a good netminder at this level. When he played for Wightlink he turned back more shots than a teetotal man in a Jaegermeister bar but as Bison TV’s Graham Bell pointed out on Twitter, for a club that’s been very big on youth development it is a bit strange to them turn around and sign an import netminder. He also raised the level of imports to 5. Now I appreciate that Blais will be heavily involved in training the juniors as well as the large amount of community work the Tigers Trust, Greg’s a good guy after all.

As a coach he will likely be an asset and he will be a good teacher to the younger netminders in the Tigers side but at 31, when I’d heard he’d signed in the EPL I’d hoped it would be because I was going to see the guy play. EPL rules will make it interesting as to when we see him; 4 imports dressed, 3 on the ice at any one time makes having an import goalie problematic so Watkins will have to carefully pick and choose when Blais will hit the ice.

I question this decision by Watkins to sign Blais as player/coach rather than one or the other. He’s signed 3 capable keepers but both young netminders who need ice time to develop have the sword of Damocles that is Blais hanging over them who, if he needs to be played, takes another of the imports key to Telford’s game off the ice. I’m sure Tommy Watkins has a plan, I just have no clue what it is.

Defence:

As mentioned above, the worst defence in the EPL needed some changes.

To be fair there were a few changes made during the season as it was.

Chris Allen who signed with something of a fanfare was released before Christmas as a cost saving measure by the club. Allen has now ended up as player/coach of Peterborough but we’ll touch on that more when the Phantoms turn comes around.

In February, long time Telford stalwart Ashley Stanton decided he wasn’t doing the shirt justice and retired after a career spanning 20 years. Also heading to the sidelines was Daniel ‘Little Budzy’ MacKriel. MacKriel announced his intentions before the end of the season. As he was getting married the home grown talent said he would see out the campaign then spend more time with his family but would help in an off ice capacity.

The other big loss was promising youngster, Daniel Scott. Kent born Scott, who spent a year in America with Northwood High School has taken the step up to join Hull in the EIHL.

4 of last season’s defenders are staying in an attempt to better the Tigers blueline fortunes this time around.

A good place to start is the captain. Tomas Janak returns for another season to skipper the side. Janak is no stranger to the EPL style and is versatile as he can play both at the back and up front. The 28 year old moved about between the two last season but spent most of his time at the back after the loss of Allen to anchor the blue line corps. I must confess to liking Janak as a player. I don’t think he’ll ever find his way into the EPL all star teams but he gives everything he has every shift and will be a reassuring presence for the fans to know they have a player at the back that can do his defensive duties but join the offence as required.

Also back is another player that seems to bleed Telford colours is local boy Daniel Croft. Croft, who was famously “banned for a year” in 2009 for “excessive roughness” after knocking the living daylights out of his now teammate Scott McKenzie is something of a calmer character these days.

Now a much more mature presence in the side the alternate captain is, like Janak, a not very flashy but solid person to have on the back end.

23 year old Michael Jones also returns on the blueline for the Tigers. Jones only started playing in his teens with Flintshire and landed in Telford last season after a term with Invicta Dynamos in ENL South. Jones is a low scoring, low penalty minutes defender. Bison fans will think Sam Oakford in a way, if you don’t notice Jones then he’s doing his job.

Then of course there’s Coach Watkins himself. The previous campaign was the Coventry Blaze legend’s first as a senior head coach (he had coached the Telford U18 side for a while) after 10 years under Paul Thompson so there’s no doubt that he’s had an excellent mentor to learn from in that respect.

At 33, Watkins is more than able to go for a couple of years at this level. Like Janak he can move into the forwards if needed though I don’t see that happening. His 38 points last season was his best points haul for nearly 10 years and he will once again see a fair amount of powerplay and penalty kill time. Then again he’s the boss, he can do what he likes. He could put himself in goal if he felt the need. What difference is an extra goalie?

The new additions are interesting to say the least, both for different reasons. Rather than spend big like they did with Allen, they spent sensible and signed Slovakian defenceman Juraj Senko. The 26 year old born in Zilinia has played in the Extraliga in his homeland, in France as a little bit in Hungary but spent the last two seasons playing for Solway Sharks in the now defunct Northern League. He also played in the World Junior Championships in 2003 and is a former teammate of Tomas Janak in Dijon.

Now the NIHL wasn’t massively high in terms of its quality and it’s easy to dismiss Senko out of hand but his record shows that he’s played with some decent teams. He’s now got 2 years of the British game under his belt and could surprise a few people.

The other new addition is former Coventry youth product Ryan Selwood. 23 year old Selwood has appeared on loan for the Bison 3 times over the past two seasons as well as sporadic appearances for the Blaze in the EIHL whilst playing the bulk of his hockey at ENL level. At 5’9, 168lbs he’s not massive but will be a Kurt Reynolds style player for the Tigers. Selwood is making the step into being full time in the EPL for the first time but it is widely predicted that he will swim rather than sink at this level.

Telford have 3 OK defence pairings there. That’s the issue though, they’re only OK. Watkins is good but they are not going to get a massive amount of secondary scoring from the back and 4 out of 6 returning from the worst defence in the league is a bit head scratching. Watkins will have signed within his budgets but even with the additions of Selwood and Senko, I’m not convinced by the Telford blueline.

Forwards:

Telford’s forwards, lets get this out of the way now. Scott McKenzie being back for the Tigers is a coup. 65 points is a very good total for a Brit and 30 goals made him second in Brit goal scorers behind Oli Bronnimann. Clubs need those top quality Brits and the fact that McKenzie wasn’t lured away by the bigger EPL teams speaks volumes to Telford’s system and organisation that McKenzie hasn’t left.

The other returnee that will please Tigers fans is the home town import, Marek Hornak. Hornak is now based in Telford and quit half way through last season to concentrate on his education but has committed full time to the Tigers for 2011/12. Hornak didn’t have the impact of previous years last season (he scored 36 points last season and scored 84 in his first season in Telford in 08/09) but with a full season where he can focus on the hockey we could see more from him.

A likely candidate to join those two on the top line would be the other new import for Telford, Jiri Hanzal. The 26 year old had spent most of his career in the Czech 2nd division but left his homeland and played last year in the French 3rd division, winning the championship with Dunkerque. Right there is what instantly makes you think; French division 3. Either Hanzal isn’t that hot or Dunkerque had money to splash out on a decent Czech import forward. Either way it’s a bit unfair to write off Hanzal just yet. His numbers aren’t amazing but as has been made clear, Slovak and Czech leagues aren’t ones where you can pad your numbers.

After those 3, the remaining 8 forwards are no older than 22 years old. In fact a possible second line consists of three of them. If Josh Bruce can effectively play centre, he could form quite an impressive line with former Coventry Blaze product Joe Henry on the left and former Newcastle Viper, Dean Holland on the right. Holland, who will be on a two way with Dundee and Henry have a ton of potential that some might argue hasn’t been fully realised. Bruce had an impressive début season in the EPL with 30 points and he’s one of those players I never see a great deal but like to watch when I do.

The other member of that club is Luke Brittle. A Telford product, the 18 year old was predicted for big things by…well me actually. In an article for Ignite magazine I predicted that he’d be in the EIHL within 3 years Brittle still needs a bit of development but he’ll get there. He is also on a two way with Coventry this season so that bodes well for my prediction.

Not to be left out of the two way act, Nottingham have two young players on two ways with the Tigers in the form of Thomas Soar and Callum Bowley. Both are GB under 18 internationals and have iced for the Panthers in the past. The Tigers have made no secret that part of the club’s job is to develop young players and Nottingham won’t argue with two of their promising junior products getting EPL ice time. Soar and Bowley got nearly 170 points between the two of them for the under 18s in Nottingham last season, I think that’s worth taking a chance on.

Last but by no means least is the youngest member of the roster, 17 year old Adam Taylor. Taylor will see ice time across EPL, ENL and under 18s in Telford this year which will only help him. He can get the ice time in the ENL and u18s whilst training with the full squad. It’s win win for him.

An interesting set of forwards there and no lines really set but outside of that top line, I have to wonder if they have the depth outside of the top line to make a dent in teams defences.

Overall

Before I give too much of a prediction here, let me say this. I have infinite respect for the Telford Tigers organisation. Run by the fans, active in their community, dedicated to developing players so an under 10 can go from the bottom of the club to the EPL and onwards. I can’t sing their praises enough in that regard.

The problem is that this team, for me, is going to struggle. They have players who are on the way up in their careers and players who in a couple of years will be very good players but right now, I look at the EPL and can only see a team that will not win many games as a result. If we look towards the teams that finished at the lower end of the table; Bracknell have made changes and improved, Sheffield have made changes and improved, Telford have made changes and moved sideways and therein lies the issue.

I don’t think that Telford are going to get Edinburgh style smacked every game but I think wins could be few and far between. They will upset teams now and again, this appears to be a team built with a lot of heart and determination but that only gets so far. The talent level has to be there too.

I want a Telford side that challenges hard for the playoffs. We all know we’ll get a side that won’t give up no matter the scoreline but sadly I see another playoff-less for the Tigers.

I pray that I am wrong.

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