Standing in the Way – Manchester Phoenix

Another roster done and that means it’s time for the customary Banners on the Wall examination of one of the Bison’s EPL rivals for the forthcoming season. This time, we’re heading straight to the top.

 

Name: Manchester Phoenix

Home ice: Altrincham Ice Dome

Player/coach: Tony Hand

Last season’s position: 1st, EPL Champions

Top scorer: Tony Hand, 25 goals + 108 assists = 133 points

Match night ticket price: £14 adult (£13 in advance), £11 concession (£10 in advance), £6.50 child (£6 in advance), £33 family (£30 in advance)

 

Goalies:

 

I suppose there’s always an argument to be made for getting the best players that you can and even if you are at the top you can always improve. Tony Hand has come to the reasonable conclusion that he didn’t need to upgrade his starting netminder with the re-signing of Stephen Fone.

 

Fone is very rarely mentioned in the conversation for best keeper in the league and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t think Fone is as good a netminder as Bowns or Lee. The stats to support that argument to a degree; Fone posted a 90.55 save % which was only 6th in the league behind Bowns and Stephen Wall of Peterborough, two teams that finished well below the Phoenix. He also faced fewer shots per game than most of the netminders in the top 10 at just over 29.

 

As always though with stats they only tell part of the story. Aside from co-leading the league in shutouts with 4, Fone’s goals against average at 2.75 is significantly lower than other keepers playing similar minutes in the league. Now admittedly part of the credit needs to go to his defence in there too but Fone should take a fair portion of the credit.

 

The real part where Fone shines compared to the other netminders in the league is, at this level, he’s a big game netminder. Keepers are humans, really crazy humans but still humans. Occasionally they meltdown but what made Fone so good and the real hallmark of a good netminder is how infrequently he has one. Now Manchester had bad results but they never really got blown out at any stage. Fone is solvable (note to players, aim high) but it’s very solid.

 

The real standout moment for me with Fone last season that spoke to his quality was arguably one of the moments Phoenix fans will want to forget. The playoff semi final at Coventry wasn’t great for the Phoenix. Not only did they lose but the forwards didn’t really turn up and the got outworked by Milton Keynes for 58 minutes until they got some space and equalised. Do you know how they managed to be in the position to be able to come back into the game with only 2 minutes to play? It’s because Stephen Fone played out of his freaking mind! The Phoenix lost the game in overtime, they deserved to frankly because the Lightning were the better team over the whole game but Fone was arguably the man of the match across both teams.

 

After last season’s backup Adam Summerfield decided to follow his dreams and join the RAF (good luck to the lad, we should all be so lucky to get that chance), the Phoenix went back to their depth pool and promoted 18 year old Jorge El-Hage to the Phoenix full time. El-Hage dressed for the Phoenix twice last season but saw not time. He also appeared 3 times for the Trafford Metros, the Manchester ENL side. The majority of his time came with the Phoenix U18 side. The Manchester under 18’s didn’t have a stellar season, winning only 4 games. El-Hage appeared in 13 contests, finishing the season with an 8.15 GAA and 85.77 save %. Those stats should be taken in context that he faced 57.31 shots per game. Poor lad was getting peppered like a good steak!

 

I don’t think Manchester fans nor El-Hage himself are under any illusions as to how much ice time the young man will see. Jorge’s signing is about developing him and training with the senior team. It’s also very likely that he’ll play for the ENL team if he’s available. If Summerfield had stayed I think El-Hage would have been in the ENL full time this season but Hand had to act when left with the hole and decided to promote from within the club’s ranks. That’s commendable if nothing else.

 

No real change in net for Manchester though if Fone sustains a serious injury (and obviously we hope he doesn’t) how long will El-Hage have to carry the team?

 

Suppose we’ll find out.

 

Defence:

 

It speaks volumes for the confidence that Tony Hand has in Luke Boothroyd that he captains the side at the age of 24. Boothroyd could quite easily play in the EIHL if he wanted but I don’t blame him for staying with Manchester. When you captain a side to a title, you’re always inclined to stay.

It’s a good thing for Manchester fans that he is because Boothroyd is good, very good. To an extent if I’m going to have my captain be a defender, I want him to be that stay at home solid, dependable guy like Boothroyd. He’s good for around 10-20 points a season (secondary scoring, I’ll say it a lot) but more importantly he’ll be arguably the most defensively responsible person on the ice and that includes his import counterparts. He can man the point on the powerplay if needed as well but don’t expect Boothroyd to be logging the points like he will the minutes.

 

Someone who will be logging more points is returning fan favourite (and Tambo’s favourite) Ladislav Harabin. One of last season’s first team all star defencemen, Harabin famously suffered had his wrist slashed by a skate during a game against Slough. Harabin recovered and finished the season, something which we’re all thankful for. Manchester fans are thankful too because at EPL level he is a top notch defenceman. 32 points last season is decent numbers if not amazing for a blueline import but his all round game is so impressive that he can be forgiven for not scoring 50 points though, hey, I don’t think Hand would argue if he did.

 

I know some Manchester fans will be thinking about an incident between Harabin and Nicky Chinn from last season in Basingstoke and whether any retribution or a big, gloves off, helmets off war. Honestly I don’t think both players will be hunting each other down but if it happened I would not be overly shocked. That said I’d still bet on Chinn 7 days of the week and twice on Sunday to win it if they did go at it.

 

With the popular Pavel Gomeniuk moving back to the Steeldogs, Hand has scored a very capable replacement in the form of Jaroslav Spelda. Yes, I do imagine someone calling him Splenda by the end of the season.

Not exactly a spring chicken at 36 years old, Spelda brings a wealth of experience from the Czech and Slovak top divisions including winning the Extraliga title in Slovakia with Kosice during the 2008/09 season. Spelda also started in Slovakia last season before heading to Italy where he finished off the season playing alongside former Bison and Giants favourite Peter Campbell with Eppan-Appiano.

 

Spelda will be entering his 20th season of senior hockey and to be honest, the age thing will not be an issue I believe. Now of course this is where I do my “he may not adapt bit” and it’s true he may not but Hand’s not daft. This guy won’t have come cheap but he’s got experience by the bucket load, his record translates well compared to EPL hockey and comes from a league that has given the EPL many of its top line imports in the last few years. Essentially it’s win/win for Manchester, providing he works of course. If Harabin can get 30 points and Spelda can get about the same that’s a great amount of scoring coming from the back end to see Manchester right. Naturally though we need to see him on the ice.

 

The problem for me with Manchester’s defence comes after these three. Spelda, Harabin and Boothroyd would walk into most teams in the EPL but there’s a sizeable gap in quality for me between the top 3 and bottom 3 as it were.

 

Before Manchester fans and our friend The Angry Budgie start calling for my blood, let me explain.

 

Ben Morgan has swapped places with Ryan Johnson, Morgan joining the Steeldogs and Johnson joining the Phoenix. For me this isn’t much of an upgrade, a sideways move at best. Johnson will do a job but isn’t as good as the Brit defencemen on other teams.

 

James Neil and Ben Wood are popular with the Silver Blades rink faithful, they’re also capable of playing forward or defence which gives Hand options for running 6 defencemen or 10 forwards but neither are particularly impact players in my eyes. They can go out there and give the other defencemen a rest and try to not concede but if they end up matched against the better teams’ top lines they could struggle not to concede.

 

On the whole I do think the Manchester defence is alright but I don’t think they’re as deep as they could be, be it budget or coaching choice that’s given us this defence to examine. It looks like a good blue line corps but it’s not a great one.

 

Forwards:

 

It’s not exactly a giant secret why the Phoenix’s offence powered them to the EPL title last season. Between Hand, Marcus Kristofferson and Curtis Huppe they scored over 300 points which is more than some teams managed combined.

 

Of course this is minor league hockey; people move on and the band broke up. Kristofferson was tempted to the Slovak Extraliga and we assume Huppe’s love of reading tempted him to a library in Guildford for the season so Hand had to go out and find replacements. He got two 35 year olds, one “old” and one “new”.

 

The “old” is because most British hockey fans will have some sort of clue as to who Martin Cingel is. Cingel spent 9 years with the Edinburgh Capitals including 5 years as their captain. Along with Dino Bauba, Martin Cingel was Mr Edinburgh Capitals. Cingel was one of two imports to stay with the Capitals last season during their darker period (the other being Jeff Hutchins). Things in Edinburgh appear to have gone even beyond Cingel’s tolerance levels as he has signed on to re-join Tony Hand for this season, his 10th in Britain. Martin doesn’t really need a massive rundown, we know who he is. Cingel managed 52 points in 56 games on a truly awful Capitals side. We should be honest, he could quite easily still be playing Elite League hockey. He’s got a good all round game; he can score, he can set them up, he can do penalty kill and powerplay minutes and with Manchester he’ll get the chance and be expected to do all that. Likely to play alongside Hand on the top line, Cingel will get the chance to try and match Kristofferson and Huppe’s totals from last season.

 

The “new” comes in the form of Juraj Faith. Faith has spent most of his career in Slovakia with a couple of years in France and one season in the DEL for good measure. He won the Extraliga champion as part of Kosice with Spelda in 2009 so yet another player with good pedigree added to the Phoenix front line. I know some Manchester fans disagree with me as to how to look at the year Faith spent in the DEL but there’s one thing that we can agree on and that’s the fact he looks like he could make a serious dent in this league. The only thing puzzling me is where he’s going to play for the Phoenix. As I only have stats sites to go on, Faith is listed as a centre as is Sir Tony of Hand. This leads me what I think the direction of the Phoenix roster could be this season.

 

Manchester will not have 1 line of 100 point goalscorers. The era of Hand, Kristofferson and Huppe is gone. Hand has instead gone for greater depth over one high impact line.

 

Faith, if he is the natural centre that we’re told that he is, would be wasted on the wing of a line with Hand. Here’s how I see the Manchester team forming.

 

Hand centres the top line with Martin Cingel on one wing to be joined with another new boy to the Phoenix in Slava Koulikov who joins from Slough. Koulikov is based in Hull so gets to be nearer to Hull and off the back of an 81 point season for the Jets, he looks an attractive prospect for the fans. Personally I am not as sold on Koulikov as some are. I think he benefited heavily from playing on a line with Darius Pliskauskas. I don’t hold with the assertion that he is EPL import quality but he is good at this level, we can’t deny that. As a left shot he’d be a

 

Faith then centres the second line where a likely left winger will be one of my favourite non Bison players, Stephen Wallace. I say he’s one of my favourites and I mean that, I’d gladly have him in Basingstoke but I also dislike Wallace for one simple reason; every time I lose sight of him for a little while I’ll think to myself “Wallace is a bit quiet in this game” and then he’ll score out of nowhere. 50 points last season is good totals for any player let alone a Brit and if he and Faith could form a good partnership, goalies beware.

 

Who goes on the right wing of that second line is a tough one. Manchester fans will no doubt say James Archer without blinking and Archer could play there. Personally having watched him for a season I think Ciaran Long is a more natural choice as a second line winger due to his playing style than Archer but I don’t think it’ll pan out that way.

 

Archer, coming off the back of a 44 point season and returning to the squad is more likely to start the season on the second line with Long playing on the third. As I said in Long’s farewell piece, I hope it won’t stay that way for long due to Hand’s tendency to shorten the bench.

 

Josh Ward, on a two way with Nottingham will also be on the third line along with Tom Duggan who as a natural centre will be in the middle. Duggan always kind of passes me by, I’m not a fan shall we say. I’m intrigued by Ward though. Having not seen much of him the buzz on the young man is growing and I’ll be keeping a close eye on him over the course of the season as a result.

 

Overall:

 

This is all pure speculation obviously. I will likely be massively wide of the mark as to my line combinations but I think where I am right is on three points;

 

There is greater forward depth than last season

This team could repeat and win back to back EPL championships

However this team is beatable.

 

I don’t think the back end of this team is the best goalie and defence combination in the league. The defence looks a bit weaker than it did last term and I think there really is a gap between the top 3 and the bottom 3 defenders. If there’s a problem with Fone and he does meltdown or get injured, the backup is not in a position to really take over and carry the team.

 

We can’t ignore the obvious fact that the team that Hand put together which had a similar make up to this won the EPL title. Also as I’ve said I believe there’s greater forward depth in the Phoenix this season than last season. This will be a big scoring team still but we could easily see a 3rd liner on this team get 40 points.

 

Hockey though is played on ice, not paper. Whatever the combinations, be they mine or others, if the forwards don’t click is this Manchester side secure enough at the back to win the title?

 

If this team finishes any lower than 2nd, the season will and should be written off as a disaster by those people in charge. This team will be part of the title hunt, anyone who thinks differently is either actively naïve or just plain nuts.

 

I’m not going to say they will do it. It’s too early for that and we’ve not seen what they can do. You have to think the chances are very high and I’d not blame you for putting a bit of money on it if you were so inclined. Remember though nothing is ever certain, least of all in this sport. The Phoenix has risen and we will see come March if it can stay there.

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