Standing in the Way – Swindon Wildcats

The EPL season is fast upon us and there’s a bit of time before we play all the teams but I’m trying to get through them as quick as I can before we get too far into the season. As a one man operation it’s a tough process but it’s fun so lets get on with the next one.

 

Name: Swindon Wildcats

Home ice: The Link Centre

Player/coach: Ryan Aldridge

Last season’s position: 7th

Top scorer: Jozef Liska, 34 goals + 32 assists = 66 points

Match night ticket price: £12-£12.50 adult, £9-£9.50 Concessions, £5-£5.50 child, £28.40-£29.80 Family ticket 1 (2 adults+2 children), £24.60-£26.80 Family ticket 2 (1 adult+3 children)

 

Goalies:

 

Two new goalies, sort of, for the Wildcats this season. James Hadfield decided to warm the bench for Guildford and Chris Douglas signed for Oxford City Stars in ENL South 1 leaving Ryan Aldridge with the task of finding a whole new set of backstops.

 

I said sort of above because this season’s starter for the Wildcats is known to Link Centre fans. Tom Murdy appeared in 5 games over two seasons after being loaned out by Coventry Blaze. The former Whitley Bay junior had a 1.92 GAA in ENL 1 North in 2008/09 before heading south for 2009/10 to join the Blaze full time as their back up. During the Blaze’s title winning season he appeared in 6 games posting a .898 save % and 4.52 GAA behind former Danish international and anthem singer Peter Hirsch as well as 2 games for Swindon. In 2010/11 he appeared in 16 games with a 4.13 GAA and posted a .863 save %. He also appeared in 3 games for Swindon.

 

For Swindon fans who were a bit annoyed at loosing Aaron Nell to the Blaze, you’re welcome. After both Hadfield and Douglas posted sub .900 save % Murdy is hopefully going to give the Wildcats some stability at the back. After excelling at ENL level he must have impressed Paul Thompson to have been given the chance to back up the Blaze. Admittedly the amount of competitive ice time seen by EIHL backups in minimal but training with two very good netminders in Peter Hirsch and Brett Jaeger day in, day out for 2 seasons is only going to have a positive impact on a young netminder. At 20 years old, Murdy is coming to the EPL with development in mind, he clearly has sights beyond the EPL and with Thompson likely keeping an eye on his progress, a return to the Blaze at some point has to be in his plans.

 

Swindon to do this for Murdy. He will see a lot of ice time and bar injury could feasibly play 54 games this season. He’s a very solid netminder, good positioning with good pedigree from a good junior system and his time in Coventry. At the start of last season Wildcats fans told me that Chris Douglas was the star netminder who would propel this team up the table. No, Murdy is the netminder with the potential to do that. Why I think it won’t happen is to follow.

 

Backing up the Cats is a familiar face to Bison fans in Graham Bird. Bird, now 24, appeared for the Bison during the 2008/09 season in the EIHL backing up Kevin Reiter. Since he appeared for the Bison, Bird appeared in 4 games for Harringey in 2009/10 and last season appearing in 16 games for Flintshire in ENL North. I don’t think Wildcats fans nor anybody else are expecting Bird to challenge Murdy for the starters job in any serious capacity but Bird will do a solid job backing up. Bird has not really played on any amazing teams in recent years, for Harringey his GAA was 12.68! However Bird is not going to do anything silly and provided the defence don’t completely give up and walk off the ice leaving him to his own devices, on the rare occasions where he gets on the ice Swindon might be ok.

 

The issue for Swindon’s netminding is similar to Manchester; if the starter gets injured and is out for a significant period of time, is the backup good enough to start in his place? For me the answer is no. However lets cross that bridge when we come to it.

 

Defence:

 

OK Wildcats fans, here is where we likely fall out so I’ll start with the good bit and let is roll downhill from there.

 

I’m actually quite interested to watch Paul Swindlehurst play. The former Manchester and Sheffield junior originally signed for Slough but when Pete Russell was dumped and headed towards Wiltshire, Swindlehurst was persuaded to not join up with the Jets and instead sign on with the Wildcats. Russell coached Paul in the GB U20s, that’s likely the reason why. Swindlehurst spent last season in the Ontario Hockey Academy playing in the Midget AAA side where he scored 5 points in 13 games. For me, he’s an utterly unknown quantity but if Russell likes him he must be decent. I look forward to seeing him play.

 

Nick Compton is a decent enough low scoring, stay at home defenceman (19 points in 158 EPL games) and will likely slot in as 4th or 5th defenceman in the rotation. Compton has had time overseas including a bit of time playing college hockey in America. At 23, EPL may well be his level. He won’t be flash, he won’t be spectacular but he can get out there and do a decent enough job. A local boy playing for his home town team will always play well to the fans and he’ll be dedicated to the course though Ryan Aldridge will likely be asking him to contribute more than the 1 assist he managed in 48 games last season.

 

Shane Moore is another local boy who returns to the Wildcats after two seasons with the Bracknell Bees. Moore is obviously not the only Bees player to move down the road to Swindon but this one is a signing that made me wonder a bit. Moore will step up and contribute a few points from the back (29 in the past two seasons, 11 assists last term) but he’s never stood out for me as particularly defensively solid. Also if Swindon are wanting to push on from their 7th placed finish last season, why are you signing a defenceman from the bottom placed team who doesn’t have a reputation of being a particularly solid defenceman and picks up a fair amount of penalty minutes? The likely answer is cost and again, reasons for that later in the piece.

 

Captain for this season is former Bison Joe Baird. Baird will be entering his third season in Wiltshire and at 31 is an elder statesman on the team and his leadership qualities have seen him elected skipper for the season. Baird didn’t actually have that bad a season last term, having a career year in terms of points with 6 goals and 16 assists for 22 points. Baird also totted up 134 minutes of penalties which is not ideal. You don’t want your skipper sitting out chunks of the game in the penalty box. What Baird lacks in speed he makes up for in the fact he’s tough and will do anything for the cause but that comes with responsibility of not going over the line. Baird isn’t being employed to be Chris Wiggins and be an enforcer, he’s the captain now. He needs to be a solid all round player and defenceman; there could be issues.

 

Finally comes a bone of contention for me; Jan Melichar. Now anyone who knows me well enough will know my feelings on “Big Jan” but I’ll give him credit where it’s due. He was the Wildcats highest scoring defender last season and entering his 7th season of hockey in Britain he has picked up quite a few fans. He’s also useful on the poweplay due to his big shot.

 

I am not one of those fans. Melichar is for me one of the most over rated players Brit or import in the EPL. His points totals have steadily declined since he came to the league as his overall defensive performances have declined with time. Melichar is a unique player for me; the players I am normally vocal about are normally the ones I dislike for their cheapshotting ways. Melichar I dislike because I keep getting it thrust upon me what a top quality import he is when there are better British players in teams. He’s just not that good, sorry folks

 

Swindon fans were predicting a possible top half finish for the Wildcats this time around and here is the big hindrance to that. What we see before us folks is not a very good blue line unit. I don’t think we can really escape that.

 

Forwards:

 

So…we’ll just get right to it shall we. Swindon have signed a top line that scored 239 points and other teams should sit up and take note of that. What Swindon lacks in a mediocre blueline, they make up for in the fact that their top line can score points together by the bucket load and they have a half decent amount of depth to back them up.

 

Having managed to persuade left winger and former EPL player of the year Jaroslav Cesky, fellow all star and centre Michal Pinc and right winger Nicky Watt to move the Pinky, Perky and Watty line to The Link Centre it’s hard to see what other combination will be used as the top line. Since the three started playing together in 2009/10 when Cesky and Pinc came to Britain they’ve kept the scoreboard regularly ticking over with an alarming frequency. The only downside for them was the Bracknell defence for the last two seasons has had more holes than a sieve makers convention meaning that for all their hard work banging them in, the team would still lose games and never saw the playoffs. Now I’ve not been overly kind to the Wildcats defence but they are better than the defence that this line have played with before.

 

The main secondary scoring threat comes in the form of Swede, Jonas Höög. Höög joined from Swedish 1. Division (the 3rd tier) side Nacka HK mid way through the season and quickly raced into fans’ hearts scoring 53 points in the 29 games he appeared in. Höög has a knack for popping up with the right pass or goal just when opposition fans don’t want him too. A few Bison fans wouldn’t have said no to Höög having joined the Bison. A talented and skilled player who can turn on the afterburners and outpace defenders, he provides another attacking option outside of the star line.

 

Likely to join Höög on the second line are two home town boys. Looking to build on a decent season last year is Lee Richardson who will likely centre the line. 44 points including 21 goals is very good numbers in the EPL for a British centre which if the second line clicks together and Richardson can distribute the puck well to his wingers there could be some goalies in for rubber poisoning.

 

Then there’s player/coach Ryan Aldridge who can slot in on the right wing of the second line. Aldridge somehow managed to get 53 points in 50 games without me really actually noticing he’d done it. Aldy’s a very good player at this level which I sometimes forget as I don’t always agree with his coaching tactics a lot of the time but he is. A point per game is not something to be sniffed at. OK he might have benefited from his linemates a bit (Slava Koulikov, ladies and gentlemen) but the boy can go.

 

With Höög listed as a left winger, the re-signing of James Knight gives the Wildcats a depth on the left hand side. Knight had an impressive 38 points in 27 games after joining midway through the season and to think a point per game player will likely be on the 3rd line for the Cats is certainly interesting for other teams to try and combat. That said it’s possible that Richardson could play on the third line with Knight on the second line seeing either the British/Canadian dual citizen or Höög move to the centre to add a different dimension to things. However for me it makes more sense to have the natural centre, Richardson, playing on the second line as he’s more than capable of doing so.

 

That said if Knight ends up on the third line he likely won’t be getting tons of scoring support.

 

Sam Bullas came with a lot of hype but doesn’t seem to quite be there yet. I don’t mind Bullas, I think he plays with a lot of heart but it seems weird to have a high scorer in Knight on a third line with Bullas who is more your archetypical third forward alongside the two new young additions Stephen Whitfield and Loris Taylor makes for an interesting looking third line. I assume there’s method to the madness but I’m struggling to see what it is.

 

Overall:

 

This is a tough one; normally I roll out some sort of witty quip or an overly long metaphor or simile but it’s easier to just to be honest I think.

 

Starting netminder looks very good though his backup is average, the forward lines have a load of offence but if they don’t perform there could be problems, the defence looks below average.

 

That’s it, goodnight everybody! OK, OK, probably a bit short. I’ll go into further detail.

 

Murdy is a very capable netminder who whilst not as good as Lee or Bowns is rightly getting the chance to be a starter at EPL level with a backup who will support but won’t challenge him for the job outright. The push that Murdy needs to do well will be the fact that he has to carry the team which is a big ask for a 20 year old but many believe that he can do it and it’ll be interesting to watch him try.

 

The forwards as we know have a great amount of fire power. That top line can score almost at will at times. As I’m typing this, Swindon have just lost 5-3 to Slough in a challenge game and the goals were Pinc from Cesky, Cesky from Watt from Pinc and Cesky unassisted. However if that top line or the ever impressive Höög have an off night or don’t fire on all cylinders, is there enough offensive firepower in the bottom 5 forwards to get some goals required?

 

Then there’s the defence; a below average import combined with two not very mobile Brits in Moore and Baird, the reasonable Compton and Swindlehurst could be brilliant or could be a dud at EPL level. This could be Swindon’s downfall because no matter how many goals they score, if the back end can’t keep them out then they’re sunk.

 

I think the Wildcats have it in them to be a playoff team come the end of the season but I’ve seen Wildcats fans predicting a 4th place finish for this team and to be honest I’m a bit surprised some haven’t been proclaiming they’ll win the EPL title. I think Wildcats fans need to temper their expectations. 6th is realistic for this team, nothing more. If they get 5th I’d say it’s a real achievement.

 

Swindon will be a competitive team but the Cats won’t be running too wild on the EPL.

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