Standing in the Way – Guildford Flames

Well it’s that time of year of again; Banners On The Wall turns it’s microscope away from the Bison and to our opposition for the forthcoming English Premier League season. As I’m a sporting fellow, the champions get the first look.

 

Name: Guildford Flames

Home ice: Spectrum Leisure Complex (aka The Library)

Player/Coach: Paul Dixon

Last season’s position: League champions, playoff semi finalists

Top scorer: Nathan Rempel, 43 goals + 30 assists = 73 pts

Match night ticket price: £9.30 – £9.80 Adults, £5.50 – £6.50 OAP/Students, £4.95 – £5.95 child (some games Kids for a Quid), £24 Family ticket (2 adults + 2 children)

 

Goalies:

I was going to say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” then realised that probably sounds a tad insensitive with Lee having snapped his leg in the playoff semi finals so we’ll just say “why change what works?

With Ben Bowns having left to stand between the pipes in Hull, Mark Lee is arguably now the best keeper in the league. Any doubts anyone had that he could carry the load were dispelled last season with career best goals against average of 2.68 combined with a .914 save % means that there’s little doubt that he can carry the workload and be that rock in the net that Paul Dixon needs. The only question over Lee is his injury situation.

I wrote in last year’s Flames preview that Hala had essentially kept the net warm until Lee was fit from injury. Again Lee finds himself coming back after serious surgery after that incident in the playoff semi final against Slough. It was what it was, a freak accident but it has to be a worry for Lee if nobody else. He is really class at EPL level and hopefully one day he’ll push on to full time EIHL hockey but that tendency to get seriously injured has to weigh on his mind a touch.

19 year old James Hadfield is back to understudy for Lee. After an impressive 2010/11 season with Swindon, Hadfield appeared in a grand total of 7 games with a 3.59 goals against average which is alright numbers if not world beating. Hadfield, thrown in the deep end after Lee’s injury, gave a good account of himself though arguably gave up some shots that his counterpart would have saved. Hadfield is still young and has somebody very good to develop alongside. As with last year, Hadfield has to be solid but not spectacular. The hope is that he’ll see a touch more ice time but if Lee is fit the whole season then Dixon will ride him like the most popular ride at the fair.

 

Defence:

Again when you win championships, the obvious thing is to change as little as possible and you’ll hope that the players won’t get better offers from elsewhere. However the one big change the Flames have made is running with 7 defencemen.

Dixon himself despite his advancing years (he’s now 39) he can still adequately play top 4 defensive minutes and managed to retain the services of two of the best blueliners in the league in the form of David Savage and Branislav Kvetan.

Kvetan, who somehow didn’t get an EPL all star nomination, was in my opinion the best defender in the league and anyone who says that they wouldn’t have him on their team is outright lying to you. Now 34 he’s certainly not over the hill in EPL terms but having not played since February due to injury his fitness, like that of Lee’s will be called into account by some. Obviously there’s been a lot of time for him to recover and Flames fans will hope he’s back to 100%. I must confess I do as well, he’s fun to watch.

David Savage is one of those rarities, a Flames youth prospect promoted to the EPL roster (and more on that in a bit). Savage cemented his reputation as a top level British defenceman with an election to the 2nd all star team last term to go with his medals. Savage is a defenceman who can score points (66 in the last 2 seasons) as well as fully maintain his defensive responsibilities where others sometimes falter and will be key to any Flames bid to repeat the feats of last season.

The returns of Neil Liddiard and Jez Lundin, arguably two of the most disliked men in the league will return as well to add the more physical edge to the Flames defensive line. Both are solid d-men, Liddiard gritty and Lundin has a blistering shot that is dynamite on the powerplay. Lundin’s reputation as an agitator is however well earned and given the more physical attitude of some teams he might be called on more to answer for his actions.

Added to the mix and back from his mini tour of EPL sides is Rick Skene. Skene, like Liddard is solid and gritty and with the added depth for the Flames won’t have to spend a great deal of time on the powerplay which is not where his strengths lie but penalty kill time and being that defensive defenceman will be Skene’s remit. It’s what he does well, you don’t sign Rick Skene for his speed or secondary scoring on the back end.

Then there’s Chris Cooke, last season’s under 18’s captain is promoted to a full time member of the Flames roster. Congratulations to him on that and it’s good to see that internal promotion from within the Guildford system. The pointed comments from Dixon however in his press release were hopefully tongue in cheek. Given the amount of ex Guildford juniors who had a sniff at the senior side then moved to get ice time, Dixon either seriously believes what he said or just has a fantastic sense of humour because for the Flames, winning has always put development in the back seat. You only have to look at the number of The Flames have improved in recent years with Savage, Scott Greenfield and now Cooke coming through but those in glass houses, Paul.

 

Forwards:

The Flames have literally signed no new forwards over the summer. Every forward on the roster at the moment for the 2012/13 finished last season in Guildford.

The obvious big loss over the course of the summer is Matt Towe who has finally gone back to the EIHL with Belfast. Towe, who was always a bit too good for the league leaves something or a hole in the Flames attack that will likely see a heavier rotation of imports and a bit more ice time for Milos Melicherik who can play at centre as well as Kohut who will be expected to put up tons of points.

Kohut, who was labeled a comedy signing by one Swindon fan when he appeared, turned up, gave a toss and scored 34 points in 20 games. Spin that out over 54 games he’d have scored 98 points. If he comes back and plays like he did in the 20 games he did last season and combine that with Rempel’s ability to score somewhere between 70-100 points a season that’s insane firepower. You could put me on that line and it would still be half decent. Then of course you add Curtis Huppe into the mix who had 54 points last season in 35 games. It’s frightening. The Flames will obviously have to rotate the imports around but it’s the luxury of the Flames’ position. As Greg Chambers alluded to in his interview last week, he went into the season knowing he wouldn’t play 54 games. The Flames can mix and match by opponent and in regards to the form of their players.

The Brit depth up front for the Flames as well is always of a high quality led by the evergreen David Longstaff. Longstaff, for as much abuse as he gets and as much as he might have lost a yard of pace, still has the brain and the hands. He can put the puck on a sixpence and that’s always a threat. Ben Campbell is the other obvious 2nd line quality forward who is good for around 30 points a season off the 2nd line. I’ll be interested to see if Campbell can push on and break the 50 point barrier this season but a lot will depend on how much he is used in special teams situations.

Rick Plant and Stuart Potts were never really going to sign anywhere else and fall into the category of “players you don’t talk about much but are vital to the operation” because they’re the players that will play 3rd line minutes but can play 2nd line minutes if the situation arises. Andy Hemmings (a former Flames player who went away to get ice time and then came back, funny that) will occupy the other permanent spot on the 3rd line with Andrew Sharp (make your own jokes) rotating onto the 3rd line with young team product Scott Greenfield, who to be honest I think has got the potential to do very well.

 

Overall:

The more I watch EPL hockey and the more I write, I feel like I’m a bit of a cynic when I speak about Guildford. It’s really easy to say “Guildford have more money than anyone else” (they do) or “if it all goes wrong they’ll just sign more imports” (they have the means to) but ultimately if we’re honest with ourselves we need to also acknowledge a couple of very obvious truths about the Guildford Flames; they have a very good core of players and Paul Dixon is a decent coach. I don’t think he’s the best coach because with his resources he should be good but he knows how to get the best out of those players he does sign. I don’t think that means we need to cast some of the negative things people say about Guildford to one side, many of them are true but we have to look at the good things and credit them too.

The Flames could rebuild their side every season with new players but they don’t. Last season I think most people would say that the league moved on in quality. Guildford responded to that shift and won the title. They changed 6 players including 2 of their imports and dropped an import netminder, the result was a trophy.

This team has made its tweaks and maybe the lack of massive change is Dixon’s faith in the players and the system that he has in place. This team will challenge for trophies whether people like it or not but the issue is will they actually win them? Whilst this is a very good roster, has the league moved on again? Teams that didn’t win the title have reacted by changing their rosters. Some like Manchester have made minor tweaks, some like Milton Keynes have made larger tweaks, some like the Bison have almost started again from scratch.

I’m not going to sit here and say for certain that Guildford are going to win the title again. There are question marks still over the fitness of two of the biggest pieces in Lee and Kvetan, they’ve lost one of the best British forwards in the previous EPL season and arguably don’t have an adequate replacement for him. It doesn’t stop this being a very good Guildford side but there are issues for every team to face.

If Dixon hasn’t gauged the league right then he’ll be forced into changes quickly because Guildford doesn’t tolerate not being in the hunt. If he’s gauged it right they might be the second team to do back to back EPL titles for 8 years.

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