Standing in the Way – Milton Keynes Lightning

As we’ve already done last season’s league winners, we can now get on and work through the completed EPL squads as they’re announced as being done. As they’re finished it’s time for us all to enter The Thunderdome

Name: Milton Keynes Lightning

Home Ice: Milton Keynes Arena (aka The Thunderdome)

Player/coach: Nick Poole

Last season’s position: 5th, playoff quarter finalists

Top scorer: Leigh Jamieson , 38 goals + 35 assists = 73 points

Match night ticket price: £12 adult, £8 concessions, £5.50 child, £18.50 1 adult + 2 children, £26 2 adults+1 child, £29.50 2adults+2children (2011-12 ticket prices, no published news for current season)

Goalies:

Last season saw a somewhat elongated changing of the guard in net for Milton Keynes and now it is fully confirmed…sort of. Last season saw the winding down Lightning legend and my favourite insane British goalie Barry Hollyhead and more ice time for Alex Mettam in key situations between the pipes for Milton Keynes. However as the playoffs rolled around, suddenly Hollyhead was between the pipes rather than Mettam. A last hurrah perhaps but either way Milton Keynes crash out of the playoffs at the quarter final stages at the hands of eventual winners, Slough. Again however rather than giving Mettam the full nod as number 1 netminder, Poole appears to have gone with the “sign 2 very strong netminders” plan where he’ll ride the hot hand.

Mettam himself had a breakthrough year last season appearing in 41 games with a 2.64 GAA and a senior career best .919 save %. Mettam suddenly found himself being mentioned in the same breath as Bowns and Lee as one of the top goalies in the EPL which I think he still has a claim to be. Like Lee, Mettam at 24 is still really developing and a good few years away from his prime and to compliment that, Poole has signed another veteran presence to be alongside him to bolster the roster and provide some good competition for the star to be.

By his own admission, Stephen Wall didn’t have the best of season’s last year. He fell out with the powers that be at Peterborough and then joined a Bison side that wasn’t really fulfilling his potential and didn’t ever really settle despite being some very good performances. Now 30, Wall is nowhere near finished at this level and still has the ability to be a starter at EPL and now he’s not playing for the Bison, you can almost bet that every time he plays us he’ll turn into Ken Dryden.

There is always the argument put forward that you never have two number one goalies but two number goalies…I probably said that last season with Milton Keynes as well but somehow, annoyingly, they make it work.

Also added to the MK netminding corps is 16 year old Jordan Headly. Headly will primarily be with the junior setup but will be registered with the Lightning and MK Thunder. Headly will be injury cover for Mettam and Wall. It’ll be unlikely he’ll see any ice time but training alongside these two netminders will only aid his development.

Defence:

Much like Guildford, there are few changes in the Milton Keynes blue line corps. The one person departing is Tom Norton who originally went back to Nottingham then fell victim to the EIHL’s mind blowing short sightedness and now finds himself on a two way between the Panthers and Peterborough. He has been replaced (such as it is) by former Bison defenceman Dan Harris who arguably joins as the 5th defenceman because the top 4 defencemen at Milton Keynes is arguably one of the strongest in the league.

Now entering his 5th year with the Lightning, Lukas Zatopek at 34 is still going to be one of the top defenders in the league. Whilst his offensive output has diminished in recent years, he’s still vastly effective both in his own zone and going forward. Zatopek is one of the better powerplay quarterbacks in the league and will be the real leader on the back end.

Former Bison TV commentator Graham Bell said that Ross Green was one of the unsung talents of last season, calling the defensive defenceman worthy of a an all star place. I personally am a bigger fan of of the duo of Michael Farn and Lewis Christie. Whoever your favourite of those three is, you have a very solid British back end to the Lighting. Farn is the more natural goalscorer of the three to compliment Zatopek’s scoring output whereas Green and Christie are the more defensive defencemen.

Harris, another defensive defenceman comes in, likely as number 5, to come into the rotation and provide some very good penalty killing skills.

Defence wins championships, I say it enough and these five are a decent start towards that.

Forwards:

It’s nice when on a British team that a British player is the biggest signing. The hometown hero Leigh Jamieson (congratulations on the wedding by the way) was announced as the last member of the roster for the season with a two year deal and it is a crucial signing for the Lighting. Jamieson has been an all star 3 seasons in a row, twice as a defenceman then last season as a forward having top scored for the side. I’m not surprised this signing was left till last because it really is the best one for fans of the Lighting. Jamieson has a real eye for goal, the move from defence to forward last season saw him literally double his goal scoring output whilst scoring a similar amount of assists. All this coupled with the fact that if someone in defence gets injured, he can play defence. I bet the day when the signed contract came back to the MK offices, they fired party poppers.

As if it couldn’t get any better for Lightning fans by having their talisman back, they replaced Tuomas Tikkanen who scored a point per game in his 20 games for the record point scorer in the history of the EIHL in Adam Calder. Calder, who won an EIHL grand slam with Coventry in 2004/05 is not a spring chicken any more at 36 but after an 81 point season and the playoff title with Slough, his desire to play closer to his UK base in the midlands has paid off nicely for Coach Poole. If you have two players that can combine for 150 points across a season then you’re likely to win a lot of hockey games. Jamieson is a bit more direct in his approach and Calder is almost British hockey’s definition of a skill player. Whether these two play on a line together remains to be seen but you’d have to think Poole will try the ex Blaze team mates together at some stage.

The ever reliably good Blaz Emersic is also back for another run at the Thunderdome, 2nd in the Lightning’s scoring charts last term only 1 point behind Jamieson. Whether Emersic plays top or second line minutes remains to be seen but I’d venture he might be part of the top line with Jamieson and Calder at least once or twice during the season. Who plays centre on that line I wouldn’t know but Emersic as the best passer of the three would be the more obvious choice.

The last import of course is the coach himself. Poole, now entering his 13th year of hockey in Milton Keynes is more than likely 2nd line on the second line. Now 39, Poole averages over an assist per game over his EPL career and is likely to go close to matching last season’s 41 assists again this term if asked to guess. He’s also got to be in the same category of British hockey players as Tony Redmond and Steve Gannaway in that they’ve been with one club for some long that when they retire, they should just take the jersey off his back and nail it to the wall then and there.

The other real changes for Milton Keynes have been in the British forwards. Olympic gold medallist in beer throwing and league agitator in chief Grant McPherson was kept on the third line whilst line mates Matt Towalski and Michael “Muzzy” Wales were released and signed for Slough. Their places on the third line were taken by Nicky Chinn and Chris Wiggins, both moving on from Basingstoke as a result of the changes at the Bison. I don’t really need to go into too much depth about what Chinn and Wiggins bring to the table though a 3rd line of Chinn, Wiggins and McPherson has got to be a favourite for grittiest line combo of the year whilst having Chinn and Wiggins who can be moved up the lines or play special teams if required.

Jamie Line was the other departure, having moved to Peterborough but the remaining Brits were all part of last season’s lineup. Ross Bowers is likely to rotate on the 3rd line with Adam Brittle and Lightning captain Adam Carr filling in the other slots. Carr, a natural centre, is also capable of top line minutes and seems the more natural fit in the middle of a top line with Calder on one wing and Jamieson on the other allowing Emersic to play on the wing of the second line with Poole in the middle and Brittle on the other side.

One person who may also appear is junior product Connor Goode. Having seen Connor appear for the Thunder last season, I was impressed with him. He won’t see tons of ice time but if you get the chance to see him, keep an eye on him.

Overall:

Once you get over the shock that some familiar faces like Hollyhead, Wales and Towalski having gone, you realise that this MK roster has been tweaked more than overhauled.

Nick Poole has taken the roster in a slightly different direction for sure. The additions of Wiggins and Chinn give an added toughness to the roster that was lacking last season but both of those players are capable of more than just being tough. They’ve also upgraded massively in the scoring department as well and now have 3 players capable of 70-80 point seasons in Jamieson, Calder and Emersic.

At base though this is still a very familiar Milton Keynes set up that Nick Poole has put together; solid netminding, capable defending to provide secondary scoring and free scoring forwards with a physical undercurrent.

The imports are not the freshest legs on the block but all 4 of them can still very much do a job at EPL level. The average age of the imports is 35, compared to the team average of 27.5 which is the 2nd oldest in the league behind Guildford. In fact only 1 forward (Wiggins) is under 25 but they have a good corps of forwards in their prime that will be a genuine attacking threat. Their defensive corps, lead by Zatopek is young, hungry and most importantly good. Their netminding also looks very solid and with the signing of Hedley shows that they’re looking to the future.

The question mark over MK is depth. Now obviously there are some really good players in there but below their top 4 forwards (Jamieson, Calder, Emersic, Carr) there is a little drop off. It’s not a large drop off but if those 4 don’t fire on all cylinders or get injured then there’s a step up that needs to be made by the other members in terms of filling those positions. MK doesn’t have Guildford’s resources to the extent that they could sign a 5th import, if they did I believe Poole would be occupying a Milos Melicherik style role rather than a full time playing member of the roster, so we’ll see how they react when the inevitable injuries occur.

I’ve always had a begrudging respect for MK, I don’t like their tactics at times but they’re honest in the way they play even if you don’t like it. I don’t see the Lightning as winning the EPL title. I think they’ll be top four and the playoff and cup titles will likely be very much in their sites but there’s just something I can’t quite put my finger on about the MK roster that doesn’t give me the confidence to say “title winners”. Contenders yes, but I don’t think they win it.

MK fans will point towards a lot of factors as to why that assertion is wrong, mainly because of the firepower they have and Mettam in net but there’s a lot of other factors outside of MK’s control that will have a say in where the title goes.

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