Standing in the Way – Slough Jets

So 2 down, 7 to go and with another team’s roster finished it’s time to get the thinking caps back on and look at another of the Bison’s opponents for this season. This one is nice and local.

 

Name: Slough Jets

Home ice: Absolute Ice aka The Hanger

Player/Coach: Slava Koulikov

Last season’s position: 4th, Playoff champions

Top Scorer: Adam Calder, 39 goals + 42 assists = 81 points

Match night ticket price: £11 adults, £8 OAP/Students/Emergency Services Personnel, £6.50 child, £27.50 Family ticket (2 adult, 2 child), £19.50 (1 adult, 2 child)

 

Goalies:

New coach Slava Koulikov has gone for familiarity in net for Slough which is really handy when the playoff winning netminder wants to come back for a 4th successive year in Jets colours.

Gregg Rockman is an infuriating keeper to watch at times in my opinion; never the best in the league and seems to look shaky at points during the regular season yet has been relied upon by coaches at EPL level for years as the starter with minimal backup support and seems to come through massively in the clutch. Since joining Slough, Rockman has won 2 playoff titles and the EPL cup, never had a save percentage below .911 and in his first playoff winning campaign actually conceded less than a goal a game. Out of nowhere Rockman can go from looking like he’s all over the place to a brick wall. Fantastic if you’re a Slough fan though and it means a nice stream of silverware because though the team may falter over a 54 game season, cup and playoff trophies don’t depend on 54 games. Rockman will do a job and is capable of carrying the heavy workload of a 54 game season but once he’s broken, he is broken if you see what I mean. The problem is, will Coach Koulikov have the confidence in the backup if he needs to call upon him?

Backup for this season is former Bison junior Danny Milton. Milton has spent the last couple of years in the Jets junior and ENL setup, last season 23 games total for the ENL South 1 and 2 sides. His goals against average was over 4 for both but had over a .900 save percentage as both Slough teams were bottom of their respective divisions. Milton faced an average of 50 shots per game in both leagues. Milton looks a lot sturdier than Jets backups of recent years (Milton was one of 6 backups who dressed for Slough last season) and seems to be ok with a lot of rubber being fired at him. Given how Slough will ride Rockman into the floor, if Milton ends up on the ice he is going to get a lot of shots fired at him because he’s likely to be a cold netminder and sides will fancy their chances with the backup. If Milton’s decent ability under heavy fire shines through, he’ll at least earn plaudits if not more ice time. He’s not going to usurp Rockman for the starters spot.

With all the changes in the other departments for the Jets, it’s business as usual in net. Rockman has the quality but can he finally lead Jets to the big one?

 

Defence:

Having lost 4 members of last season’s blueline corps (Symonds and Sullivan to the Bison, Waller to the Bracknell Hornets and Galazzi to his job), it’s a slimmed down and revamped Jets defensive corps as Koulikov takes Slough down the Manchester route and has signed 2 import defencemen.

Mindy Kieras is back after his lowest scoring season since he came to British hockey with Edinburgh but was used in a much more well rounded role than what he found himself doing at Milton Keynes and Basingstoke. He was called upon to be a bit more defensively responsible as well as quarterbacking the powerplay alongside his compatriot who we’ll talk about more in a bit.

Joining Mindy on the blueline is Juraj Senko who comes to Slough from the Telford Tigers. Senko played his first season of EPL after 2 years in the old Northern League with Solway. Senko played in 53 games for the Tigers, scoring 27 points but earned a reputation as a solid defender on a side that finished bottom of the EPL. There were rumours that Senko was going to a variety of EPL teams including Basingstoke before being announced by Koulikov as the last piece of the Jets puzzle. It’s a pretty standard format of having one offensive d-man and one more stay at home which should see Kieras return to his more familiar scoring ways and see him joining the rush more.

The thing that struck me though is that this Jets blueline corps with Senko on board is a lot more defensive minded when you consider the British players who are also back there.

The returning Adam Greener and the full time promoted from the NIHL side Sam Godfrey totalled 16 points (Godfrey scored 0 points in the EPL, all his points came in the ENL) and are both more known for their stay at home qualities. Former Invicta junior Dan Scott who spent last season with Hull totalled 2 points in the EIHL and 5 the season before in the EPL with Telford.

Secondary scoring looks like it might be an issue on the back end but it looks like that focus is the defence to…well, defend and rely on the forwards to score. The problem of course as we saw with the Bison last season is you can have really good defenders but if the team defence isn’t great, there’s only so much 2 guys at any time can do. That said if you’re faced with Mindy Kieras and Adam Greener, that’s 2 mighty big guys.

Forwards:

With 5 regular forwards gone from last season’s squad (6 if you include the Jets releasing Tom Carlon for financial reasons) and those 5 forwards including your top scorer, your player/coach, your top British point scorer and a popular fan favourite, you’d think the Jets were going to have a few issues but all things considered I don’t think Koulikov’s done that badly.

Koulikov himself is no slouch; at 34 years old he’s a Brit forward who scores over a point per game, can play top 6 minutes and play in all situations. He’s scored 194 points in the EPL in the last 3 seasons so for all the criticisms that get levelled at Koulikov for his work rate or lack thereof, he can get the job done.

The other new import forward is Frankie Bakrlik who joins from Fife Flyers. Bakrlik had a disrupted season that saw him start in Hull, move to Coventry then end up in Fife so he ended up playing a 65 game EIHL season. However he did manage to score 52 points in the process showing that he can certainly put up numbers. Whether he produces numbers similar to Calder isn’t the issue given the other members of the roster but you have to think Jets fans would be wanting 70 points minimum from a guy who could score 50 plus in the EIHL.

The other import forward is everyone’s favourite name to try and remember to spell, Supercalifragalistic Darius Pliskauskas. Now entering his 5th year in British hockey, his 3rd with the Jets, Pliskauskas rightly has a reputation as one of the best goal scorers in the EPL. Give him half an inch, he’ll take the motorway and blast the puck into the smallest of holes. Where I like the other imports for Slough, I’d sign Pliskauskas in a heartbeat because he does his job so very well. You don’t sign the guy to be a defensive, 2-way guy. You sign him to go out, use his speed and size to get and keep the puck and score…a lot. 108 goals in 107 EPL regular season games over the last 2 seasons, 5 goals from 6 games in the playoffs, you can see why Jets fans are happy he’s chosen to stay.

With Ryan Watt and Joe Greener gone, Aaron Connolly and Dan Davies have a real chance to shine. Davies in particular coming off a 66 point season had his efforts somewhat overshadowed by people like Greener and Watt (who didn’t score as much as he did) but could legitimately be a good outside bet for an all star spot come the end of the season. Connolly is young, still only 19 but 30 points is a good breakout year and he’s still developing. I don’t expect Connolly to match the points total of Davies but the former Invicta and Chelmsford junior is certainly going to get a lot of minutes this season.

Added to the British firepower is another Telford Tiger in Josh Bruce. With 41 points, Bruce was the Tigers 2nd highest points scorer behind the Manchester bound Scott McKenzie and scored more points than any of Telford’s imports. To be able to score 41 points as a Brit forward in the EPL is impressive but with almost guaranteed improved service in Berkshire, if they find linemates for Bruce that click he’s got to be on for a point per game given his talents.

The Jets have also profited from the changes at Milton Keynes’ change of direction. Terry Miles will return to centre the 3rd line I think where he’ll start the season with Michael Wales (who surely is a replacement for Watt in the agitation stakes) and Matt Towalski. Towalski in particular is a good signing in my opinion because whilst initially I think he plays with Wales for the sake of familiarity, Towalski is more than capable of 2nd line and even top line minutes in a pinch. He’s got a good shot and is effective on the powerplay and at 28 will provide an experienced and sensible head for leadership for the younger members of the team.

As for Muzzy, I don’t like him but he doesn’t play for my team. I’m not supposed to like him. Agitation factor aside, Wales is an experienced player at this level and will skate through a wall for the team. You won’t argue with that.

Alex Barker is the likely 10th forward in the equation for my money. A former 60 point scorer in the ENL, Barker’s coming off a 7 point season with a disappointing Bracknell side but this is a move about developing his skills as was alluded to in the press release. I believe he’ll get a regular rotation into the third line and may get the odd speck of PK time as well. If nothing else he’ll provide good competition for places in the Jets forwards and, as he said in his own press release, he might have gotten to comfortable at Bracknell and a change was needed.

 

Overall:

It’s really easy to look at that Jets roster on paper and, without really thinking about it say “that looks weaker than last season.” On a basic level I think those people are right. They’ve lost 5 of their top 6 scorers and those 5 accounted for 283 points last season.

However there’s a danger of falling into what I like to call the “Steeldogs trap”. A good team is greater than the sum of its parts and to just look at the stats and say “they look good/bad/ugly” without trying to contextualise any of it will generally make you look a bit silly.

A lot for Slough depends on how this shift from a 1d/3f to 2/2 works. There is a greater onus on the British forwards to score points, especially in Koulikov’s case who is arguably import quality and Davies as the other point per game Brit to fill in the numbers that are lost from not having 3 imports up front. There is always the issue as well that Bakrlik may not adapt well to the EPL style of play though given the more Eastern European nature of the league, you’d venture that he won’t fall into the Jeff Hutchins at Bracknell category of imports.

On the back end Senko will be a solid signing and there will be less pressure on him to be the go to guy of the defence that he was in Telford but as I mentioned, that’s a very defensive looking blueline and secondary scoring might be an issue but I also believe the reigns might be let off Mindy Kieras to venture forward a bit more than last season under Doug Sheppard.

I think Koulikov will shift the side back towards a more European focus and they’re going to go for winning games 2-1 rather than 6-5. They’ll be a tight, solid unit that will focus on their speed and skill rather than brute force as Slough teams under Pete Russell might have done. It’ll be about shutting teams down and exploiting team’s defences rather than being gung ho.

That all said I still feel this team is weaker than last year’s Jets team. There’s a lot of what ifs involved with this Jets team and a rookie coach which makes me reticent to name them champions elect.

I can hear Jets fans yelling at me “we’ve won 3 trophies in the last 3 seasons and have kept a core of the squad that won the playoffs last season” and you’re right, it’s a good team but not great looking one. The core of players you’ve kept didn’t include a lot of the higher end talent and their replacements need to either step up or Jets fans need to resign themselves to a 4th or 5th place finish or Heaven forbid, lower!

The Jets will always be in the hunt for silverware of some description but like last season, I don’t see that silverware being the league title.

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