Standing in the Way – Manchester Phoenix

We’re slowly getting to the end of Banners On The Wall’s previews for the 2012/13 season as we look at who the Bison will battle. As they’re our opening night opponents, we’re leaving Bracknell till last so it’s time to see who we play on Sunday in the first away game of the season.

 

Name: Manchester Phoenix

Home ice: Altrincham Ice Dome

Player/coach: Tony Hand

Last season’s position: 2nd, playoff finalists

Top scorer: Juraj Faith, 31 goals + 47 assists = 78 points

Match night ticket price: £15 adult (£14 in advance), £12 concession (£11 in advance), £7 child (£6.50 in advance), £33 family (£32 in advance)

 

Goalies:

Unsurprisingly when you have an incredibly solid netminder, you want to keep him. If he wants to stay, that’s an even bigger bonus. Now 25, Stephen Fone has been the man between the pipes for the Phoenix since they dropped to the EPL. He was an EPL 1st team all star in the 2010/11 season when he backstopped the Phoenix to the EPL title and last season finished with a 3.06 goals against average and a .901 save percentage leaving him 10th in the EPL goalie rankings. Fone is what he is, a consistently solid, top tier netminder in the EPL. Is he the best netminder in the EPL? No, I don’t think he is but you know what you’re getting with Fone. He’s a brave yet sensible keeper with good positioning who can be relied upon to make the big saves when required. Our friends at the official Phoenix podcast reported this week that apparently Fone has been asked to come out and play the puck a bit more which will obviously give some fans kittens but Fone is more than capable and also played in Coventry with Trevor Koenig so will have learnt the art of being a puck playing goalie from one of the best ones to do so in Britain in the EIHL era. Fone does have his faults, he sometimes struggles in the clutch (playoff semi final vs Sheffield) and can be easily drawn down to allow the shooter to put the puck high but all keepers have their issues. It’s not like Stevie Lyle’s five hole is a secret to anyone.

Returning in the backup role is 18 year old Jorge El-Hage. El-Hage became backup last season after Adam Summerfield stepped back from hockey to join the RAF and made 2 appearances for the Phoenix last term, returning a 4.46 goals against average and a .833 save percentage. This season will once again be about El-Hage’s development. In the press release announcing his return, it was mentioned they hoped to give Jorge more ice time but if Fone gets very hot and maintains a streak, it could be another frustrating season of minimal icetime for the local lad.

 

Defence:

Neither of Manchester’s defensive imports from last season are returning this season. Neither Jaroslav Spelda nor beloved in Manchester/hated everywhere else Jaroslav Harabin were called upon to return in Phoenix colours but most Manchester fans will feel they have upgraded.

33 year old former Nashville Predators Czech defenceman Robert Schnabel brings an obvious pedigree to the Phoenix lineup that other teams in the EPL could only dream of. With experience in the NHL and AHL as well as the top tiers in Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, his homeland and most recently Italy, Schnabel would walk onto the roster of every team in the league a couple of times over. How he’s used will be interesting; never a big scorer wherever he’s gone, the EPL is a level or two below what he’s used to so his offensive output will likely up because he’s going to be used in all situations one would imagine. He’s main role however will be to be that defensive rock at the back.

The other defensive import comes from a background we’re more familiar with from EPL imports. Ondrej Pozivil signs for the Phoenix from HC Hradec Kralove in the Czech 2nd division, a team Bison fans will be familiar with due to its association with Daniel Volrab. This season will be 25 year old Pozivil’s first venture outside of his homeland to play hockey after a career in the system with his hometown team HC Litvinov where he’s played occasionally for the first team and been loaned out to teams in the second division such as Kralove, Tabor and Kadan. Pozivil again has never been a huge scorer but the Czech leagues are always lower scoring than here. I’m assuming that Pozivil will be called upon to add secondary scoring and help with puck transition. At 5’11 he’s not the biggest of d-men but we’ll see how well he uses what size he has.

Back for another year in Phoenix colours is 22 year old James Neil. Coming off of a career year of 20 points last season, the former Nottingham junior standout has been something of an assists specialist in the EPL as well as having swapped from originally playing forward for the Phoenix to playing defence last season. He returns on the blueline for this season where he’ll be expected to have another solid year and try to aim 20-25 points.

Ben Wood takes the role of British stay at home guy as well as being capable of playing forward. Wood is 6’4” and nearly 200lbs which means it’s not too hard to think while he’ll be there to stop opposition forwards doing what they want to do. Wood is the sort of player where if you don’t notice him then he’s doing his job well.

Last but by no means least is Phoenix captain Luke Boothroyd. 25 year old Boothroyd played for Hull and the Phoenix in the EIHL before staying with the club as they dropped to the EPL and has been the only captain the EPL incarnation of Manchester has ever had. Boothroyd is one of the best all round defencemen in the EPL, able to play at both ends of the ice whilst remaining the picture of cool and calm on the ice. He reminds me in many ways of Kurt Reynolds; the ability is there to play in the EIHL and you kind of wonder why they’re still in the EPL but they’re here and they’re awesome to watch. Boothroyd scoring lots of points is a secondary concern, he’s the leader on and off the ice and the personal stats are secondary to the team doing well, like all good captains.

 

Forwards:

Manchester are one of only two teams to not bring back any imports from last season (the other is Basingstoke) which when you consider a 2nd place finish and the performances of Juraj Faith and Martin Cingel might seem a bit odd. Cingel has returned to Edinburgh and Faith has gone to the Freiburg Wölfe in the German Oberliga so it led Hand to search for 2 new imports and to be honest he’s done a decent job and picked up two imports who should put up good numbers at EPL level.

Bar one season at Concordia College in the States, Joachim Flaten has been a Frisk Asker player through and through. Coming off a career best season in terms of points with 26, Flaten was the team’s top scorer but ended up with an astronomical -47 in plus/minus stats as Frisk Asker finished bottom of the GET Ligan but survived the relegation playoff by beating the 9th place Manglerud Stars over 3 games. Flaten will be looked upon for a large number of goals and points this season and be the top line forward he was in Asker along with his new Finnish team mate.

Timo Kuuluvainen joins the Phoenix after spending the last 2 season in the Ligue Mangnus with Epinal and Strasbourg respectively averaging 0.92 points per game across the 2 seasons. With 23 points last season for Strasbourg, Kuuluvainen was the team’s 3rd highest scorer in a league above EPL standard but where a player plays less games. It’s not a league you sign in to pad your stats so to go just under a point per game for 2 seasons is good numbers and the new Phoenix forwards are likely to be close to the top of the scoring charts for the duration of the season.

The obvious person to centre that line doesn’t really need much of an introduction. Tony Hand is without a doubt the best British player to lace up a pair of skates but how much he features this season is still somewhat up in the air. After breaking his ankle last season, some wondered whether the evergreen forward might finally call it a day. Then it came out he was going to play but not the full season but whenever he does play you know exactly what you’re going to get. Flaten and Kuuvulainen aren’t going to get a better set up person in their lives.

Hand has probably been forced into playing more than he would possibly like due to the hand injury to former Bison, Liam Chong. Chong, who had an impressive first full EPL season with the Bison, injured his hand when it was slashed later in the season and received surgery on it in the summer. However the hand hasn’t recovered to the extent where he can play with it and the Phoenix have now said he likely won’t appear for them until the New Year. This is a massive shame as Chong will add a great deal to the Phoenix line up when fit and having 10 other forwards allowed Hand the option to watch from the bench if desired. Chong is a winger rather than a centre but there’s enough depth in the Phoenix forward lines to accommodate a variety of options when Liam returns to the ice.

Phoenix fan favourite Tom Duggan looks set to return to his role as centre of the 2nd line. Duggan is one of those players that reminds me of when I first saw Tommy Watkins, he never seemed to play particularly well when I saw him play but 48 points from 50 games is fantastic secondary scoring from your second line centre if your top line ever has an off night. Still only 22, Duggan obviously has a great deal of quality and looks set to develop into one of the best British centres in the league and you wonder whether an EIHL shot might be on the horizon for him. He’s not a big lad, listed as 5’8” 154lbs which technically makes him the same dimensions as me (though I venture he’s a lot fitter than I am) but he’s a centre playing for a coach who as a player is the very definition of a top quality centre. He can’t go far wrong with that combination.

James Archer is back for his 3rd season in Phoenix colours and will reportedly wear one of the A’s again for this campaign. Whilst his points total dropped to 36 points after a 44 point season when Manchester won the EPL, Archer is a gritty yet skilled forward who can score and set up the play. He is the archetypical EPL 2nd line winger who will do a bit of everything and be able to play in every situation.

After a good couple of seasons with Telford where he finished their top scorer, Scottish born forward Scott McKenzie has made his way over the Pennines join Manchester. Having a point per game British forward is a bonus for any team but being able to slot a 25-30 goal scorer onto the second line is a big boost for the Phoenix. McKenzie has played for a couple of lower end sides during his career like Chelmsford and Romford but this is his first season with a real title contender. He won’t be the go to guy and that might free him up to just play his game. The other side to that is sometimes players play better with that pressure on them and we’ll see how McKenzie reacts.

After signing from Peterborough, the well travelled Richard Bentham has landed in Manchester for the season. Bentham started last term with Invicta in the ENL but migrated north to Peterborough a few games into the season and impressed with his work ethic and versatility. Being able to play forward and defence to a good standard is hard for some players to do and reports from the War of the Roses weekend against Sheffield were that Bentham was playing 3rd line forward and defence minutes. I can’t imagine that will be kept up throughout the season every game but having Bentham, a player who can play solidly on the blue line as well as chip in a few points on the checking line when required is pretty handy.

Another ex Telford player to join the roster is Andrew McKinney. McKinney started the season with Telford but left to join Hull, according to the Tigers with no notice. His return to Telford should be interesting to say the least but McKinney will be a useful addition to the Phoenix. He’s made for the 3rd line but could easily be a 2nd line forward should the need arise. McKinney is a good scarper and agitator when needed and will be the ideal line mate for Ciaran Long as they set about getting under the skins of the opposition.

Long enters his second year with the Phoenix is another player who is capable of playing up the lines and in a variety of situations. Bison fans will remember his teaming on the points of the powerplay with Mindy Kieras at the tail end of his season there. When put on a more checking/grit focused line, Long isn’t afraid to get into the corners and do the hard work, not to drop the mitts should the occasion arise. However after the playoff semi final vs Sheffield he might want eyes in the back of his head in case Dimitri Zimozdra’s blocker pays it another visit. I personally really like Long who always seems to play brilliantly in clutch situations. There are times when he can be frustrating to watch but when it gets down the crunch, Long ups his game.

Added to the roster full time for this season is Jake Nurse. The former Blackburn and Manchester junior was over a point per game for the Trafford Metros (the ENL side in Manchester) and at 21 has been called into the EPL squad full time. How much ice time he will see remains unknown at the moment, particularly given Hand’s tendency to shorten the bench in a pinch but it is promising for other youngsters in the Manchester system to see a player like Jake progress. I’m not overly familiar with Nurse but look forward to seeing him in action first hand this season.

 

Overall:

I did once remark that there were 3 constants with the Phoenix. On reflection there are actually 4; the tickets prices are too expensive, the shirts are ugly, you’ll always hear Tambo before you see him (this equation is reversed if he wears his Don Cheery suit) and the fans are a top notch bunch of people. Playoff weekend with the Phoenix fans is always a good laugh. Now I’ve got the niceties out of the way, on with the rest of this.

Manchester are contenders, there’s no real way to sidestep that they have a legitimate chance of all three bits of silverware if the stars align. They’ve upgraded their imports especially on defence whilst keeping the core of a side that finished second in the league and made the playoff final. Adding players like Schnabel, Flaten and Kuuluvainen who have experience in leagues superior to the EPL gives an edge to the Phoenix in games because quality does breed quality. They’ll bring the team up around them. That’s not to say Pozivil isn’t handy either, he looks very solid but his form book reads like that of your “normal” EPL import defender. That said Pozivil with Boothroyd is what the Phoenix apparently ran on Sunday which looks a very solid D pairing.

It’s not perfect by any means. I’ve pointed out the issues with Fone a few times in blogs and his backup is inexperienced and sees little ice time. Hand’s coaching tactics are also well known across the league and in a pinch teams know he will shorten the bench. Run three lines against a tired Manchester top 6 to shut them down and you can beat them. The other big problem for Manchester last season was injuries and a few Phoenix fans did say to me “if we’d had a full squad for a season, we’d have won the league”. I don’t deny the obvious injury issues the Phoenix had but winning the title isn’t done on what ifs. Having the extra forward on the roster this year would have helped Manchester had Chong not started the season on the injured list. If injury trouble strikes again, how does Manchester react?

This Phoenix team has very good depth on forward and defence. On defence you have 5 good players including an ex NHL player along with Bentham who is able to slot in to make a 3rd pair or cover injury and forwards wise there are players who can play across all lines and in all situations but has reacted to the repeated upward step in quality from other teams in the EPL.

Manchester want to win trophies, it is part of the reason (along with finances) I think they dropped to the EPL. I know there are a few stock responses to a lot of my criticisms about the Phoenix (our budget isn’t really that big, we need to charge that much for entry, Fone really is that good etc.) but I try to call the bad when it’s bad and the good when it’s good. So I’ll call the good to finish off.

Manchester looks a very good roster for this season. They are possibly the title favourites in the eyes of some around the league. I refuse to commit that far because I believe there are 4 or 5 teams capable of winning the title and the league is so close that it’s silly to really pick the one looking at it objectively. However if come the end of the season the Manchester Phoenix are EPL champions for the 2nd time in 3 seasons, I’ll be disappointed as I want the Bison to do it but I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised.

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