Standing in the Way – Bracknell Bees

So we come to the end. 8 teams down, thousands of words written and an awful lot of waffle but tomorrow is the start of the EPL season for the Basingstoke Bison so we’ve saved our opening night opponents till last. Our local rivals are in the firing line.

 

Name: Bracknell Bees

Home Ice: John Nike Leisuresport Complex aka The Hive

Head coach: Gareth Cox

Last season’s position: 9th

Top scorer: Lukas Smital, 29 goals + 48 assists = 77 pts

Match night ticket price: £12 adults (£11 in advance), £10 OAPs/students, £5 child, £28 family ticket (2 adults + 2 children, £27 in advance)

 

Goalies:

Bees head coach Gareth Cox has decided to keep faith with both netminders from last time out. On first looking this might seem unusual as the team missed the playoffs and you might assume wholesale changes, especially at the back but the return of the two netminders shouldn’t really surprise us.

Carl Ambler only played 37 games last season due to injury but statistically it was one of Ambler’s better years. Nicknamed “Scrambler” for his somewhat frantic style in net, the 26 year old finished last season with 3.77 goals against and a .901 save percentage facing an average of 38 shots per game.

Former Bison netminder Tom Annetts iced in 22 games last season, his season being injured after Andrew Sharp crashed into him but finished the season with a 3.59 goals against average and a .903 save percentage whilst facing an average 37 shots per game.

Whilst people make comments about the somewhat up and down nature of Bracknell’s netminding, coach Gareth Cox rightly pointed out that Bracknell were one of 2 teams (along with MK) who finished the season with both netminders at 90% saves or over. That statistic is somewhat skewed by the fact that some teams only run 1 goalie but it does bare well for the Bees that if one goalie goes down for a sustained period of time, the other one slotting in is capable of covering the job of starter.

Both are confidence goalies, especially Annetts but if the players around them give them reasons to be confident then either one is capable of stealing games in the EPL. The issue with that is it’s easier said than done.

 

Defence:

After a season where the Bees finished with a goal difference of -50, there were always going to be some changes at the back. With the goalies proving in the eyes of Cox that they were both worthy of staying, the blueline corps is where the changes were going to be made.

Cox decided to go the Manchester Phoenix route of two defensive imports rather than the 1d/3 forwards split of previous years. Last season’s blueline import Sergejs Louskins was chosen not to come back and has made his way to the French 2nd tier for the season.

Replacing Louskins in the defensive defenceman mode is 27 year old Czech player, Jan Bendik. Bendik started the 2011/12 season in Slovakia with Dukla Trencin before moving back to his home country and second tier side Hradec Kralove where he scored 9 points in 33 games. As a pro, Bendik has never scored more than 15 points in a season. His numbers will inevitably rise in Britain but given the other blueline import, I feel Bendik will be called upon to be the more defensively reliable.

Marcel Petran doesn’t need much of an introduction to Bison fans or anyone in the EPL after last season. The 6’3”, 205lbs Czech player became famous for his booming shot on the Bison powerplay but drew the ire/amusement of many for his sometimes poor defensive positioning and his rushes up the ice that left his defensive partner scrambling with a fair few 2 on 1 rushes.

Ironically, Petran’s defensive partner moved from Basingstoke back to the Bees to join him. It’s no secret on this blog that I am a big fan of Sam Oakford, I also believe that he should have been signed by an EIHL team this season but after a 2011/12 season blighted by injury and his degree course finished, perhaps a return to Bracknell to be the standout stay at home British defenceman many know he’s capable of being isn’t the worst of ideas. At 22, Oakford is a player who can play top line minutes, play powerplay and penalty kill and adds a element of quality that was lacking from the Bees blueline last term.

Veteran Andy Munroe returns for a second season with the Bees. The former Hull, Peterborough, Romford and Slough blueliner who won the EPL grand slam with the Phantoms is a run of the mill stay at home guy who will be able to play anywhere from 4th to 6th man minutes but if there’s an injury in the top 3 might see himself playing more minutes.

Former Flames junior Ben Johnson now into his 3rd consecutive year with the Bees is a big body at 6’0”, 190lbs is going to be another big body that will get in the way. He’s a low scoring guy, always has been but sometimes you just need a big body to get in the way.

Joining the roster full time for the first time is 19 year old Lewis Turner who split last season between the Hornets and the Bees. He will start the season as 6th defenceman and likely won’t see much special teams time but has a real chance as a full time member of the EPL roster to get some good ice time against some quality players to improve his game.

After winning the playoff title with Slough last season, the highly rated Sam Waller had initially dropped to the ENL and the Bracknell Hornet due to outside work commitments but has been registered on a 2-way deal with the Bees to play when circumstances allow.

 

Forwards:

With the shift to having 2 import defenders, it left some choices for Gareth Cox. When the news came through that Peter Jasik was dropping to the NIHL to play for the Hornets, it became clear rather quickly which two imports would be icing for the Bees.

Now 38, Lukas Smital has almost become part of the furniture in Bracknell. The head coach of the Hornets since 2007 and now entering his 9th season in Britain (5th with the Bees) has been a point per game every season in Britain as well as averaging nearly 30 goals every campaign, it’s not hard to imagine why he’s back. His advanced years have not dented his goal scoring prowess.

Nor has age been an issue for the now 39 year old Martin Masa. Masa, who first came to Britain to ice for the Bees in 2004 was the second highest scorer on the team, 3 points behind Smital in the standings and will again be relied upon to fire in a ton of points for the Bees. As two highly skilled players, it’s a must for most teams to a defence on the ice to contain these two given how deadly they are in front of goal.

Joining them on the top line will most likely be Rob Lamey. After a 2010/11 season in Guildford cut short by injury, Lamey returned to his usual service last season as captain of the Bees with a 46 point season. Always a scorer of more assists than goals, Lamey averages over a point per game during his 395 career EPL games for Wightlink, Guildford and Bracknell and, as we’ve learned, that point per game quality Brit is vital in an EPL that is continuously improving in quality.

Also returning to the Bees for is Shaun Thompson. Well known to fans in the South East after spells with the Jets, Bees and Bison, Thompson is another Brit who regularly scores points. Able to play left wing or in the centre, Thompson like Lamey tends to score more points than assists but his wrist shot is very good when he’s on form and he knows where the back of the net is. Generally very good on the faceoffs as well, Thompson’s versatility up front allows him to perform in all situations but given the import situation he might not see much time on the first powerplay unit if they’re trying to accommodate Masa, Smital and Petran’s shot.

A likely candidate to be Thompson’s line mate for the season is former Bison Oli Brönnimann. 2011/12 wasn’t Oli’s best season; a loss of form followed by a groin injury saw the former Geneva junior player only tally 23 points compared to 54 the season before when he was the top British goal scorer in the EPL. Hopefully the change works for Oli and for Bracknell as on a line that works and when he’s on form, he is deadly. He’s not the most physical of players but with the right line mates this isn’t an issue as the Brönnimann/Chinn/Lauko line at Basingstoke proved.

Entering his 3rd season of EPL action, James Galazzi has proven his worth to this Bracknell side. Brother of former Bison favourite Mark, 28 year old James isn’t flashy and won’t dangle round the man like you’re playing NHL 13 but he’s a good, honest, hard working player who can go in to the corners, do the hard graft and add 20-30 points along the way. He’s the sort of player that works on the 2nd or 3rd line and will likely see a good amount of penalty kill time.

One of the last of the London Racers, Matthew Foord is back after a productive 29 point season with the Bees in 2011/12. Foord, who spent 2009-11 with Swindon is another player in the same mould as Galazzi. Foord is a bit grittier than Galazzi for my money and, if you’ve seen the video of the pre-season bench clearance between the Bees and Slough, has a hell of a right hook. Foord will stand up for his team mates and at 203lbs is a hell of a weight to get checked by. When you’re hit, you stay hit.

After some very good years at under 18s and ENL for the Drones and Hornets respectively, 20 year old Alan Lack is rewarded with a place on the Bees roster full time. Lack, who appeared in 7 EPL games last season was a point per game for the Hornets for the last two seasons and will get good time as a 3rd line forward this season. Much like other newer players coming through I haven’t seen much of Lack but congratulations on making the Bees roster to him.

Then there’s everyone’s favourite, Scott Spearing. Spearing’s reputation aside he has shown at times that he is a useful player. He’s had 20 and 30 point seasons before but after his severe knee injury in the 2009/10 season playing for the Bison, Spearing’s not scored 10 points in a season. Last season’s totals were 9 points (2+7) and 175 PIMs. He is an effective agitator and 3rd line grinder in the EPL but infuriates opposition fans with what some regard as “being able to dish it out but not take it” antics. Whether you believe that or not, I’ll leave to your own judgement.

 

Overall:

As I write this, hockey season literally starts tomorrow night and we’re all excited. There are some reasons as well for fans of the Bracknell Bees. Rather than go the Bison/MK route of tinkering and improving the roster, they’ve gone the Guildford/Sheffield route of keeping a core group of players together and building through unity with the plan being the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

3 of the 4 imports have played in the EPL before and will be used to it as will the new Brit signings. They’ve added a good offensive defenceman with a big shot that was lacking last season as well as solid, top quality Brit defenceman in Oakford. They’ve kept two high scoring imports, two high scoring Brits and added Brönnimann who when fit is capable of going close to a point per game. There are positives there.

The issue for me is I’ve probably made the wrong decision by leaving Bracknell till last. I wanted it as the final piece as they’re the first opponents in the Doug Sheppard era mark 2. If I’d done them earlier then I might be more positive in my outlook on their season but coming off the back of a 4×4 tournament where they scored 1 goal and a disappointing couple of challenge games with Slough it’s hard to ignore some of what’s been presented to us.

The issue for Bracknell is similar to the one the Bison had when we looked at the 2011/12 season with the benefit of hindsight; this is a team built for the previous season’s EPL. The league has moved on and on reflection, the Bees appear to have moved sideways.

That’s not to say Bracknell won’t win games and perform well as a group. There are a lot of talented guys on that roster but as a combined unit there aren’t enough changes that make them look markedly different from last season’s 9th placed side.

Andre Payette made a very astute point recently (shocking I know) that the Steeldogs benefit as an organisation from having a strong local rival in Manchester. It gets the fans going, it gets the players going, you always have someone to beat and the clubs can work together to sensibly build that rivalry for the benefit of both organisations. That’s how Bracknell and Basingstoke should be, that’s how it was a decade or more ago but that’s not how it is now. I want a strong Bracknell Bees side because local rivalry games are one of the best things in sport and it would benefit all parties but this Bees team will be fighting for the last playoff spot whereas the Bison will be aiming a touch higher than that.

I want to be wrong on this, I genuinely do. I have a lot of time for Bracknell as an organisation. They suffered in the fallout from the David Taylor situation as much as the Bison did, arguably more so and have rebuilt themselves with a dedicated group of owners who have a clear direction, a coach who works well with his players, a youth system that constantly produces top level junior talent and a dedicated fan base. (Though newsflash, calling Basingstoke “the beavers”? Yeah stop with that. That ship sailed a while ago; it’s like knock-knock joke, funny once and once only).

The Bees will be taking some scalps across this season, they will cause upsets, I don’t doubt that for a second. Sadly the Bees’ sting may not be as potent as some had hoped.

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