Standing in the Way – Manchester Phoenix 2013/14

7 down, two to go as the season starts this weekend. We’ll look at our opening night opponents tomorrow but first lets cast our eyes back north one last time.

Name: Manchester Phoenix

Home ice: Altrincham Silverblades

Position: 3rd (playoff champions)

Top scorer: Michal Psurny 43 goals + 46 assists = 89 points

Ticket details: http://www.manchesterphoenix.co.uk/tickets/singlegametickets

Ben Knight (Host of the Official Phoenix Podcast, @itsbenknight @pnxpodcast)

Phoenix had a good season in 2012/13. The playoffs win felt like a long time coming and it was an emotional event for the Faithful. But, of course, that was then and this is now and those fans are a demanding bunch.

One must start with Tony Hand. He has announced that he will ice this season but that he will be on the bench more often as he winds down his playing career. This will divide Phoenix fans (and others) but the reason is development. Hand will contribute to the stats as he always has but he has another aim now: to build a strong, young-but-experienced core in Altrincham.

The core is looking good, too. Let’s start at the back with Messrs Fone and El-Hage. Steve Fone has sure had some injury trouble over the past two seasons but when he is on form, he is something of a wonder to behold. His ninja-skills have frustrated every would-be scorer in the League and, whilst his stats might not be the best, much of that might be put down to matters beyond his control.

Jorge El-Hage (poster-boy of the Podcast Live t-shirts in Coventry) took more than his fair share of rubber last season and, despite not being a “second starter” quite yet, he surprised many last year. He is learning his trade from a good teacher and, this season, he will have a more cohesive and rehearsed defence in front of him.

The defence is built of strong stuff in the form of Schnabel, Boothroyd, Neil, Graham and (more often than not) Ben Wood.

Robert Schnabel is a policeman on the ice. He doesn’t need to get embroiled in too much of the rough stuff because, quite simply, so few will drop the gloves with him. But there is more to him than that. He is a big guy with a long reach. He has the turning circle of a Bentley but he also has the power and unlikely grace one too. He reminds me a bit of a table-football player in that he knows where on the ice he is required and stays there. That’s okay when your poke checks are nearly 10 feet away though!

Luke Boothroyd is part of the furniture at Altrincham now. He has held the “C” for what seems like an eternity and has grown into a role for which many thought he was too young when he first took it on. He is disciplined and much stronger than many a forward has imagined. That discipline is crucial too; even Tony has been seen to back down when asked to by Boots. It also means that when he takes a “two-minute break”, it is usually for a damned good strategic reason within the game. When I heard a Flames fan call him a “dirty b*****d of a player” last season, I nearly fell over laughing; the description could not be further away from the truth.

James Neil is another young lad who has profited hugely from his move from the Nottingham system to Manchester. His ice time has increased and that has improved his confidence over the years. He seems to be Marmite with the fans but after a superb performance in the playoffs last season, he should have even better standing now. Whilst he can be used up front, it is in D that he looks most at ease and he gets so emotionally involved in the game that nobody could doubt his commitment to the Faithful. He will be looking to avoid dropping some of the clangers that last season saw but so long as he keeps up his, “I broke it, I’ll fix it” attitude to his occasional fails, he will hold my respect ad infinitum.

Joe Graham is a rare beast. A young D-man who is getting a second chance with Tony Hand after having, let’s be honest, not the greatest of seasons with Phoenix back in 2009/10 . Despite Jon Kynaston’s opinion that Joe was due to peak last year in Peterborough, he fell a little short of that mark. It’s okay. His game is improving year upon year; he comes from a good hockey pedigree; he wants to make a big impact on the ice this season, he tells me. So long as the focus is on the ice, it could be his year.

Ben Wood, the “y” in the vowel sequence as a forward and probably one of the most improved British D-men in the country. The pairing of him and Schnabel has been spectacular for his game. He’s a big lad and, despite being one of the nicest guys you’ll meet off the ice, he is becoming quite the obstacle to adversaries on the ice. That’s a confident defence and one that seems to be getting tougher to beat, even when the lack of back-checking from some others leaves them on their own.

The firepower at Phoenix is impressive on paper. The days of the production lines Phoenix iced in the EIHL may be a distant memory, but Hand sure can recruit. Don’t believe it? Look at Sheffield’s raw-but-misused talent and look at the Flames’ signing of Kristoffersson as well as those such as David Beauregard and others brought in and snapped-up by EIHL clubs.

Bakrlik joins Phoenix from Slough this season. He’s an interesting sort of player. He had more PIMs than Andre Payette in his final year with the Vipers but more goals than Jonas Höög last season. He contributes up front and will not be pushed around. EPL fans know what to expect from him but it will be interesting to see how his game changes under Hand.

Michal Psurny is loved by the Faithful. His game is better now than when he was in the Czech 2nd tier. He was probably never mediocre but he really seems to be finding a bit of a second wind at Altrincham and we hope he will continue to post the numbers this season.

Robin Kovar (don’t mention Edmonton!) was the final signing to the Phoenix roster this season. Truthfully, I have never seen him play and I can only go from the stats and history that everyone can see. That said, his history is good and it’s more than possible that Tony has pulled off another one of his great recruitment coups here. Time will tell.

That leaves the British forwards: Archer, Bentham, Corson-Heron (ex-BIS), McKinney, Chong and Watkins.

That’s quite a combination really. Archer and Bentham are a pair that like to mix things up and play a tough game. Chong is fast and will be out to impress after a late start to last season. His biggest problem could be not having a teammate to make his passes to when he has hurtled down the ice to make a play.

Given my audience for this piece, I don’t suppose I need to say much about Jacob. Let’s see how he comes along this year.

Finally, young Mr Watkins has caught Coach Hand’s eye and, with the right line-mates and enough ice time, he will get a chance to show us all why.

So, Phoenix are looking good at the start of the season. It’s a short bench and injuries will have an impact very easily but, with a bit of luck and with a good morale-boosting destruction of the Steelpups in the War of the Roses, (*cough* when did you write this? Ed.) maybe those demanding Faithful will have multiple silverware to celebrate.

Banners On The Wall

Lets get the clichés and stereotypes out of the way right at the start; Bison/Phoenix games are great games of hockey, those jerseys are hideous, those ticket prices are extortionate, Tambo you owe me a pint, look at the Choirboys dressed as the power rangers/oompa loompas/insert preference here.

There, now that’s taken care of, let’s get on with the rest of this.

It’s no massive secret that Tony Hand is the finest British player to ever wear a pair of skates. Hand recently announced that it was time to wind down the playing side of his career and he will pick and choose which games he plays this term. He has ruled out a full 54 game campaign as he seeks to transition to being a full time bench coach. It’s an interesting choice from Hand but one that he has clearly made so that he goes out still able to contribute rather than becoming an albatross to the Phoenix. How they do without him on the ice will be interesting to see.

The loss of Tom Duggan who returned home to Guildford in the summer has arguably not had a like for like replacement. Rather the Phoenix are calling on established players like Andy McKinney and James Archer to step up and be that go to British player who can be the heartbeat of the team. It also likely drove the decision by Hand to switch to a 1 import d/3 import forward set up for this season. The signing of Robin Kovar from Slovan Ustecti Lvi adds a player with a point scoring pedigree in a leagues better than the EPL but also adds a player in that centre position to play 1st or 2nd line depending on whether Hand ices during a game. (I just assume they won’t be talking about their mutual experiences with the Oilers in the timeouts).

With Joachim Flaten having not been re-signed Hand has managed to convince one of the most talked about players of the last EPL season to take his place on the top line. Frantisek Bakrlik has undeniable talent; his 48 goals last season for Slough speak of a man who has no trouble knowing where the net is. The problem was he also picked up 161 penalty minutes, 4th in the EPL and the last thing anybody needs is arguably the best goalscoring forward in the league sitting in the penalty box because of yet another stupid penalty. Hand has a history of being able to reign in players with a temper; Payette and Clouthier would only let loose when the leash was let go so hopefully Frankie will cut down on the silly penalties, otherwise he could be gone very quickly. Also from a personal perspective he should have been at least a second team all star last season but his taking of ludicrous penalties likely scuppered that.

The departure of Ondrej Pozivil to Mulhouse (coincidentally the club Marcus Kristoffersson left to join Guildford) in defence and the switch to having Robert Schnabel as the only import defenceman sees the return of Joe Graham to Manchester. That defensive unit looks decent enough and has some flexibility in players like Richard Bentham (and to a lesser extent Ben Wood) being able to transfer to the forward lines but a lot is going to rest on the shoulders of Schnabel and captain Luke Boothroyd, a player I still maintain should be in the Elite League but that’s a story for another time. The defensive looks solid but not really outstanding. If one of Schnabel or Boothroyd goes down injured it puts a lot of pressure on that Phoenix defensive unit to really step up and fill the gaps and whilst I’m sure the hardened Altrincham faithful will tell that it’ll all be fine but look at what happened to the Bison when Reynolds then Symonds went down last season.

It’s hard not to crack a smile at what will likely be the Phoenix third line which includes 2 former Bison. Most Herd fans will just be happy to see Jacob Corson-Heron back on the ice after his injury and the reuniting of him with Liam Chong will only make them as popular in Manchester as they were here. Combining them with Jack Watkins, who signs from Dundee, gives the Phoenix a literal energy line that will buzz and hit and chase the puck like there’s no tomorrow. The issue there is arguably one of size but their speed and tenacity will win them battles. With Hand picking and choosing his appearances, there is also a chance for all three to earn extra ice time and time on special teams.

Higher up the lines, the return of Michal Psurny was a must for the Phoenix given how well he linked up with Hand during last season. If he finds a way to work well with Bakrlik then defences across the EPL will be having more nightmares than they are already having at the prospect of them playing together.

At the back sees the return of Stephen Fone and Jorge El-Hage at the netminding duo. Whilst Fone is a talented netminder, if Hand is looking for ways to bring on players in his absence I do hope more ice time situations will be found for El-Hage and not just because Fone is injured. Development for him can’t extend to just chucking him in the deep end when Fone goes down or when the game is long won or lost.

I’m writing this after the Phoenix have lost their War of the Roses pre-season series with the Steeldogs (Ben clearly wrote his before) and there’s always a bit of frustration there in spite of it being just a couple of challenge games. There’s no need to be all doom and gloom for the Phoenix though, not really. I’m not surprised they lost a pre-season knockabout in their first 2 games together when the majority of Sheffield’s squad have been skating together all summer and have played numerous friendlies before last weekend. This will likely be a temporary blip.

I should say that I’m not as hot on Phoenix as many others are. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good looking side there but as I’m sat here tapping this out I’m staring at the roster and I’m just not taken aback by it as I possibly was last year. A lot depends on that defence staying healthy, a lot depends on Bakrlik being under control, a lot depends on Hand’s appearances, lack thereof or who replaces him when he doesn’t play. They’ll be there or thereabouts at the business end, I don’t doubt that. I just feel the rise of the Phoenix isn’t the certainty others think it is this term. I reserve full judgement till I see them play.

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